Masque by W.R. Gingell is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” yet an engaging fantasy all its own, adding an intriguing murder mystery to the mix. Lady Isabella Farrah, an ambassador’s daughter, stumbles on a murder scene at the ball – one of her best friends has been killed. The investigation is led by Lord Pecus, the “Beast,” who wants Isabella out of the investigation. When her father is implicated in the murder, she decides to be held in his place at Lord Pecus’ manor, where she’s intent on solving the murder, and freeing Lord Pecus from his curse.
What makes Masque so much fun is that the narrative voice is like a setting all its own. It mixes a 19th century and modern voice with great humor throughout. It’s not wordy and turgid like some older books can be; it’s spritely and lively – very much a screwball comedy in a staid setting. World-building is also very well done, though it does rely on dialogue a bit too much, rather than description, even if dialogue is core to the book’s wit. It’s a world with a fully-realized political system, magic, etiquette, and more, so the world is at once fantastical and grounded.
One issue with the book that could throw some readers is that it throws you in the deep end at the very beginning. So while the world-building is very strong, it’s up to the reader to piece it all together. Often, this can be a mistake, but in Masque the voice is so strong that you’re willing to go along for the ride. Isabella is so likable that you’ll follow her around and want to learn everything she has to say. She’s a snarky, hard-edged heroine. She’s not really a “Belle” of the ball – she’s 28-years-old, an eternity in this society, which has made her more knowing and brash, and more entertaining than the “fairest damsel in the land” sort of lead character. She’s got a Dorothy Parker level of sass. The dedication should give you a sense of the book’s mood:
“This one is for me. It was written entirely for my own selfish amusement. You can still enjoy it, though. That’s okay.”
Also refreshing is that the focus of the book is on the murder mystery and not the romance. As Isabella is a feisty self-assured woman, she doesn’t quite melt at the thought of romance. She’s a hard-knuckled thrill seeker as well, and though the book does have the trappings of a fairy tale fantasy, she doesn’t just have her head in the clouds, dreaming of being whisked away. Somewhat incongruously, she is fairly image-conscious – worried about her dress and her hair – which flies in the face of her witty aloofness, but that brings her down to earth in a way. She’s not perfect by any means.
All the ingredients are there for a unique murder mystery fairy tale, and Gingell blends these genres together very well. A retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” may make it sound unoriginal – a kind of cousin to fan fiction. But that’s not the case. The book is an inventive and funny mystery with a dynamic lead, which will make you want to pick up the next book in the series.
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