The Author Visits Reviews City of Masks

City of Masks Book Cover City of Masks
The Bone Mask Trilogy
Ashley Capes
Snapping Turtle Books
May 24, 2014

Note: The Author Visits received a copy of City of Masks for an honest review.

Review provided by Kristin Lundgren on behalf of The Author Visits

Waking in Anaskar Prison, covered in blood and accused of murder, nobody will listen to Notch’s claims of innocence until he meets the future Protector of the Monarchy, Sofia Falco.

But Sofia has her own burdens. The first female Protector in a hundred years, her House is under threat from enemies within, the prince has made it clear he does not want her services and worst of all, she cannot communicate with her father’s sentient mask of bone, the centuries-old Argeon. Without the bone mask she cannot help anyone — not herself, and certainly not a mercenary with no powerful House to protect him.

Meanwhile, far across the western desert, Ain, a young Pathfinder, is thrust into the role of Seeker. Before winter storms close the way, he must leave his home on a quest to locate the Sea Shrine and take revenge on the people who drove his ancestors from Anaskar, the city ruled by the prince Sofia and Notch are sworn to protect, whether he wants their help or not.

This truly epic work, the first of three, is a story complete unto itself, although allowing for further exploration of some threads. Capes, an Australian poet, has a great command of the English language, and his prose sings. This complex book unfolds like a Chinese puzzle box. There is so much depth to the people, places, and above all the masks, and Capes deftly allows them to slowly reveal their secrets. There is no "info dump," but a meticulous giving up its secrets, just as the story itself does.

The story is told from three POVs - first is Notch, a classic mercenary, a veteran and hero in the war against the Medah, and his companion Flir, a young woman of uncommon strength and on who's help Notch relies. We first meet Notch, waking up in prison, with the knowledge that he is accused of murdering a servant girl from one of the great houses. But he knows he is innocent, but has no recollection of the night, other than entering an inn, and drinking some ale. Just before he is about to be hanged for that murder - apparently trials aren't used, Flir enables him to escape and thus their journey begins. His part is much bigger than he would have ever thought. The way he is "charged" and the witness's "I think it's him, it could be shows the way the law is handled in Anaskar - quick, decisive, and not exactly fair.

The second POV is of Sofia of the House of Falco, who's mission is to protect the King. Sofia is a bone carver, carving the masks worn by the Mascare, the red-cloaked, neutral voiced secret police, who's identity is concealed by the use of the masks and training to speak in a neutral voice, so that they ll sound alike. After all, "Secrecy is Safety." The neutral voice also assures that the people see them as logical lawgivers, protecting "the city, the people, and it's history."

Sofia's father is the Protector of the King, and is the wearer of a Greatmask, Argeon, which has been in her family for centuries. It's power works with the wearer, to assist and guide in the rule of law, and protection of the royal family. Sofia's brother Tantos was the Successor, and protector of the Prince, Orson. Through a twist, Sofia is needed to become the successor, and eventually the protector. The ailing King approves, but the Prince, whom she is to protect, does not. He wants to marry her, to combine their families in a political marriage, but has no use for her as a protector, believing she is not up to the task. Her father, who wears a travel mask when out and about, wears an under-mask when at home, unless he is in private with his children, as secrecy is paramount. He has done something forbidden, something that will keep the Greatmask tied to their house, and of little use to others.

And the 3rd POV comes from the Pathfinder Ain, of the Medah, desert dwellers who once lived where the great city of Anaskar now is, but after a bloody war, they were cast out into the wilderness. They have one goal - to gain acces to the city, fulfill an ancient prophecy, and return the city back to them.

The city of Anaskar is a character unto itself. A city perched on the edge of the sea, surrounded on three sides by mountains, it is full of walls, secret passages, and tiers - levels of society. Like a walled castle city, the Lower Tier (equating with the outer sections) is where the ships come in, and the slums and factories reside. The Second Tier, to which you need a pass to gain entrance, is full of mansions, shops, gardens, while the First Tier, high on the hills, includes the vast, sprawling castle, with it's secrets, intrigues, and power. I wish there had been an illustration of the city, a map. When a place becomes a part of the story and takes on it's own "life," I like to at least see the general outlay, to better visualize it as I read about what happens in the various corners. I am partial to visual aids in books of complexity.

Minor characters could be beefed up, and given more backstory, although that may come in later volumes. Capes does a great job of doling out the information rather than just putting it all up front, but with so many names and titles for each character, their position and relationship to others, some "telling" would be useful to the reader. Like a cast of characters at the beginning, and the names and titles they go by, especially those integral to the plot twists. I got a little confused at each new name or title, trying to fit it in to the action on the page, and who I thought was there.

There is no great cliffhanger at the end, something that bothers many readers. The book could be read as a stand-alone, but there is so much more to the story, that a trilogy feels right. Capes is very descriptive - even the simple, basic things become alive - the smells, the tactile sensations. That ability shows that he is a sound writer, and harkens back to his poetry. However, it can be confusing at first when new characters or things are first encountered. For example - a man is referred to as a Shield, then later described as a palace guard. While a good way to disseminate information, it is also a tricky line to walk as you run the risk of confusing the reader too much.

The book twists and turns like the city itself, with plots, and underplots, backstabbing, and actual stabbing, and plenty of action to keep the reader hooked. This highly imaginative, fresh, truly epic/high fantasy is surprisingly good, and hopefully it will be a highly successful trilogy when finished. I look forward to the next two.

My rating: 5 "intriguing" stars

Ashley on the creative process of writing…

For me, I think a large part of the creative process comes down to reaction. The way writers and other artists respond to the environment is one of the keys to creativity – the development of an ‘openness’ perhaps. Especially in regards to ‘place’. Often, when I visit a new place (or even familiar one), I’m struck by the desire to try and capture something of it. To reflect it in words. That reaction is a real driving force, it sets off my mind and things come together and I have to write.

With City of Masks, I had that experience when my wife and I visited Italy’s Amalfi Coast. We were very lucky to travel there and experience the beautiful town and sheer mountains sheltering it, the deep green of the lemon groves and the winding road. We took a lot of photos of course, but photos don’t always hold much of the feeling of actually standing in a place, of looking up to a mountain range perhaps or feeling the sea air on your skin. It was thrilling, beautiful.

I remember when reading about the historical Amalfi, which fell into the sea during a tsunami hundreds of years ago, the image of a tiered city clinging to the mountains, exposed to a great bay, leapt into my head. I had the start of an idea and once I added a sea beast lurking beneath silvery water, City of Masks was born.

Next I asked myself who lived there? What was happening to them? What drove these people? By now I was already home and missing Italy and so that night I wrote a bird’s eye scene describing Anaskar, the tiered city featured in City of Masks. But I soon stopped and instead zoomed in to place Notch, a mercenary falsely accused of murder, in prison, awaiting execution. Suddenly I had my opening! After a few revisions I was happy with it, in part because something about the ‘wrong man’ trope really appeals – it’s probably all the Hitchcock movies influencing me! But once I had Notch in place, once I knew where he was and what he wanted, I drew in more players, including Sofia, a younger member of my leading cast. Her story was more about a personal struggle with masks of power, and with living up to other people’s expectations, a struggle I’d hoped many readers would be able to relate to.

Probably the most fun I had with characters was in trying to come up with a likeable (I hope) antagonist. Lupo (Italian for ‘wolf’) came about from my desire to have a villain who was sometimes flippant, sometimes enraged, smug, driven, merciful, someone who was quite unpredictable at times – because I’m a firm believer in the idea that if the writer is bored with their story or characters, it’s a guarantee the reader will be too.

More preliminary world-building sketches and plot ideas followed and once I was ready to actually start, I set a minimum goal of 350 words per day and forced myself to stay disciplined. I worked on the novel every single day for months – sometimes I wrote only fifty words and sometimes over 2000 – but I wrote consistently until I was done. Giving myself a clear and small minimum goal was a great motivator and further, allowed me to budget time around full time work and other commitments. Having the small goal also made it achievable, and then whenever I went over the target I felt better about my progress, better about the story, better about everything, which in turn kept me working, kept motivation high.

Soon enough I had hundred thousand words (which took about three months) and then the real work began. Revising! I’m the kind of writer that prefers to work with music, generally I use something more up-tempo for first drafts, but widen the sonic range when editing. I remember listening to a lot of Black Sabbath and Yo-Yo Ma with City of Masks, in addition to Italian progressive rock bands like Osanna and PFM.

Over the next months I put the story through about four revisions before seeking feedback from people I trusted to be forthright, then sent off draft five to Snapping Turtle Books, a new publisher based in New Zealand and then got lucky again, receiving an offer for the entire Bone Mask Trilogy!

About Ashley


Ashley is a poet, novelist and teacher living in Australia. He teaches Media Studies and Music Production and in the past played in a metal band, worked in an art gallery and survived the wilds of music retail.

He is the author of five poetry collections and two novels and was poetry editor for Page Seventeen from issues 8-10. He also moderates online renku group Issa’s Snail and is slowly working on a spoken word album.

Aside from reading and writing, Ashley loves volleyball, Studio Ghibli films and Magnum PI – easily one of the greatest television shows ever made.

What’s next for Ashley?

I actually have a few projects in the works at the moment, some simmering away and a few on the boil! The Lost Mask, follow-up to City of Masks, is due for release early 2015 and I’m hoping to self-publish my third book, a ghost-story novella, a few months after.

I’ll also be continuing to promote my first self-published novel, a contemporary fantasy called The Fairy Wren, while also writing Greatmask, the conclusion to the Bone Mask Trilogy. If I’m lucky, I’m also planning to record a spoken word CD of my poetry, so I should be able to keep nice and busy over the year!


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