100-Character Breakdown: A strong sequel. Repetitive at times, but the story and characters are unexpected and captivating.
Genre: Young adult, fantasy
Publisher: DAW Books (August 2014)
The sequel to Masks isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, but E.C. Blake’s Shadows is a captivating read nonetheless. In his Masks of Aygrima series, the tyrannical Autarch rules Aygrima with powerful magic and Masks that can detect his people’s rebellious thoughts. When fifteen-year-old Mara Holdfast, daughter to the Master Maskmaker, fails her Masking in Masks, she is exiled from society and sent to a labor camp. Along with her unusually powerful magical gift, Mara becomes part of the UnMasked Army, a secret group devoted to deposing the Autarch. In Shadows, Mara struggles to understand her powers as the UnMasked Army struggles on its mission to overthrow the Autarchy.
The world building in the second book is just as powerful as the first, as we learn more about the Autarchy and the world outside it. The magic system — already interesting in the first book with its almost class-based system of specific types and colors of magic — deepens as Mara learns more about her powers, which are surprisingly similar to the Autarch’s. The destructiveness of her abilities leaves a clear mark on her character. Yet this is just a small part of Shadows’ powerful characterization. Blake foils his characters extensively, adding plenty of development and conflict without coming across as gimmicky. He organically sets up plot points and characters; many characters in Masks play a larger role in book two, and when he introduces new characters — such as Chell, who Mara finds washed up on shore in Shadows — they blend in seamlessly rather than seeming like desperate inclusions to advance the plot. This gives the series a strong sense of progression that will no doubt make the conclusion to the trilogy, Faces, that much more powerful.
There are certainly missteps, however. The protagonists make some questionable choices. Their desperate actions can be blamed on their desperate situation, but it is odd to see the wiser members of the UnMasked Army being so risky. Blake also has a tendency to repeat too much in his writing. Repetition helps in sequels, as far as reestablishing plot points and reintroducing characters, but there are times when Blake overdoes this. In book one, Mara drinks wine for the first time. In Shadows, Blake rehashes this over and over, to the point where the reader is confused when this actually happens and how significant the moment is. Still, these minor flaws aren’t enough to stop me from seeing where Blake’s unexpected story arc and his well-crafted characters take us in book three.