Masque of the Red Death - Bethany Griffin
Masque of the Red Death is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name, in which a group of wealthy individuals seclude themselves at masquerade in an attempt to evade a mysterious plague, but ultimately fail. In Bethany Griffin’s novel, this masquerade ball is replaced by the Debauchery District, where the wealthy residents of a crumbling city seek escapism from pervasive death and decay. Here masks are not worn merely as ornament, but as respirators to prevent inhalation of the disease.

Among these wealthy club patrons is Araby Worth, whose father invented the titular masks. Araby can be a frustrating protagonist, especially at the beginning of the story. She is clearly suffering with depression and trauma, which is actually handled very well here. While this does explain many of her self-destructive actions, others seem a result of pure thoughtlessness and stupidity. Araby takes drugs from a stranger without knowing the contents, allows her friend to go off on her own at the club, and aids a purported revolutionary without questioning anything about him. She is well developed, however; characterization is definitely a strong point of the novel.

There is a love triangle, but it too is very well done and surprisingly tolerable. First is Will, a club employee who works to support his two younger siblings. Rather than going from zero to “true love,” Will and Araby act on their mutual feelings by showing they care for each other. Will looks after Araby following one of her self-destructive nights at the club, and Araby helps Will care for his younger brother and sister. Will’s family also highlights the inequality between rich and poor in this society, another thing the novel does well.

In the other corner is Elliott, brother of Araby’s friend and club partner April. Elliott is an idealist who hopes to reform society by rebelling against his uncle, the mysterious Prince Prospero. While Araby admires his ideals as well as feels attraction toward him, she recognizes he can be cold, calculating, and a bit of a jerk. Both Elliott and Will are well-drawn characters with good and bad points, and Araby’s mixed feelings come off as genuine.

The biggest weakness of the novel lies in the world building. The city is unnamed, and the setting is hard to pin down in both time and location. Characters travel by steam engine, yet have skyscrapers, elevators, air filter systems, and a clear understanding of disease. The handling of the disease itself is unfortunately a big problem; if the plague is as deadly and airborne as depicted, a mask alone will probably offer little protection. The wealthy also tend to expose their skin in an attempt to show their lack of disease lesions, which is of course one of the stupider things to do when disease is rampant. People are tested for infection upon entry into a building, but are in no way disinfected or disinfested in any way. Just because one is not sick does not mean he or she is not carrying any pathogens.

There is lots of promise in the political intrigue and family drama, as well as in the well drawn characters. While it is not made clear how this world became the way it is, there are hints toward answers to come. Here’s hoping Bethany Griffin delivers in the sequel.

A review copy was provided through First Reads program.