The Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin
3rd Oct 2012
Set in a fictional past, American YA author Bethany Griffin‘s re-imagining of the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name tells the story of Araby Worth, a privileged teenager trying to enjoy herself in a society where people are dropping like flies from a highly contagious plague.
In Araby’s world, a mask means survival, but of course, these are in high demand, and so the masks also mean power, making for an interesting commentary on supply and demand—but with deadly consequences.
This novel has definitely got both feet in the steampunk camp, with steam powered carriages, scientific experiments and, of course, corsets, and yet I feel like this was an ‘added extra’ to the book rather than being integral to the plot or characterisation.
The real and not real ‘past’ made for an interesting read, though, with a combination of Victorian and modern fashions, for example.
I loved the disturbing juxtaposition of extravagant sparkling eyeshadow being worn in an alley full of corpses.
This highlighted the stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots, a crucial part of this story.
This vanity against a backdrop of poverty was both unbelievable and entirely true to our own cultures.
As any YA author should, Griffin explores what it is to grow up, to discover yourself and to push boundaries. She shows prisons and escapes in many different forms, both literal and metaphorical.
However, I found the attitudes of some of the characters, particularly Araby, to be anachronistic with the rest of the setting. Of course steampunk fiction will always have a mixture of cultures and eras – however I found that it went too far in this book, as Araby, to me, seemed far more of our own time than her background within the story should have allowed.
I also found that the novel had a potentially large flaw in the masks themselves. I found myself continually wondering how the masks actually worked.
They seem to be made of porcelain, and cover the mouth and nose, whilst showing the eyes (otherwise the glittery eyeshadow would be pointless).
For a start, the descriptions of the masks don’t match the picture on the cover, which just seems like an unnecessary oversight. Mostly, though, it is a mystery to me how they actually work: how would the wearer breathe if their nose and mouth are encased in porcelain? It would have been so fascinating to have a description of the ‘science’ behind the masks, and added credibility to Griffin’s steampunk and sci-fi leanings.
Recommended for: Curious fans of Edgar Allan Poe‘s original gothic tale; young adult readers who are fans of Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart quartet of novels.
Further reading: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Plague 99 by Jean Ure.