Review: “These Vicious Masks” aka Superhero Jane Austen
(I received a free copy of “These Vicious Masks” by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas in exchange for my unbiased review. The YA novel is due to come out Feb. 9, 2016.)
What would Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” have been like had Elizabeth and Jane Bennett and Mr. Darcy all had extraordinary powers?
“These Vicious Masks,” a YA book by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas, endeavors to find out.
The story starts out simply: The protagonist, Evelyn Wyndham; her sister, Rose; and her family head to a ball thrown by a neighbor, Sir Winston. At that event, we meet many of the characters who end up being important: Sebastian Braddock, Sir Winston’s brooding and seemingly odd and boorish nephew; Nicholas Kent, a clever young man with at least a passing interest in Evelyn; Rose, who is so lovely and kind and good everyone is in love with her; and a giant who calls himself Felix Cheval.
Cheval is convinced Rose has healing powers because she and her sister are known in their community as good nurses; he begs her to come to London to save his sister, who is quite ill. That night, Rose runs away—or perhaps she’s kidnapped. Against their parents’ wishes, big sister Evelyn leaves the country for London to find her.
“These Vicious Masks” seems a typical Victorian novel with bored, upper-class young ladies seeking to escape the bonds of class and avoid marriage. But it quickly subverts those tropes with female characters with agency—and also magic. Evelyn Wyndham is no fainting damsel needing to be rescued; she fights her own battles as best she can and ends up saving her male companions more than once. Watching Evelyn—and those around her—come to grips with having powers is a journey akin to growing up and taking on more responsibility. I won’t spoil exactly who has these extraordinary abilities and what they are, but the theory behind how these powers appear and what they are was extremely interesting and well done. The story explores not only the benefits of having, say, super strength or healing, but also the detrimental aspects. It also looks at just what might happen should the people with these powers fall into the wrong hands.
The writing in this novel is fantastic. It mixes lovely descriptive passages with stark shorter sentences. It lovingly pokes fun at the overwrought descriptions often found in Victorian-era books as Evelyn’s intelligence and sense of humor shine through.
Evelyn herself is snarky, smart, and fiercely loyal to her sister; she is willing to do absolutely whatever it takes to find Rose—even if that means going places and doing things women in that era were not to do. Even when she finds herself in a dancing hall—it’s really a brothel—Evelyn doesn’t flinch. She simply puts on a fancy dress and a mask and goes, with no thought to the potential harm to her reputation and her standing in society. Finding Rose is simply more important than anything else. (The authors also treat the women who work there with respect, which is refreshing.)
In fact, there are pages and pages of well-written and diverse female characters. They are charming, kind, and gentle; they are cold, calculating, and sharp; they are young, exuberant, and flighty; they are grumpy, old, and concerned with appearances. They put themselves first, and they put others ahead of themselves. Some seek to shake things up just for the sake of peeling back masks and seeing what’s underneath. There are more named female characters than male. The world is populated with women going about their lives in so many different ways.
Though there are no characters who are explicitly people of color, the novel does deal with class distinctions in a respectful way. Servants and workers are people, too, even when their lives and stories only tangentially interact with the main plot.
Though this book is written for teens, the authors treat their readers with respect; they don’t dumb anything down simply because the intended audience is young. The protagonist struggles with internal and external forces, and the novel grapples with themes of morality, love, obligation, identity, loyalty, and family.
The book absolutely did not end the way I thought it would, and it left quite a few things unsettled, which I hope means we’ll continue to see books set in this universe.
I would definitely recommend picking this book up when it comes out. As soon as I finished the book the first time, I immediately started it over—and got to pick up on all the foreshadowing and clues Shanker and Zekas scattered throughout the narrative. My only complaint: I wish this book had come out when I was a teen so I could have seen a smart and stubborn young woman do whatever it takes to protect what’s important to her. “These Vicious Masks” shows a woman who was constantly underestimated by her male peers but eventually forces them to show her the respect she deserves.
TL;DR: This is one of the best books I’ve read all year, and it’s basically superhero Jane Austen. Definitely do not miss it.