It’s not usual to read a young adult book and be most fully reminded of a gore-strewn rock opera, but in the case of Bethany Griffin’s The Masque of the Red Death I found that I was. The underlying premise of a city racked with contagion is lifted from the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name; while Griffin’s story has parallels, it is as an evocation in its own right that Masque stands true.
Much like The Hunger Games, which it’d inevitably draw comparison with, the setting of the story is thoroughly dystopian. However, rather than the oppressive Orwellian society that Suzanne Collins creates, Griffin’s is subtle and wasting – indeed like the contagion that holds it hostage. Masque is true steampunk, though much more subtly shaded and much less clunky than a lot of the genre can be. Indeed, Griffin is consistently subtle with her writing and it particularly suits the intended audience – though I do expect it to garner readership outside the intention like Potter and THG have done. What resonates most strongly is the briefly lingering image of a girl lying in a doorway: a less mature reader understands more of the disregard and abandon of the setting, while one more mature can pick up on the implied rape.
The character of Araby is much more streetwise than a lot of her parallels – indeed my largest frustration with Collins’ Katniss is her naivety – and despite the close first person narrative, she is similarly subtle in her thoughts. That said, her awkwardness can draw the same parallels between countless other texts in the field, likewise with the two love interests with very different backgrounds and modus operandi; however, rather than being derivative it lives up to the expectations of the genre.
What I found most interesting was that the more I read, the more I was reminded of the mood and themes of the tragically little known Repo! The Genetic Opera: a young girl troubled and sequestered in a dangerous world ravaged by biological concern. Griffin plays the difference between high and low society well, and the moods of the seemingly unimaginatively-named Debauchery District echo with the trappings of Repo!
I felt the pace lagged in the final act and the conclusion felt a little unsatisfying in that it insists upon a sequel rather than invites it, but overall I was really impressed with the book. In fact, I’ve already begun looking for The Dance of the Red Death and I’ve personally recommended Masque to two people. You can’t get fairer praise than that.