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Book Review: Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Araby lives in a world that is quickly decaying.  A deadly virus has wiped out most of the population, and those who are left are still in danger of contracting it.  The wealthy can afford masks that keep them from becoming infected, and they spend their time avoiding reality in lavish nightclubs like the Debauchery Club, where Araby goes most nights with her best friend.  Araby goes to find her own version of oblivion, but one night, she finds Will, one of the club’s bouncers.  Then she finds Elliott, who’s a wealthy aristocrat.  Both boys have their own agendas, and it isn’t long before Araby finds herself swept up into a building rebellion.  What does she have to lose, really?

Well, if this book is any indication, she doesn’t have much to lose.  Bethany Griffin’s neo-Victorian steampunk novel is a loose retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  Unfortunately it’s not nearly as interesting as Poe’s work, despite Griffin’s attempts to make the story edgy, sexy, and dangerous.  A lack of time and place make this novel somewhat confusing–and a convoluted plot only complicates things.

There’s no sense of when or where this story takes place.  Although readers can infer that the city is some version of New Orleans, there’s no telling if the world is supposed to be an alternate universe, set sometime in the past, or set sometime in the future.  While this won’t bother every reader, it certainly bothered this one.  Some sense of where we are in time would be helpful, as there were weird inconsistencies throughout the novel.

However, the novel is incredibly atmospheric, and this helps readers forget that they have no idea where they are in time.  The novel’s atmosphere is gloomy, dreary, and palpably dark.  Griffin does a fantastic job of making the setting feel suffocating.  Unfortunately, that’s where the good stuff ends.

Araby is a total bummer, as far as narrators go.  She provides a completely self-absorbed narrative that feels fairly authentic–in terms of voice, at least.  Her guilt over the loss of her brother is crippling, and while it provides much of the reasoning behind her actions (or lack thereof), it also makes for exceedingly dull reading material.  When the big reveal behind her guilt is revealed, one can’t help but feel as though it’s all just a little overblown.

To make matters worse, there’s a predictable love triangle.  At first it seems as though Araby and Will are meant to end up together, with Elliott acting as a distraction as they plan the rebellion.  But by the end of the novel, Griffin has blurred the lines between the boys and Araby’s feelings for them, and it becomes increasingly clear that we’re supposed to be as torn as she is.  The problem is that Elliott sort of blows and Will is kind of awesome, so there’s no real dilemma present.

A cliffhanger ending feels a little rushed and leaves way too many questions unanswered, but it certainly sets up the novel’s sequel.  It’s not one I’ll be rushing out to find, but it might work for some readers (especially those who haven’t read Poe’s original).  Readers looking for more of the same post-apocalyptic love-triangle stuff might find some fun here, but I thought this one was a total drag.

Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin.  Harper Collins: 2012.  Borrowed copy.



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