Book Review: Masque of the Red Death, Bethany Griffin (2012)

April 14th, 2014 12:17 pm by Kelly Garbato

“In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think.”

five out of five stars

Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story of the same name, Bethany Griffin imagines a world decimated by the plague in Masque of the Red Death. Seventeen-year-old Araby Worth knows too well the horrors of the Weeping Sickness; she lost her twin brother Finn to the disease several years ago, and still blames herself for his death. Their father, the scientist Dr. Worth, designed a mask that filters out the disease; but Araby accidentally claimed the prototype, which was meant for the frail Finn. The masks acclimate to their owners, so that sharing or trading is impossible. Before his father could make a second mask, Finn contracted the plague and died. Dr. Worth saved humanity, but was unable to keep his own family safe.

Araby now spends her days sleeping and her nights getting high in the Debauchery District. She considered suicide, once, but was rescued by her neighbor April. Now best friends, the two belong to the privileged class. High up in the penthouses of the Akkadian Towers, the two are sheltered from much of the poverty and violence below. And while they’re lucky enough to afford masks – a whole collection of them, actually – no one in this world remains untouched by the Weeping Sickness.

While she has resigned herself to life, Araby has taken a vow to eschew those things her brother will never experience: a first kiss. Learning to swordfight. Traveling the world. As romance and political intrigue seep through the walls she’s built around herself, Araby finds her resolve tested: first by Will, the dark and mysterious tester at the Debauchery Club, and then by April’s brother Elliott, who has rebellion on the brain.

Elliot loves the city, and cannot bear to see it destroyed by his uncle, Prince Prospero. While the city crumbles, the Prince lives a life of luxury in his castle outside the city. The Prince has exploited the plague to serve his own political purposes; he has “made an industry out of death and disease.” Through a little kidnapping and hostage-taking, the prince has placed nearly all of the city’s scientists under his authoritative thumb. The filters to the masks are manufactured solely at the castle, so that the prince alone controls sickness and health. Likewise, when Dr. Worth sought to fix what he saw as a malfunction in the masks, the Prince prohibited him from doing so: “He was pleased that the poor couldn’t steal them from the faces of the rich.” Class warfare at its deadliest.

As if this landscape isn’t dire enough, there’s a new – even deadlier – sickness sweeping through the city: the Red Death. Not even the masks can keep it at bay.

Dark and macabre, Griffin’s Masque of the Red Death is a worthy successor to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” (In many ways, the book can be read as a sequel to story, as Prince Pospero’s infamous masquerade ball is just commencing as the book ends. The second installment of the duology, Dance of the Red Death, will presumably focus on the events of the ball.)

While the exact setting of the story remains vague, clues point to mid-nineteenth century Europe (western) or America (East coast). The guards brandish muskets; the women sport whale bone corsets, and traditionally favored long skirts (that is, until the plague necessitated the showing of skin for transparency and quick diagnoses); and coal-powered steam carriages and boats replaced horse-drawn carriages once all the horses succumbed to the plague. There’s a little bit of a steampunk vibe here (particularly in Kent’s flying machine), as well as shades of alternate history. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the futuristic, post-apocalyptic science fiction I normally read.

A high school English teacher, Griffin’s writing is masterful: rich in detail and feeling, lavish, and highly evocative. The juxtaposition of unimaginable wealth and opulence with crippling poverty and decay is palpable, like a vise squeezing your heart until it threatens to pop. And Araby (not to mention supporting characters April, Elliott, and Will) is a wonderfully complex character. We see her evolve from a twin racked by survivor’s guilt to a more complete, whole person. Instead of denying herself happiness as recompense for Finn’s death, she begins to open herself to the possibility that she should live for Finn, to honor his memory. Such a beautiful and heartwarming metamorphosis, this.

Masque of the Red Death is one of those books that just holds you captive and demands to be read. (Three hours past your bedtime? Uh-uh, sorry. Haven’t eaten all day? Too bad. Gotta pee like a wild mustang? JUST A FEW MORE LINES OKAY!) Not only that, but it also inspired me to revisit Poe, which I haven’t read in many years; quite possibly not since high school. I’m excited but not a little nervous for the sequel, which received mixed reviews. Fingers, crossed.

This one’s definitely a must for: admirers of Edgar Allen Poe; fans of the Victorian era; those fascinated by plagues throughout history; readers who love great ya dystopias and imaginative world building.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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