Rosemary Edghill’s THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is a cross-genre novel featuring fantasy, science fiction, situational ethics, and urban fantasy in one highly appealing package. Edghill’s hero is Childeric the Shatterer, soon to be Emperor of the Eidoloni; we meet him at the ripe old age of eight in the royal city of Contradance. This is when Childeric first finds out that his world contains many enemies, and that some of them are members of his own family, including his uncle, Prince-Regent Dormaoth, and perhaps even his own sister-and-intended-bride, Cyannice.
Over the next sixty pages or so, Childeric goes through many growing pains while he attempts to figure out how he’s going to survive his ceremonial Masking. (Childeric must don the Mindmask and be united, ever so temporarily, with all of his ancestors, else he cannot become Emperor.) This is an extremely dangerous undertaking at the best of times and has killed other would-be Emperors before, but Childeric must risk it because it’s obvious that Dormaoth wants nothing other than Childeric’s death. And, of course, Childeric doesn’t want to comply. (If he did, this would be a much shorter and far less imaginative novel.)
When Childeric dons the Mindmask, he calls upon Malvisage, a God — perhaps better thought of as a demon — to keep Dormaoth from killing Childeric outright. However, Childeric does this before he has full control over the Mindmask, which allows Malvisage to run rampant. Cyannice and many of Childeric’s other allies end up dead in a hurry, while most of the rest of the Eidoloni end up scattered. Contradance becomes a ruin, while Childeric ends up hunted and alone, an outcast among his own people.
Then the novel shifts gears to our world as we meet up with fifty-one-year-old heroine Arcadia Stanton McCauley — Cady to her friends — who’s a writer, cinematographer, and dilettante. Cady’s purpose in this novel is two-fold: it allows us to see Childeric differently (not just as the tragic hero he’s obviously been set up to be), and it also allows for some humor as Cady makes many sarcastic cracks. But before she can do much to potentially affect Childeric’s outcome, she must be transported to Childeric’s world; this happens due to a car accident and a quick change of venue, something she doesn’t fully understand.
Of course, Cady’s first direct experiences with Childeric are extremely off-putting, partly because both she and Childeric meet in the Spiral Castle, a place that seems more dream-like than not. Childeric, by this time, has become an angry, frustrated, and rather embittered thirty-something — a man who believes he’s fully responsible for the destruction of most of his race and all of his society. Due to this, Childeric does not treat Cady with much respect or care, partly because he doesn’t treat himself with any respect or care, either.
Because of Cady, the reader finds out that Childeric is an alien — not a man at all — and that Childeric’s view of sex is considerably different than most of the human men Cady has ever come across. But then, Cady ends up trapped in a crystal coffin – which is where the original Wildside version of THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS originally ended. (By the way, the original cover art is on the right.)
Of course, Childeric has to get her out, which means we get to figure out how Childeric got from the destruction of Contradance up to his present-day, rather embittered and distrustful self. (Granted, Childeric is distrustful and embittered with good reason.) Then, as the two spar, they learn more about Malvisage, while Cady admits that she’s the one who originally wrote about Childeric in the first place (meaning she feels responsible for how he’s turned out). Despite this soul-shattering revelation and Childeric’s powerful rejection of it, Cady slowly starts to realize that Childeric is worth loving, even as she realizes he’s a deeply flawed, cynical, and often extremely frustrating man to be around due to his background.
But before the reader can get too comfortable, the plot shifts yet again as we meet Military Specialist Class Eight Hix of Central Control, a far-flung interstellar empire. Hix is human, recognizes Cady as a citizen (albeit a backward and barbaric one) and Childeric as a Genji, or as a genetically-engineered construct who’s definitely not a citizen. Genji aren’t even supposed to be able to reproduce, yet the Eidoloni certainly did, something that Hix can’t seem to grasp.
Hix, as a character, seems really odd at first; he’s definitely narrow-minded, does not believe in what he snidely calls “dimorphic cultures,” and thinks Cady’s growing attachment to Childeric is, at best, quaint (at worst, it’s probably akin to bestiality due to how Hix views the Genji). Yet by including Hix, Ms. Edghill is able to fully explore prejudice in a way that neither preaches nor is obtrusive – and as such, Hix works as both a plot device and as a character.
The last hundred pages of the book deals with more adventures for Childeric, Cady, and Hix, as it turns out that Hix is right, as far as it goes: it seems that the Eidolon Empire was supposed to be a colony, but something went wrong. This is what led to Malvisage, the Eidoloni becoming a race and an Empire, and even to Childeric’s final tragedy.
How does it all turn out? Well, that’s for you to read, but I highly encourage you to do just that for more than one reason. The sexual politics and questions of situational ethics alone would be worth it, but then there’s the growing romance between Cady and Childeric, and all of the interesting things that happen to them . . . really, THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is one of the best-written and compulsively readable fantasy/science fiction novels of the past twenty-five years, and it deserves to be read as widely as possible.
Yet for whatever reason, THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS has thus far had trouble finding its audience, something I find inexplicable. Considering the story of Childeric alone, THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is comparable to works by contemporary fantasists Jacqueline Carey, Catherynne M. Valente, Michaele Jordan, and Jane Lindskold due to similar dark fantasy elements. (What Childeric does is often unpleasant; he’s redeemable precisely because he doesn’t want to do these things.) THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS also pays homage to Michael Moorcock, André Norton, and of course to Robert E. Howard. So if you like any of these writers — or better yet, like all of them — you really owe it to yourself to read this excellent novel.
Bottom line: THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is a highly original novel from Rosemary Edghill, an author at the top of her craft. It is compulsively readable, often surprising, quite different and extremely interesting. It’s a novel you owe it to yourself to read, most especially if you love fantasy of any sort, much less 1960s-inspired sword and sorcery epics.
And as THE VENGEANCE OF MASKS is now available as a trade paperback, what’s stopping you from ordering a copy right now?
– reviewed by Barb