Author: Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb
Published: July 1995
I’ve survived my struggle through some seriously dire books lately by reminding myself that if I persevered for long enough, I’d get to the next novel from Novak & Grubb. For my money, their Azure Bonds is still the best of all of the Realms novels so far, a gold standard which none of the fifty-one novels since then have been able to top. And now my dearest wishes have come true — we’ve got a standalone Harpers novel starring Alias and Dragonbait, the heroes of Azure Bonds! But does it live up to the original, or have I been getting my hopes up over another disappointment like Song of the Saurials? Let’s find out.
This novel takes place entirely in Westgate, a city that we visited briefly in Azure Bonds but which, despite being a major port city on the Inner Sea, has never been featured in any of the other Realms books. I’ve often said before that I’m a fan of urban settings for fantasy, and Masquerades does a good job of scratching that itch. We see a thorough cross-section of the city as the characters traverse its filthy slums and noble ballrooms, and in the process get little slice-of-life moments for a variety of minor side characters. All of this sells me on the concept that Westgate is a living city rather than a painted backdrop. It’s not as richly detailed as Elaine Cunningham’s take on Waterdeep, but it’s a damn sight better than a cardboard city like Phlan.
I find the timeline curious, however. It’s ostensibly set in 1368 DR, eleven years after the events of Azure Bonds, but there’s no sense that time has passed for these characters — the gang gets back together as if it’s only been a few months since their last adventure, and nobody seems to be slowing down as they get older. (Dragonbait apparently has some hatchlings now, but that’s the only concession.) It feels as if the authors had planned for it to be set earlier, but were forced to change it when the AD&D 2nd Edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set advanced the setting’s timeline to 1368.
Masquerades tentatively ventures into a literary genre that’s barely been touched on by the Realms novels: romance.  The main plot is an action-adventure story about Alias and Dragonbait being hired to bring down the Night Masks, the fearsome criminal organization that runs the city of Westgate from the shadows. The B-plot and emotional core of the book, though, is a sort of coming-of-age story for Alias where she navigates the murky waters of her first real romantic relationship. As I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for character-focused stories which deviate from the usual “go on quest, fight monsters” fantasy archetype, and this certainly qualifies.
This plot faces a formidable challenge, though: how do you tell a story about a pair of heroes taking on a huge, powerful, and deeply entrenched criminal organization without it becoming a one-sided beatdown? Fortunately, it’s handled adroitly enough to keep things mostly in the realm of plausibility. I was afraid that it would be a “lone hero walks into town, beats up the lead bad guy, and suddenly all crime stops” kind of thing where complex problems are resolved by heroic acts of violence. Instead the characters acknowledge that the Night Masks are a problem too big to solve by violence, then pick a more realistic goal: locating and negating the source of the Night Masks’ immunity to divination magic so that the authorities can determine the identities of their leaders and take the gang apart. Rather than just beating people up for information, Alias unravels the Night Masks’ organization by engaging in “follow the money” detective work and earning the trust of key informants. We also get a decent explanation for the obvious question of “why don’t the Night Masks just kill her?”: Alias is becoming a folk hero for the common people, and the Night Masks don’t want to make her a martyr who unites the people of Westgate against them, so they need to find a way to use her in their schemes instead. It’s a nice justification that shoves the plot even further away from “heroes punch criminals” and orients it more towards intrigue.
There’s a clever twist at the end where the story abruptly changes gears; suddenly you see everything from a different character’s perspective and are left to figure out what’s going on by yourself. It’s not a difficult mystery, but I still enjoyed how the sudden turn subverted my expectations and built suspense for the end of the story.
So the bones of the plot are quite well-constructed. But I wrote of Elfsong that “the solid construction makes the plot’s cheats and contrivances stand out even more, like stains on a fine white tablecloth,” and that’s true here as well. How convenient is it that, out of all of the thousands of houses in Westgate, Jamal takes refuge in the one to which Alias and Dragonbait were already headed? How unlikely is it that they’d just happen to run into Olive in such a dramatic way? How could you move a couple hundred city watchmen to the scene of a crime-in-progress without alerting the Night Masks? How does a wizard spend a week impersonating a person he’s never met so convincingly that someone who’s known that person all their life doesn’t get suspicious? Those sort of things. The little unexplained coincidences and implausibilities added up until my suspension of disbelief was, if not quite destroyed, at least thoroughly dented.
This is pure self-indulgence on my part, but while reading this I found myself wishing that they’d just gone full-on romance novel. More specifically, instead of having the Night Masks plot at the forefront and Alias’ character development underlying it, I wished it had been a more character-driven novel all about Alias growing up where the plot was just a vehicle to make it happen. The Night Masks are somewhat bland villains, so the character development is a lot more fun to watch than the bits where Alias plays Eliot Ness.
As you might expect from a novel called Masquerades, the theme is masks and hidden identities. Nearly all the characters disguise themselves at one point or another. The leaders of the Night Masks, the Faceless and his Night Masters, all wear magical identity-concealing masks. One of the big battle scenes happens during a masquerade ball where all of the noble attendees are wearing disguises. You get the idea; it’s unsubtle but quite serviceable. The upshot is that nobody in Westgate can be trusted, which gives the book an amusingly paranoid feel. Sometimes the reader is let in on the identity of a disguised character; other times they’re left to figure it out for themselves. (It’s not particularly difficult to work out, but as a reader I appreciate being made to do even a modicum of thinking.)
Alias is a well-developed character here. There’s a lot more to her than just “good at hitting things with swords”: she comes up with clever plans to further her goals and executes them well, mostly holding her own in the war of intrigue with the Night Masks. We see the delightful contrast between her unshakeable self-assurance when dealing with her employers and foes versus how uncertain and careless she is when dealing with emotional and romantic matters. And I very much appreciate that, despite being an attractive female protagonist, she’s not particularly sexualized. In fact, she’s aggravated by other people judging her by her appearance:
Alias leaned against a bedpost and read the letter aloud.
“‘Lovely Alias and stout-hearted Dragonbait,’” she began, then looked up at the saurial. “How come I never get to be stout-hearted?”
“How come I never get to be lovely?” Dragonbait parried.
“Hmph,” she said, and continued reading.
It’s such a relief to spend time with a female character who feels like a real person after slogging through so many women used as sex objects in the recent Ed Greenwood novels. And we’re still treated to the same sardonic internal narration in her point-of-view scenes:
Mintassan was tall with broad shoulders, but somewhat overweight — his gut parted the center of his vest. Nothing, Alias thought, that a few laps around the Sea of Fallen Stars couldn’t take care of.
The paladin is a class that’s been almost completely ignored by Forgotten Realms authors thus far. As far as major characters go, there was Kern from Pool of Twilight, Vilheim from Soldiers of Ice, and Dragonbait — three that I can recall in the fifty-six novels so far. It’s curious — you’d think that the opportunities for moral quandaries, the struggle between doing one’s duty and doing what’s right, would be great for creating interesting drama. I think part of the problem is the traditional stereotype of the paladin among D&D players: a humourless, hidebound damper on everyone else’s fun, more concerned with what their god will think than with party cohesion, mission success, or even survival. But folks with that preconception need only look to Dragonbait to see how to do a paladin well: thoughtful and compassionate, principled but not judgemental, with a thick skin and a wry sense of humour. He’s very much a supporting character rather than a deuteragonist here, getting a handful of point-of-view scenes but little in the way of character development, yet he’s a necessary foil for his headstrong and impulsive companion.
The halfling bard Olive Ruskettle also returns as a supporting character, but she doesn’t come off nearly as well character-wise. She seems subdued compared to her earlier appearances, less snarky and self-possessed. Despite getting a couple of good character moments, like when she thinks Alias is dead or when she suffers a panic attack upon returning to Cassana’s former manor, she’s ultimately more of a passive observer to events than someone who pushes the plot forward. Here she’s a loyal employee of the “designated good people” noble house, so she uncritically follows their orders instead of pursuing her own devious agenda like she did in the Finder’s Stone trilogy. Feels like a waste, really — Olive at her best is a trickster who disrupts everything she touches, not just a camera for the audience to watch scenes from.
Victor Dhostar, the noble scion whom Alias falls in love with, is a mixed bag. It was clear from the get-go that he was going to be some sort of villain, so I appreciated that the novel didn’t insult my intelligence by trying to hide it for the entire story. Instead it’s made clear that he’s up to some sort of no good, but you’re left to wonder about the nature and scope of his villainy, which works much better. But when the authors finally dropped the pretense and showed him being evil, he lost my interest right away. He ends up as a fairly stereotypical sociopath, devoid of any humanity, redeeming traits, or motivations besides “I’m ambitious and evil.” In general, if you show me a villain who does bad things because they believe they’re necessary or good, or who has internal conflicts, or whom you can appreciate even if you disagree with their actions, I’ll be hooked. But show me a complete monster and I’ll be bored, because I can’t summon any empathy or understanding for someone who’s just evil for evil’s sake.
Alias acquires a couple of new allies in this novel in the form of Jamal, an activist actress whose firebrand performances draw the Night Masks’ ire, and Mintassan, a powerful transmuter who just wants to be left alone to do his research. Jamal works rather well because she’s deeply tied into the plot and themes of the novel — as an actress she’s often disguised or masked, and she stands in direct opposition to the Night Masks and the other powers that be in Westgate. Her theme of “relentless idealism even when everything looks hopeless” runs counter to Alias’ more cynical viewpoint, so there’s some interesting inter-character conflict there. You can admire her bravery even when you’re thinking “Jesus, lady, are you crazy?”
Mintassan, alas, is the opposite. The idea is that he’s supposed to develop over the course of the novel, gradually becoming politically active and willing to fight alongside the heroes. Laudable, certainly, but the way it’s implemented just doesn’t work. Most of his character development scenes are alone with Jamal rather than with the heroes, so they feel like a completely disconnected subplot that takes attention away from the important stuff. I kept finding myself thinking “Who cares about watching this quiet moment between these side characters? The heroes were up to something cool and I want to see it play out!” Because he doesn’t have any significant interaction with the heroes or impact on the plot until the end, he feels like a waste of space. There’s also a cringeworthy romance between him and another character where the authors just shove the two of them together at the end with practically no buildup at all; the end result is forced and artificial. This would have been a better novel if Mintassan hadn’t been in it at all, I think.
As villains go, the Night Masks are acceptable but a bit flavourless. Most of the Night Masks whom Alias interacts with are just disposable thugs who don’t add much to the story. Some of them get names and a bit of personality, but it’s not enough to hook the reader’s attention. Their leaders, the Night Masters, don’t get much characterization because they’re a crowd of anonymous masked figures — not much for an author to work with there, apart from one of them who gets unmasked partway through. That leaves the Faceless as the only member of the Night Masks who gets properly fleshed out, and even he doesn’t get much personality besides “evil and greedy.” But to be fair, the authors did a pretty good job with making him a practical, dangerous villain. He’s cunning, turning setbacks to his advantage. He handles his underlings’ failures with criticism and measured punishment rather than Darth Vader-style summary execution. He’s got contingency plans which check the heroes’ successes. Best of all, he doesn’t indulge in many textbook Evil Overlord dialogue clichés. It would have been better if he’d gotten a more distinct personality, but it’s not bad.
The authors seem to have learned from their mistakes in Song of the Saurials, where there were far more point-of-view characters than the plot could support. Here, as in Azure Bonds, Alias gets the majority of the screen time. The occasional interludes from other people’s points of view are there to further her plot and/or character rather than being annoying distractions. (There were a couple of scenes between Jamal and Mintassan that felt cuttable, but they weren’t numerous enough to drag the action to a halt.)
There’s a fair amount of third-person omniscient writing here where the point of view skips between different characters in the same scene with no warning. I found it distracting and slightly annoying. It lets the author show more details to the reader, but I much prefer the greater sense of immersion you get from seeing entire scenes from a single character’s viewpoint.
You can tell that the authors were really into Planescape at this point. One of the characters is a plane-hopping wizard who uses some Sigilian cant in a fairly clumsy manner, and there are a few other references to Planescape scattered here and there. (This will become relevant when we get up to 1997, when Novak & Grubb published a pair of novels that take place partly in the Realms but mostly on the planes.)
My immersion was banged around pretty badly by Olive using the word “Dumpster” at one point, which is a trademarked word that’s only existed in the English language since 1936. That’s right up there with Shadowdale talking about a forest’s Spanish moss in the “accidental real-world intrusions into fiction” hall of shame.
Despite the various flaws that I’ve mentioned above, Masquerades was still a book that I kept wanting to pick back up again. The pacing was good, interleaving action with scenes of dialogue and character development, the plot was twisty and interesting, and the characters were old favourites. It’s not as substantial or as well-written as either Azure Bonds or The Wyvern’s Spur, but it’s still an entertaining read. I fear that I won’t be able to say the same about many of the upcoming novels, so I should savour it while I can.
It’s bittersweet, though, as this is the last hurrah for these characters. Apart from Dragonbait’s cameo in the D&D 5th Edition Tomb of Annihilation module, they haven’t been heard from since.
 A few previous novels have featured romantic relationships that were built up slowly over the course of the story; The Wyvern’s Spur and The Parched Sea spring to mind right away. But in none of the others were the romances as necessary for the plot as this one is here.