Review: “Masque of the Red Death” by Bethany Griffin

Title: “Masque of the Red Death”

Author: Bethany Griffin

Genre: Steampunk, YA, Dark Fantasy

Release Date: April 2012 (expected)

Summary: Everything is in ruins.

A devastating plague has decimated the population. And those who are left live in fear of catching it as the city crumbles to pieces around them.

So what does Araby Worth have to live for?

Nights in the Debauchery Club, beautiful dresses, glittery make-up . . . and tantalizing ways to forget it all.

But in the depths of the club—in the depths of her own despair—Araby will find more than oblivion. She will find Will, the terribly handsome proprietor of the club. And Elliott, the wickedly smart aristocrat. Neither boy is what he seems. Both have secrets. Everyone does.

And Araby may find something not just to live for, but to fight for—no matter what it costs her.


Review: Wow. Lauren DeStefano wasn’t kidding when this book should have a glowing chorus of angels holding sparklers when it comes to reviewing this book. “Masque of the Red Death” is one of the most darkly luminous books I’ve read in years, and I’m so glad that it’s being published for the YA genre. Usually, a book this dark and dealing with such subject matter would be sadly confined to the adult arena alone, but Griffin artfully arranges her words so that it makes it palatable for the YA audience. There may be no easily seen redemption in “Masque”, and that’s what I love the most about it – Griffin isn’t afraid to torture her characters or revel in tragedy. This isn’t the feel good book of the year, but it is one that will definitely make you think. In a world where everything’s been destroyed, what would you do? What could you do? “Masque” explores all of this through Araby’s exploits throughout the novel.

We’re not given a solid time or place for the setting of “Masque”, but all signs point to a probable alternate history either New Orleans or Paris (if you take the physical descriptions of the actual places into consideration). All we know is that we don’t have any plastic masks, but we do have those made of porcelain, and those keep out the plague. We know that society has fallen, but it looks like it fell somewhere between Victorian through Edwardian times (possibly into post-WWI but pre-WWII) because of the plague. Usually I’d be pretty annoyed with the lack of a stable, explained setting, but Griffin’s outstanding use of sensory language plunks us down in a place with just enough backstory to get us through the book and takes care of the rest by making us feel the fabrics that Araby and April wear, feel the porcelain masks on our faces, and feel Oblivion coursing through our veins and making us remember our best and worst days.

The technical details concerning the rest are fantastically done, which really impressed me considering that this is a debut novel. The characters are overflowingly full and well-rounded, the arcs are slow-burning but well-executed, and the cliffhanger is gentle enough to make us wonder if there will be a second book, but also okay with the fact that if there isn’t another book, this is enough to solve questions in our head about what will happen to Araby, April, Will, and the rest. It’s very difficult to write a series book that looks like a standalone and vice-versa, so I really have to applaud Griffin here with doing such a good job.

One issue I know parents are going to raise will be about the activities in the Debauchery Club. I was actually pretty surprised about the sex – it’s only implied, and I honestly thought that it would be far more explicitly stated than it was. Then again, in a society with plague everywhere, having sex at all with having to touch someone with both hands and mouth could easily be a death sentence. What’s most described explicitly in this book is the drug use (“Oblivion”, treated like heroin by ihjecting it straight into your arm) and the self-harm/suicidal idiations that the characters go through. But think about it – in a place where everything’s broken and in order not to get infected you literally have to wear a porcelain mask 24/7 (if you can even afford one)…well, wouldn’t you also be drawn to doing the same? Not to justify the drug use, of course, but Griffin asks you to consider that if you were to be plunked down in such a broken world. However, like with everything else, she makes it palatable and easy (more or less) to swallow because quite frankly, the question of survival is a much more important one – especially when the new plague, the Red Death, comes into play.

What’s also made clear here are class lines: Araby and April are of the elite, Will is of the servant/working class (kind of reminded me a bit of Downton Abbey to be quite honest – and that’s a good thing!). Will and Araby struggle with that quite a lot, but it’s not as much as the whole having money versus not, but more like having resources against the plague versus not. Will and his family barely have enough masks to go around and have to stay inside as much as possible. Araby can afford as many masks as she needs because of the protection afforded her scientist father by the (rather wicked) Prince. But regardless, Araby’s own character arc of finding redemption through helping Will and his family is a wonderful one to read and one that soothes the soul in the sense that not everything has gone to hell after all.

Overall? This book is a tough one to read in terms of subject matter, and I did have to put it down a few times to mentally chew over what Griffin gave me to think about. But that’s a good thing, and I love it when books do that. I suggest that older YA readers indulge in this one as parents may find it too inappropriate for younger YA readers. Regardless of my suggestions on who to give it to, “Masque of the Red Death” has made my best of 2012 list and is screaming to be read. Really. Read it. It’s definitely one of the best that this year’s debut batch has to offer and it’s out April 24, 2012 in North America through HarperTeen.


One thought on “Review: “Masque of the Red Death” by Bethany Griffin

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! « birth of a new witch.

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