Review: These Vicious Masks by Tarun Shanker and Kelly Zekas
Book Genre: YA Fantasy Romance
Romance Heat Level: Bell pepper (Clean YA)
I was excited to get this book on sale for Kindle a few weeks ago, as it had been on my to-read list for many months. Marketed as Pride and Prejudice meets X-men, written by a co-author team, I was more than a little intrigued.
The book opened strong with an amusing ball scene, witty dialogue, and a few enticing mysteries. Two potential hero-love interests emerged, each with their own allure, one a snarky, amusing fellow who reminded me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, the other a dark and brooding Darcy or Rochester type.
My reservations developed after the opening. Like many YA book, TVM suffered from the somewhat overbearing presentation of the central stakes of the novel– as though the authors, or perhaps their agent or editor, didn’t trust readers to pick up on the obvious.
A young and mysteriously talented girl goes missing. Evelyn, the heroine, has to find and save her missing sister from an evil scientist who wants to exploit her talents.
The “save-my-sister” drama felt a little heavy handed, especially when it did not entirely mesh with the romantic subplot. If a character is involved in life-or-death stakes, she begins to look rather silly–or worse, callous–if instead of focusing on how to save someone’s life she’s day-dreaming about cute boys.
Authors often correct this imbalance between a high-stakes main plot and a frothy romantic subplot by constantly reminding the reader of the heroine’s internal thoughts: “I NEED TO FIND MY SISTER!” But being told this and being shown this are two different things–and in this case, there was more “telling” about the urgency than “showing.” It’s a delicate balance, and while I felt TVM juggled this problem better than many other YA books (ahem, Caraval, I’m looking at you), I still had trouble fully believing in the urgency of the stakes, especially in light of the insufficient characterization of the main players.
Which leads me to my main issue with TVM. I enjoy a book that has deep and juicy characterization, and the characters in TVM fell flat for me.
I found the heroine bland, though the authors tried to give her spark with sarcastic modern dialogue. Unfortunately, the anachronistic dialogue only grated on me.
The heroes/love interests, after a promising start, eventually felt stereotypical and derivative.
The villain and his motivations were inadequately developed for my taste.
These Vicious Masks was written by co-authors, and I admit to being fascinated by the co-author relationship. On occasion, I felt like I could see the two different authorial voices in this book, one very amusing and snarky, the other a bit more earnest and sweet. I enjoyed trying to imagine how these authors worked together as I read, and I thought they worked well together to create a cohesive world and a sound plot.
But speaking of snark—the too-modern, almost Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer level of sarcasm and snark humor throughout the book wore on me. It detracted from my enjoyment of the otherwise interesting world-building in this book. It was hard for me to immerse myself in the Victorian world with the modern diction and style of thinking and speaking. To me, this made the characters feel untrue to their social milieu. Others might not be bothered by this–in fact, it seems many GoodReaders enjoyed the snarky humor set in the Victorian Era. I have seen this done many times. Sometimes it works for me. In this case, it simply felt too modern for my taste.
This was definitely a YA-romance, but with only hints of connection between the heroine and her love interest(s). While the love triangle lent tension to the romantic subplot, one of the hero “rivals” showed little reason to be interested in the heroine—and yet he was, inexplicably. This gets down to what I feel was missing at the heart of this book: deep, complex characterization to flesh out the engaging plot and unique world-building.
That said, TVM seems to have an adoring fan base on GoodReads, so if it does sound like a premise you’d enjoy, don’t take my opinion as the final word—give it a try. It has cinematic style and a fresh concept, and the issues of execution I quibbled with here are matters of taste.