HOW HAS HIGH FANTASY — often the domain of dragons, high nobles, and epic adventure — somehow become a genre that can sensibly include police brutality, tear gas, riot gear, and violent urban unrest?
M. A. Carrick finished writing their extraordinary new novel The Mask of Mirrors several months before George Floyd’s murder and the widespread antiracist counterviolence that followed, yet many of the book’s most gripping scenes feel like they were directly inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the United States in 2020. During one of the novel’s peak moments, the city of Nadežra erupts into devastating urban riots. The city’s race and class tensions boil over; rocks are thrown, glass is broken, and the city’s police force — the Vigil — responds with jackbooted fascist violence. Police in armor create walls of overlapping riot shields, and they eventually (inevitably) begin firing live ammunition into crowds.
These are difficult-yet-gripping chapters to read, especially for those who have watched our neighborhoods burn and tasted the sting of tear gas to demand justice for real-world victims of racist policing. (I live in Minneapolis; last year was intense.) The Mask of Mirrors raises an important question: what are these kinds of scenes doing in a high fantasy novel, anyway? Fantasy often draws upon classical, medieval, and Renaissance influences for inspiration, yet as Michel Foucault argues, the policing of populations is a distinctively modern phenomenon that first emerged in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. So why is there a modernized police force in Nadežra, the City of Dreams, a quasi-Renaissance setting where elegantly attired nobles play intricate social and political games, where magic is part of the fabric of everyday life, and where disadvantaged underclasses are drawn into thieves’ guilds simply in order to survive?
One depressing answer might just be that we’ve all come to accept the presence of police so deeply that it’s difficult to imagine life without them, even in our fantasy worlds, despite the fact that they are — at least relatively speaking — a historically recent phenomenon. Contrary to conventional thinking, police are not a “natural” part of any social milieu, yet they’ve become so omnipresent that it’s difficult to imagine how any society would function without them. (This is why calls to “abolish” or “defund” the police today seem incomprehensible to many white Americans — society would break down without police, obviously! This is bullshit, yet it’s deeply mesmerizing ideological bullshit that’s very difficult to escape.)
I don’t think it’s the case, though, that Carrick is unable to imagine a social setting that doesn’t include police. Quite the contrary: it seems more that Carrick’s brilliant and careful worldbuilding leads to the central insight that police are an essential instrument of racial hierarchy and class hegemony within an imperial society. If you’re going to write a fantasy novel that takes inequality seriously, in other words, you also have to take seriously the ways that inequality is produced and sustained — and The Mask of Mirrors reveals that the purpose of modern policing is often to enforce systemic social inequality.
On the surface, The Mask of Mirrors tells the story of a street rat orphan con artist, Ren, as she attempts to infiltrate noble high society with the help of her childhood friend Tess (whose delightfully implausible and lavish tailoring skills are, honestly, one of the most fantastical elements of the entire novel). On a deeper level, though, the story is about social tensions between the elite and the disadvantaged — it explores the conflicts generated by the race and class inequities of empire.
Nadežra, the novel’s setting, is a settler-colonial city: once upon a time, a terrible northern empire invaded and conquered Vraszan, ruling its lands for two centuries, until the darker-skinned indigenous Vraszenian clans rose up against the mad settler tyrant Kaius Rex and drove out the occupying lighter-skinned Liganti. The Vraszenians, however, were unable to fully reclaim their holy city of Nadežra, the site of the sacred Wellspring of Ažerais — a magical fountain with waters linking the waking world and the world of dreams. After years of conflict, the Vraszenians and the Liganti finally signed a series of peace accords that established Nadežra as an independent city-state under the rule of its settler-colonial Liganti elite.
In occupied Nadežra, then, Ren grows up as a Finger (or pickpocket) under the cruel tutelage of Ondrakja, who serves as the abusive Fagin to Ren’s Oliver Twist. Years after Ren and Tess escape Ondrakja, they return to Nadežra with a sly plan to infiltrate the Liganti nobility and grow rich from the wealth of the city’s oppressors. Ren’s mother was Vraszenian, yet her unknown father left her with skin of a lighter shade; so, with a touch of magical makeup and the right costumes (which Tess can provide), she can pass for either Vraszenian or Liganti, enabling her to move back and forth between the city’s high and low social worlds like a shapeshifting trickster.
As the story unfolds, Ren develops unexpected emotional bonds with the members of House Traementis, the family of nobles she initially set out to infiltrate. She also cultivates complicated relationships with a seductive crime lord named Derossi Vargo, a Vraszenian policeman (or “hawk”) named Grey Serrado, and Nadežra’s dashing masked vigilante, The Rook — a swashbuckling avenger who has been fighting the Liganti elite on behalf of downtrodden Vraszenians for 200 years.
Ultimately, however, the novel’s true villain turns out to be a high-ranking Liganti noble who has extraordinary power over Nadežra’s police force. This antagonist is a moustache-twirling white supremacist determined to purge the city of the darker-skinned Vraszenians, who he regards as irritating “gnats.” His agents infiltrate and manipulate Vraszenian radical groups, agitating and intensifying the urban riots so that the police can unleash terrible retribution against them in the name of restoring law and order, and his final endgame involves destroying the holy Wellspring of Ažerais — after all, what’s a better way to destroy a people than to strike directly at the source of their hopes and dreams?
Why, then, does The Mask of Mirrors include tear gas and riot gear? I think these elements are included because, in the end, Carrick uses fantasy as a clever mask to tell us something about the real world we live in. For all of its intricate worldbuilding, this novel isn’t concerned with escaping into a romanticized version of the past or into an imaginary fairyland. On the contrary, like many great works of fantasy, it holds up a mirror in which we can see some of the most disturbing elements of our own world — such as racism, class inequality, settler-colonial hegemony, white supremacy, and police brutality — reflected back at us in fantastical forms.
The novel’s politics concerning water, interestingly enough, are one of the places where the narrative holds up a subtle-yet-terrifying mirror to reflect real-world current events. In Nadežra, the rich enjoy clean water while the poor live in areas where the water is dirty and polluted. At one point — in order to gain acceptance with the city’s nobility — Ren undertakes a quest to help an ally win a charter to clean up the water in the city’s poorer areas. It would be easy to write this off as a minor background plot: watch as Ren deftly charms her way through Nadežran high society, trading favors until she wins the impossible charter while gaining status and recognition along the way. (Reading these parts of the novel feels a bit like watching a skilled player climbing the social ladder in a live-action roleplaying game — obviously, Ren will one day become Prince of the City.)
In the end, though, once the charter has been awarded, the reader can reel back in horror at the ugly realization that none of the characters we’ve encountered substantially care about how clean the water is in the poorer areas of Nadežra — for everyone we meet, including Ren, clean water is centrally an opportunity for gain, profit, and advancement. Poor Vraszenians, of course, care about their water, but we almost never see the issue from their point of view. Instead, we observe a chain of people with power (or people who want power) cynically leveraging water politics for their own gain.
Lest we write this off as a minor element in the novel, it’s worthwhile to note that in December 2020 — about one month before the publication of The Mask of Mirrors — Wall Street started trading water futures as a commodity for the first time. In essence, this means that very rich people are taking note that climate change (and other factors) are endangering common access to clean water, and they therefore see an exciting opportunity for windfall profits. After all, where there’s desperate need, there are powerful markets ripe for exploitation. Naomi Klein and Antony Loewenstein famously refer to this as “disaster capitalism,” while Basav Sen describes the emerging practice of trading in water futures as “a cynical attempt at setting up what’s almost like a betting casino so some people can make money from others suffering.”
Water, then, is no minor issue, especially when we also recall that the primary villain’s agenda in the novel is to corrupt and destroy a magical wellspring. Clean water — whether this water is literal or spiritual — is imperiled, under attack. We should, Carrick argues, regard water as a common resource, a shared treasure providing health, vitality, and wellness for all. But The Mask of Mirrors reflects back to us the ugly neoliberal forces at work in our own world, striving to privatize water as a commodity in order to profit by selling it to the vulnerable communities it has been stolen from (or worse, to destroy vital water sources as part of a larger program of ethnic cleansing).
Overall, The Mask of Mirrors is an excellent fantasy novel. The characters are fun, the setting is magnificent, and the writing is smart and accessible. If the next two volumes in the trilogy follow through on the promise of the first, it could well be adapted into a blockbuster television or film series (it’s better than Game of Thrones, and it has all the sexy qualities — like steamy romance and fantastic period costumes — that draw fans toward a CW series like Reign).
My only minor critique, in the end, is that the urban uprisings in the novel feel like a disaster, rather than a celebration, and the lower-class Vraszenians — as a people — are manipulated as dupes or cattle rather than exercising their own agency. Watching scenes of urban unrest on television can feel frightening, as though one is watching a city under attack from invading forces. But protests, even when they turn destructive, can often have a jubilant and ecstatic flavor — these are the liminal moments when people who feel they have been pushed too far come together, discover love and commonality in their shared dissatisfaction, and cut loose with their common power. Ironically, this was even true for the right-wing mob that attacked the US Capitol in early January, who dressed in bright, weird costumes and danced in Congressional offices, taking jubilant selfies while committing armed sedition; uprisings often have the flavor of the carnivalesque, for good or ill, and this feeling was somewhat missing from The Mask of Mirrors. At one moment during the night of violence, for example, Tess is terrified that she will be raped by rioters, and this felt wrong to me; I wanted the protestors to call out to her instead, saying, “Sister, dance with us; tonight, we are free.” After all, even if they were being manipulated into civil unrest, they were nonetheless Vraszenians who were legitimately suffering under a centuries-long Liganti colonial occupation.
To be fair, in Carrick’s narrative the rioters are being manipulated by magic that amplifies their hostility, so Tess’s anxiety makes sense — and the novel subtly reflects the ways that outside agitators like white supremacists are often the ones pushing social justice protests toward violence. (Even the Capitol mob were dupes manipulated into their acts of sedition via propaganda and viral disinformation.) Still, though, I wanted to see the Vraszenians behave more like a people and less like a herd (and I don’t think they would have really been calmed by Ren’s solution — free tickets to a holy site on a festival day). Ultimately, The Mask of Mirrors tackles complex issues: fighting racist hegemony in a settler-colonial state is no small matter, and it’s much easier for a novel to focus on the actions of heroic individuals — like the vigilante Rook, and his eventual counterpart, the Rose — than on the complex behaviors of crowds. It’s my sincere hope that Carrick will continue to explore possible solutions to systemic injustice with the same intensity they bring to reflecting real-world problems in their setting. Because let’s face it: the Vraszenians really need to kick the asses of their Liganti overlords. Sure, there can be a healthy dose of truth and reconciliation afterward, but only after a thorough and well-deserved ass-kicking.