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“The Ruling Mask” by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

Ruling Mask

I enjoyed both “Duchess of the Shallows” and “The Fall of Ventaris” so I was looking forward to the third book in this series. The series has established something of a formula in which Duchess needs to come up with a scheme to do some seemingly impossible task (in this case involving the heist of a sacred family heirloom of one of Rodaas’ most prominent families) while simultaneously trying to find out more about her heritage and the city’s secrets and carrying out half a dozen other smaller schemes just for good measure. I think it’s a formula that works well and each book has been steadily increasing the stakes which stops the series feeling repetitive. I think it’s been doing a good job of gradually revealing the background world-building and we are starting to finally get a few answers about the mysterious figure Duchess only knows as “P” whose manipulations seem to be behind many of the events that are occurring. There’s also increasing depth to the world-building, with this book adding a focus on the battles for supremacy between the city’s different religious cults. If I had one criticism for the plotting it would be that occasionally Duchess’ elaborate schemes seem to work better than they have any right to, but this is a fairly small flaw. There is some acknowledgement that even Duchess can’t make everything always work out with a subplot in which one member of her gang does something which leads to a major moral dilemma in which she has to balance her own interests against the well-being of someone working for her.

The characterisation has always been good in the series and although the first book largely focused on Duchess and Lysander over time an interesting ensemble cast has built up, all of whom have their own motivations and agendas ranging from just wanting to build a life in a hostile city to more complex struggles for political advantage. It’s interesting to try to work out what all the different characters want, with many of them remaining fairly enigmatic so it’s difficult to really know how much a character like Minette is really a genuine ally to Duchess, although there are occasional exceptions where some characters seem a bit too willing to explain their motivations to someone they barely know.

Overall, I’d probably say this was a bit better than the first book and maybe not quite as good as “The Fall of Ventaris”. It is an entertaining book to read and I’m definitely interested in reading more of this story.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Fall of Ventaris” by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto


The sequel to the entertaining “Duchess of the Shallows” manages to retain the charm of the first novel while expanding its world and the complexity of the story. It starts a few months after the first book with an initially unexciting plot by Duchess to try to get her new business partner admitted to the local weaver’s guild but from this simple beginning she quickly finds herself trying to carry out multiple overlapping schemes that take her to the very top of Rodaasi society. Her efforts to keep all of those plates spinning is entertaining and means the book feels much more fast-paced than the first book (which largely concentrated on a single heist). It does sometimes seem a little bit implausible when she embarks on a new scheme without waiting for the conclusion of her previous plots and on a couple of occasions it’s not entirely clear why she’s so determined to do some of the things (such as freeing the imprisoned Castor). A couple of the solutions to plotlines do seem a little bit too easy (such as when trying to retrieve a ring held as a gambling debt) but on the other hand some of the novel’s best moments come from some of Duchess’ schemes having unintended consequences. The ending is particularly strong, with Duchess belatedly realising how much others have been using her schemes for their own ends.

For most of the first book Duchess only really had a single ally in the form of Lysander but the sequel does expand the cast with a number of interesting characters, some of whom are uncertain allies with ambiguous intentions towards Duchess. Her interactions with the amiable but devious head of the Keepers were particularly good, although her more straightforward friendship with Jana is a also a good contrast to the duplicity of most of her relationships.

The world-building had been good in the first book and it is expanded greatly in the second book. The highlights of the world-building in this book mostly centre on the city’s three religious cults and on the ongoing mystery of the sinister catacombs beneath the city. Duchess’ confusion at being caught in the middle of a carefully choreographed religious ceremony is a particularly striking scene, and the contrasting religious orders of the Keepers and the Facets are both intriguing. The three religion’s shadowy battle for prominence becomes increasingly prominent as the book goes on and the fallout is likely to play a key role in future sequels. Duchess’ encounters with mysterious forces beneath the city feel slightly disconnected from the main plot of this book, but are probably going to be very significant for the series as a whole. One of the criticisms I had of the first book was that for much of the book it felt like the characters weren’t in much peril, but this part of the plotline (particularly a scene set in an underground crypt that injects a bit of horror into the story) manages to make it feel like the stakes are becoming much greater.

Overall, this is an entertaining story with a set of interlocking and fast-moving plots, good characterisation and a few neat additions to typical fantasy world-building. The Grey City is definitely turning out to be a good fantasy series.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Duchess of the Shallows” by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto


“The Duchess of the Shallows” follows the adventures of a young woman living a deceptively simple life under a false identity who one day gets a message from a mysterious benefactor offering her the chance to join the secretive and powerful underground organisation known as ‘The Grey’. As a test of her abilities she is asked to steal a valuable antique dagger recently acquired by a wealthy noble, as an extra challenge she is commanded to do it during a party the noble is throwing to show off his newest acquisition.

As a fantasy novel set in a large city with a heist at the centre of the plot, the premise did remind me a bit of Scott Lynch’s “The Lies of Locke Lamora”. This does have some similar strengths. It has good characterisation; both Duchess and her friend and partner-in-crime Lysander are interesting and likeable characters, and there are several interesting minor characters. The world-building is also good, although city-building might be a better description since virtually the entire novel takes place in the city of Rodaas which is described in vivid detail. It’s mostly a fairly standard fantasy city, but there are a few interesting touches, particularly an intriguing backstory which described the city as having been mysteriously abandoned overnight by its original inhabitants. One small downside to the world-building is that although the exposition is clear and concise, at times it does feel like more time is spent on world-building than the main plot.

The heist itself is suitably tense and does feature a moral dilemma as Duchess has to balance achieving her goal with putting her friend in danger. On the downside, only occasionally does it feel like she is in genuine peril. Compared to “The Lies of Locke Lamora” the stakes don’t feel as high and the heist isn’t as complex, but I think this is a side-effect of Duchess being much less experienced and capable than Locke and his gang.

Although this would work well as a stand-alone story, it is obviously intended as the first book in a series and some of the most interesting aspects of the story are left unresolved – it is clear that Duchess is a pawn in a much larger game and there are hints that the fate of the entire city may be at stake. Many of the characters have their own agendas and while we do find out what some of them are during the book, some key characters do remain enigmatic. Duchess’ backstory also gets a lot of attention, during the book she unravels some of the reasons behind her childhood journey from a comfortable life among the nobility to having to pretend to be the child of a baker and this backstory does provide explanation for why she’s willing to take huge risks to move up in the world.

In summary, this an entertaining debut fantasy novel that has plenty of potential for interesting sequels.

Rating : 7.5 / 10