The Princess in the Opal Mask by Jenny Lundquist
I consider myself a very progressive speculative fiction fan. I work slush for Strange Horizons, I wish the Hugos had a YA category, and I can’t wait for the library’s copy of Heiresses of Russ 2013 to come in. And yet, I find something so comforting about old school fantasy—high fantasy published between 1977 (when The Sword of Shannara hit The New York Times bestseller list) and 2001 (with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which “legitimized” the genre in corporate eyes). But it came with its own problems and prejudices, especially when it came to women, people of color (there’s blackface in Tigana, for Pete’s sake!), and queer folk.
Which is why it makes me so happy when I discover old school fantasy or contemporary fantasy that nail the parts about the aesthetic that I find so comforting (immediately accessible worldbuilding, melodrama, epic scope) while being more diverse than the fare I encountered as a kid. It’s why I love Once Upon a Time in all its messy glory so much, and it’s why I enjoyed The Princess in the Opal Mask.
The Princess in the Opal Mask was marketed to me as a riff on both Cinderella and The Man in the Iron Mask. Despite being an awful Dumas fan who has only seen the nineties film, that was enough to hook me. Princess Wilha of Galandria has spent her life in opulent, opal masks, designed to show off the wealth of her country and hide her face from the world, for reasons she has never known. Elara, an orphan in an abusive household, is suddenly given a book from her mother, her first lead about her real family. When an attempt is made on Wilha’s life, Elara’s true identity is revealed, and the two girls must work together as Wilha is sent to marry the prince of a neighboring—and belligerent—country with Elara at her side.
I really hope sisters become the next big thing. (Nul points for guessing this plot twist.) I’m basing this off of exactly three properties—Sleepy Hollow, Frozen, and this novel—but, hey, two is a coincidence. Three is a trend. As some who delights in seeing real and complex female relationships of all kinds, I feel like focusing on a pair of sisters is just the way to ease even the lady-shyest of readers into casts with more ladies. I mean, Abbie Mills has to look after her sister, right? She’s family! Who can object to that? And then bam! You’re watching an episode where two capable but quite different women are rescuing their male friend at the behest of male friend’s beloved wife, flipping a script said lady-shyest readers might not have realized existed. Representation is magic, people.
And it’s this—the two sisters, Wilha and Elara, and their complex, fraught relationship—that makes The Princess in the Opal Mask sing. It nails the old school fantasy aesthetic that I love (right down to haphazard but gem-based worldbuilding, one of my more extraordinarily specific tastes) while updating its politics. Both girls are products of abuse. While Wilha leads a life of privilege, her father’s neglect and the mask both mark her; having never been treated as a person, the only identity she has is that of “The Masked Princess,” a icon to adore or fear. Elara suffers physical and verbal abuse from her adoptive mother. But both are at different points in their recovery. Wilha’s character arc in this novel is about discovering who she is on her own. Elara, on the other hand, has already developed coping tactics (which she shares with a young girl with a cruel grandmother at one point, bless) and arrived at the painful, complex realization that, for as much as she hates her adoptive mother, the woman shaped her and taught her how to survive. Elara has less of a defined character arc than Wilha, but that’s because she doesn’t commit herself to the task at hand until the very end.
This may make it sound like Lundquist is playing into a tired girly girl/tomboy thing, but there’s nothing of the sort going on here. Wilha is more physically capable than Elara, with both a sword and a curtsey, while Elara relies almost entirely on her skills as a master manipulator, living moment to moment. (She’s a little like a neutral good Loki in that way.) They don’t clash obviously—instead, you have a scene where Wilha tries to sympathize with Elara’s abuse, but Elara doesn’t believe that someone with Wilha’s privilege can ever sympathize with someone like her. The sisters are cool to each other at first, but watching them slowly gain an understanding and appreciation of each other is a joy.
And, oh, yeah, there’s other stuff going on—the actual, fairly straightforward plot, complete with a mustache twirling villain and two mandatory but not very interesting love interests. Although Lundquist gets plenty of props for not including a love triangle. Bless. The pace is usually nicely brisk, but occasionally takes turns far too sharply. Elara’s princess lessons are dispensed with in a paragraph, robbing us of the opportunity to see Wilha’s privileged world through Elara’s cynical eyes. But this also means that The Princess in the Opal Mask gets to cover a lot of ground, giving me a satisfying first installment that makes me look forward to the sequel. Oh, 2014, I thought you were sneaking up on me, but you were really just bringing me more of Wilha and Elara.
Bottom line: The Princess in the Opal Mask is a solid piece of old school fantasy that updates itself by focusing on two engaging sisters recovering from their abusive upbringings. Fans of lady-focused fantasy, rejoice!
I received this book from the publisher.