This book is not so much high fantasy as it is toilet paper.
I live in Southern California. The weather is lovely, as perfect as it can get; if I have a single complaint about living here, it is the lack of snow. But this time around, I find myself not yearning for snow, because I just got pelted smack in the fucking face with the gigantic special fucking snowflake of a Mary Sue who is our main character, Mara Holdfast.
I have fucking standards for my heroines. My love for a heroine is hard-won. I expect them to be flawed, imperfect, I expect them to mature, to blossom into themselves. If they become powerful, strong, I want to see how, and why. If they have inherited magic, I want to see them work at it, I want to see them practice it, I want to see them use it, learn it, progress through it. There is no earning of respect here, there is no learning here, because everything happens through happenstance and internal perfection without explanation. Mara is just fucking perfect, one in a million. She magically learns magic without being taught, she becomes the most wondrous of unicorns. It does not fly with me.
I do not call a heroine a Mary Sue lightly. I do not give the "speshul snowflake" label lightly. I understand that the label has been slapped haphazardly on many a female heroine on which someone simply doesn't like, often without justification, and I say here, with emphasis, Mara is a fucking special snowflake and a Mary Sue. I have and will present ample evidence for my claims.
The plot is filled with deus ex machina, there is little world building outside of the immediate, which is unforgivable for a high fantasy. The background characters are but shadows that fade into the background. The villain is largely a stately figurehead, and just about as fearful. There is a love triangle that goes nowhere. There is only the threat of rape that creates any element of danger in this book, and there is an overreliance on sexual violence as a tool of oppression. There is nothing that I loved about this book.
Summary: Long ago, the kingdom of Aygrima was threatened by a woman with great magical powers, the nation suffered tremendous losses of human lives until she was defeated by a young man, the Autarch. The Autarch still lives, over 50 years later, and under his rule, the nation is peaceful and prosperous. All of its adult citizens (everyone over 15) are forced to wear a magically imbued Mask in public, to hide their face, and to allow the Watchers to read their mind for any treasonous thoughts.
Mara Holdfast is a special young woman, about to turn 15. She has magical potentials. Only a handful of people have magic within their blood, they can see one or two special magical colors when it comes to their testing, but Mara is different; she sees all the colors of the rainbow. This is such an unheard of thing that she has to keep her ability a secret. Before she is to be trained in magic, Mara has to attend a ceremony in which she will be presented with her Mask.
Mara's ceremony failed, her Mask has rejected her. Unlike others, whose Masks have rejected them, Mara remains unscarred, thanks to the tremendous skill of a master Healer who just happened to be present at her Masking ceremony. She is sent to a labor mining camp, where her virtue and safety is in danger, since female convicts are threatened with rape and violence. Mara is an even more prized commodity to the prison guards, due to her unscarred face and youthful beauty. On the way to the prison camp, Mara is saved by a group of outcast rebels known as the unMasked army.
What follows is the mind-boggling journey of an idiotic girl as she somehow escapes every single fucking calamity handed to her purely by happenstance.
The Setting: The world building can only be described in two words: fucking lazy. High fantasy, my ass. There is an art to world building, it takes bloody skills to weave a world of wonder, to create a new fantastical world, because the author is truly the architect of the world he has imagined. If a good world building can be equated to the creation of the Great Pyramids, then this book's world building and setup can be likened to a shabby house made of Legos, and the experience of reading this book is equivalent to stepping on the crumbled pieces of that Lego house.
It is lazy. It is fucking lazy. Christ on a cracker, I am not a fucking 5-year old, you expect me to read this sort of world building with a straight face? I'm supposed to learn about this magical world through the textbook recital of a child learning her fucking lessons? Are you fucking serious?
“What is the difference between the First and Second Tests?” Tutor Ancilla continued.
“At age six, Gifted children can see all colors of magic,” Mara said. “But by age thirteen, their Gift has settled and they can see only one or, rarely, two—and even if they can see two, one is always strongest.”
“And the color of magic seen reveals what?” Tutor Ancilla asked.
“What kind of magic the Gifted child will be able to use,” Mara said.
There is no art here. The world building is flat. The nation of Aygrima has no past, no history, no culture. There is no social customs, nothing that ties me to the world, nothing that makes me feel like this world exists, the glue that holds this world together is fucktastically flimsy.
The Special Snowflake: Mara Holdfast is rare. Unicorn with two horns rare. She is beautiful. A perfect child to her adoring parents. Beautiful inside and out. Mara has magical abilities in a nation where only a handful of people have any magical abilities at all.
“There are maybe twenty thousand people in Tamita,” she’d said. “An enormous number. But at any given time there are no more than two hundred who have the Gift. Only half of those have it in great enough measure to actually use magic. And fewer than half of those can use it to any great purpose.”
“Aren’t you special,” Sala had whispered to Mara...
Not only are magical abilities rare, but most people with magical abilities can only see one or two colors, signifying their magical abilities. Mara is different, she can see all the colors of the rainbow when she is tested.
...the basin filled with seething, swirling colors, every color of the rainbow and every combination between, breathtakingly beautiful...but wrong. At thirteen, she was only supposed to be able to see one color, maybe two.
When Mara fails her Masking ceremony, she should have been drastically scarred in the face when the mask almost literally rips her face off. Mara remains unscarred, thanks to the divine intervention of the best Healer in the country.
Unharmed? Mara had heard what happened to those who failed their Masking. They were banished—no one knew where. And their faces...crisscrossed with scars, noses crooked...
“Except you got no scars. That’s special."
Those who fail their Masking ritual lose their magical gift. Not Mara.
Alita’s eyes suddenly widened. “Magic? Is it magic? You can still see it, even after...?”
“Yes,” Mara said simply. “I can see it.”
“Oh!” said Prella in a small, wondering voice. “Lucky...”
“But why?” Alita demanded. “Why can you still see it when we can’t?”
Not only that, only when they turn 15 do magical training start. Without any training whatsoever, Mara knows instinctively how to use her exceedingly strong magical powers.
"But the way you did it...you exerted an enormous amount of power, without any training at all. You did it instinctively. And you did it again when you cleaned away the evidence. With my Gift I could theoretically do what you did...but even if I could do it—which I am not at all certain of—I know I absolutely could not have done it when I was just fifteen and newly Masked. It took me years of training to do anything with my Gift at all. And you did it without thought!"
In the prison camp, everyone is starving. Everyone is emaciated. There is a limited amount of food, which barely passes as food. Everyone is skin and bones. But MARA IS SPECIAL BECAUSE SHE IS SLIM.
Mara even stands out against everyone else who is thin as fuck because they're hungry and underfed and there is not an ounce of fat on anyone anyfucking where because they're all forced to do hard labor within a inch of their sorry lives because she is somehow SLIM compared to the others who are merely THIN. It's the same motherfucking thing!!!!!! Jesus christ, WHAT THE FUCK. SERIOUSLY. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK???!!!!
That would weigh against you if not for the fact you offer me something I need even more.” Teeth flashed in a predatory smile. “Someone with the Gift. Someone young. Someone...slim.”
Not only that, Mara is so fucking powerful as to rival the country's ruler FOR NO FUCKING REASON AT ALL BESIDES THE FACT THAT SHE IS SPESHUL BY GRAND DESIGN.
"You are, in short, potentially the most powerful woman in all of Aygrima."
Eeeeeeeeeee'ryone wants to do Mara, the 15-year old Mara. The nasty jerks in the prison wants to rape her because she's so unscarred and lovely. But of course, she escapes unscathed. Grute the Brute (seriously, his name is Grute) wants to rape her and tries repeatedly. And Mara must make a hell of a milkshake, because in the unMasked rebel camp, the boys all come to her fucking yard
She looked from one boy to the other. Flattering and kind of exciting though she had to admit she found having two boys interested in her at once, it did get rather wearying. As to which one she preferred...
She couldn’t answer that question.
Mara is so dumb, she is living proof that evolution can go in reverse. Take one situation: you have your friends on one side, you have an army of bloodthirsty soldiers on the other. In which direction does Mara run?
...though everything in her screamed that she was being an idiot—everything except for the fierce, insistent voice that told her she had to do this, and drowned out all else—she ran...away from the gate that would take them out of the camp, away from the unMasked who had risked everything to rescue her, away from her only real hope of safety, and toward the flickering red light of the fire...
...and all the Watchers in the camp.
I got one suggestion for you, Mara, my little dipshit, why don't you jump off a motherfucking cliff and save me the trouble of finishing the book?
The Plot: I have often gone on rage-filled rants about something I call the overuse of a literary device known as a deus ex machina and to which I personally refer as deus ex fucking machina. So allow me a moment to clarify what a deus ex fucking machina is to the uninformed. It is the dirtiest of literary tools. From Wikipedia: deus ex machina
"...is a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has "painted himself into a corner" and sees no other way out...."
It is divine intervention. It is in my opinion, a cheap-ass tool used when a lack of creativity stops the progression of a plot in a believeable fucking manner unless some act of divine goddamned intervention intercepts to save it. And by save it, I mean smear some shit on it and hang it out to dry, in order to reuse, like the most thrifty cheapskate on Extreme Cheapskates: TLC. This book overuses deus ex machina to a ridiculous, absurd, obscene degree.
Let's see...Mara's face is about to get damaged! OHNOES! MASTER
PLASTIC SURGEON HEALER, GET ON IT, STAT!
Mara is about to get raped? BAM, SUDDEN INEXPLICABLE BURST OF MAGIC TO THE RESCUE. OFF WITH HIS HEAD!!!!
Mara is about to get hauled off to a prison camp? WHY HELLO THERE, BAND OF REBELS THERE TO RESCUE SPECIFICALLY HER ALTHOUGH HOW THE FUCK DID THEY FIND OUT THAT SHE WAS THERE? DAMNED IF I KNOW.
Arm broken? OH THERE YOU ARE, MASTER HEALER WHO JUST HAPPENED TO ARRIVE AT THE LABOR CAMP THAT VERY DAY. AGAIN.
Watchers about to kill her? OH HI THERE, AGAIN, REBELS, HOW DID YOU GUYS FUCKING FIND HER THIS TIME?
Mara on the brink of death? HI THERE (ANOTHER) HEALER LADY WITH A POTION THAT ONLY WORKS ON MAGICAL USERS AND NOBODY ELSE AND WHICH SHE HAS NEVER TRIED BUT, WHEW, IT FUCKING WORKS ^_^
About to get crushed by a pile of rocks? UNTRAINED MAGIC TO THE RESCUE. BLAMMO! BYE BYE ROCKS!
A friend about to die? Can't have that! *sings* BRING ME (her?) TO LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIFE!!!!!!!~~~~~
Fuck this book.