Behind the Mask of Mirrors

Dandy: Inspired to Cosplay

Jane: Last week, I was happy to introduce you all to M.A. Carrick, the creative team consisting of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, whose novel The Mask of Mirrors was released in January.

Although The Mask of Mirrors is the first novel in the Rook and Rose trilogy, I can reassure you that it stands very well on its own.  Last week we talked a bit about how the collaboration came to be.  This week, we’re going to dance around spoilers to talk about some of the rich detail that makes this novel stand out.


Marie: Bring it on!

Jane: I really liked the subtlety with which you handled issues of social status and economic status, both for individual characters and for the world in general.  I will admit, I tend to shy away from stories where a scam is at the heart of the action, but you take that trope and turn it on its head, using it to reveal the complexities that drive so many of your characters’ actions.  By the end, it might be said that everyone is running a scam, not just Ren.

As collaborators, how did you work out all these varied motivations?   In advance, or did they evolve with the story?

Marie: Con artists are tricky, aren’t they? It can be fun to watch them at work, because competence is cool, and a scam is like a high-wire social performance with some serious consequences if they fall. But at the same time, it really sucks to be on the receiving end of a con — because fundamentally, that whole process is about gaining somebody’s trust and then betraying it. There’s a point in the story where Ren realizes somebody else has tricked her, and while you might expect her to shrug and say, “Eh, well-played,” what actually happens is that she’s profoundly hurt. From the start, we definitely had our eye on the fact that there are people on the receiving end of Ren’s lies, and it’s going to wound them pretty deeply if they find out the truth. We wanted to make sure we developed those people as sympathetic characters, and gave them their own motivations as well.

Alyc: Some of these elements were workshopped in the game version, especially all the pies Ren, Vargo, Grey, and House Traementis have their fingers in. Some, we ended up developing as we wrote — in at least one case, a particular character got an entire personality transplant in revision because they weren’t dynamic enough for what we needed them for. But that revision led to one of my favorite sequences in the book, so it worked out nicely.

Jane: As the title indicates, masks are a key element in this novel.  They definitely work on a variety of levels, including serving as a metaphor for the fact that no one is telling anyone the whole truth.

However, with the Rook, you take on the much-used trope of the Masked Hero.  Given that this has been used repeatedly (Zorro, Scaramouche, The Scarlet Pimpernel, up to and including legions of masked superheroes),can you talk about some of what you did to make the trope your own?

Alyc: It’s a bit ironic, because the protagonist of my first set of novels is also a masked vigilante who hides their face with a fedora and shadow manipulation, so I was also working against my own previous character. For the Rook, we looked at the role itself as a kind of mask: if you’re going to go iconic, then go really iconic. Embrace the melodrama, the panache, the flirtatious flair, and then dial it up to eleven. I feel like that’s what we did with the Rook rather than trying to make him an individual.

Marie: But of course, the question we invite readers to chew on is . . . who is the Rook? Because as much as there’s melodrama and panache dialed up to eleven, there’s also a person inside. We can’t say too much about that without heading into spoiler territory, but every time the Rook shows up on the page, there’s a whole submerged iceberg you don’t see that’s us thinking about how that appearance fits into the story of that individual. Which is a story the reader can’t see right away, but we have to ensure it will make sense in hindsight.

JANE: As someone who has written collaborations, I did find myself speculating what sort of discussions you two might have had as you worked out who knew what about whom.  I will refrain from talking about what elements I was weighing against each other as I read, but I had a great amount of fun.  My enthusiasm was such that, as soon as I had finished the ARC, Jim grabbed it.  Then I had the fun all over again of listening to him speculate as to who the Rook might be.  So, good job!

One of the many things I loved about this novel was how you interwove elements of setting into plot and character.  Perhaps the most clever of these interweavings was—pun somewhat intended—the use of fabric.  Who decided that fabric wasn’t just going to be a temptation for costumers to do cosplay, but a major story element?

Marie: The specifics of the clothing are almost 100% Alyc’s work; I think my contribution there consists of changing the color of one outfit in the second book. But it amuses me to see you talking about us “interweaving” things, because textile imagery is all over the place in this story. And weirdly, that’s almost an accident! We definitely knew we were going to focus on clothing because that kind of thing is important in an aristocratic society; being well-dressed is a source of power, and the specifics of how you dress can communicate all kinds of messages. But then we happened to settle on “pattern” as the name for the deck of divinatory cards used by Vraszenians, and the next thing we knew, Vraszenian culture was Textile Metaphors Ahoy.

JANE: I did wonder at the use of the term pattern, since it’s also integral to Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, another series that uses a Tarot-like deck of cards as an integral element of the magic system.  However, after my initial “I wonder if there was an influence here?” I felt you gave both pattern and cards their own integrity

Marie: I’d forgotten that about the Amber novels! (This is where I shamefacedly admit that I’ve read Nine Princes in Amber, but years ago, and none of the books after it.) We were thinking in terms of the Greek Fates and the thread imagery around them; I have no idea if the same idea influenced him.

Jane: Probably somewhat, as he was a great reader of myth and folklore, but there were other elements as well. Part of what helped me separate your use of the terms from Roger’s was how important clothing and fabric was to the cultures and characters.

Alyc: The importance of clothing was one of those things that got worked out early in the game version of the story. Marie’s character only had so much starting money, and making herself into a fashion icon was one of the easiest and cheapest ways for her to appear wealthier than she was (in large part thanks to her sister/my NPC Tess).

I love that our use of fashion has been embraced by so many readers. Clothing and fashion are so integral to how we signal to each other who we are, where (and if) we belong. Clothing matters, probably more than any other material signifier, because it is part of how we embody our identities every day. There isn’t a time in history or a culture in the world that didn’t weave meaning into what we wear.

Then again, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this interview, The Magic House, has a story in it about the buttons from the gowns and costumes of fairy tale characters — Cinderella, Peter Piper, Little Red Riding Hood — gathering together to tell stories about the clothes they came from. So maybe clothing-as-story is something I’ve always had an affinity for.

JANE: Once again, we’re reaching the dreaded TLDR limit, so I’ll sadly put the rest of my questions away, but I’ll remind my readers that your excellent website provides a great deal more background details.  Thank you so much for your time.


3 Responses to “Behind the Mask of Mirrors”

  1. Beverly Martin Says:

    I have really enjoyed your conversations with fellow authors. Informative and entertaining! Thank you all!

  2. Harried Harry Says:

    Very entertaining! Enjoyable to read and learn about how some authors work to develop a storyline. Keep up the interviews, they complement all your blogs.

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