The premise of The Masque of the Red Death is very enticing, inspired as it is by Poe's classic story. Araby Worth lives in a society devastated by plague. The disease is airborne so unless you are lucky, or rich, enough to have a mask to filter your air your chances of survival are not great. Araby does have a mask; her father is the scientist that invented the lifesaver. But, her health has come at a great price to her family and has left her almost completely emotionally numb. She spends her nights at the Debauchery Club seeking oblivion. Her days are fraught tiptoeing affairs negotiating her parents’ grief.
She has been befriended by April, niece to the man that rules the city. It is April that organises their night-time excursions and keeps Araby just about functioning. There is also Will, gatekeeper at the club. He’s caught Araby’s eye, despite her efforts at shutting herself off from all human contact. But, just as she considers letting her defences down a little with Will, a third person storms into her life and throws her into danger, deceit and confusion. Elliott, April’s brother, has plans for the future of the city and he needs Araby’s cooperation. A race against time begins as Elliott tries to gather the help and resources he needs before either his uncle or the strange shadowy men shatter his dreams. There’s also another plague coming, the Red Death, which might be unstoppable.
There are some things I loved about this story. The muted, deadened style at the beginning reflects Araby’s emotions brilliantly. As she relates her journey to and time at the Debauchery Club there is a sense of world-weariness just tinged with the search for relief. The opening chapters are excellent, and I was drawn into the horror of their ravaged landscape. The medical descriptions are good and gruesome too, and the portrait of grief is powerful in the stifling and constricting atmosphere in the family home. I thought Will was a believable character, and for the most part Araby too. She is self-absorbed, wrapped in her own sadness, but her re-awakening is a compelling part of the story for me.
I wasn’t so keen on the love triangle theme that emerges between Araby, Will and Elliott. She goes from no emotional attachments to two significant ones very rapidly, and it isn’t at all clear to me why Elliott would be that appealing. I understand why she would help him, but more than that is somewhat mysterious. One girl, two guys does seem to be the norm in YA at the moment and it feels a bit overdone now. I also couldn’t get to grips with April’s character. I’m not sure I know who or what she believes in, and I wasn’t completely convinced about her friendship with Araby. Perhaps that’s intentional, as there are still lots of things to be revealed in the second book, Dance of the Red Death.
This brings me to my final gripe, which is that I don’t think this book stands alone very well as a complete story. So much is left unresolved that it seems a bit like half a book. I like series, and can even cope with a cliffhanger, but I do like to feel I’ve read a story with its own beginning, middle, and end. I was left too much mid-story for my personal taste. But, I enjoyed the storytelling and the story, and I’m intrigued by the diseases –where have they come from and, is there more to their appearance than we know? What else has Araby’s father been working on, and how honourable are Elliott’s intentions? There is a lot to find out still, and I think I will read the second book to satisfy my curiosity.
Many thanks to Gollancz for sending a copy of The Masque of the Red Death to me to review. It is available now in Paperback. Dance of the Red Death has just been published in Paperback too.