Masquerade (1991)

     by Jenna Ryan

This review took approximately 75% longer than reviews for most books this size and that is BECAUSE THIS BOOK REFUSED TO END.
 
You know, I like romance novels. Really. When they're good, they're great reading material. Even when they're not so good, they can be perfectly fun escapism. But when they're bad... oh, god, when they're bad. Anyone who's talked to me for the last week has heard me whining about how this book just keeps GOING AND GOING and how it makes me want to shave my head, donate my kidney, and move to rural Indiana if that would save me from having to finish reading it.
 
First of all, due to the mind-bending complexity of this novel, we were provided the following map for ease of understanding where people were and what they were doing. I share it with you because it is the funniest thing about the book.
 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, thank fucking god for that, eh? Otherwise, we could have become irretrievably lost in that cluster of broccoli-trees. Since this book is about as far away from Tolkien as cheese is from turpentine, I don't think we really needed the Tolkien-style map, but I guess Ryan wanted us to understand that this is in some way Epic in Scope.
 
But wait - there's more! The next page is a dramatis personae listing of the characters, with such pithy observations as "An alluring Brazilian" and "He's from Romania and looks like Dracula". Ladies and gentlemen, meet your caricatures for the novel. No, no. Don't feel obliged to have any kind of attachment to them or, indeed, interest in them. They are entirely flat and totally meaningless, except as props to try to perpetuate some kind of suspense. (You might think this is a parody with characters that are intentionally ridiculous, but unfortunately it's also deeply unfunny.)


Prologue:


The prose throughout the novel suffers from an unbelievable amount of navel-gazing. Each chapter features at least three pauses in the action so that Rielle (the new abbreviation for "Gabrielle", apparently, if you are "independent" and "fiery" but don't want to have to actually do anything that would show it and want a camouflaged name to do it for you) and Adrian can muse over how much they like the other person but could never, ever admit it. This would be more bearable if it weren't the exact same unvarying musing each time.
 
The novel uses a flashback conceit to get us into the action; we start out seeing Rielle bound and desperately trying to escape from the Phantom, and then she decides to stop with that and instead treat us to an extended flashback of how she got there, some weeks ago. It's a trite convention and hard to use effectively without being excruciatingly familiar making the reader roll their eyes a little bit; Ryan does not pull it off. The only part of this I found interesting was in the limited description of the Phantom, which made it clear that he had both a powerful, lingering voice (one that Rielle feared more than she was entranced by it) and a terrifying face, though the exact nature of the scariness is not stated here.


Chapter 1:


I got a chuckle out of the fact that Rielle is wandering down "Philbin Lane" at the beginning of this chapter, Philbin being the last name of the original film Christine, Mary Philbin, of course. Alas, it was the last moment of enjoyment for quite a while.

 

Rielle, as a character, is totally unconvincing to me. She is an ex con-artist who has gone straight from her life of crime into becoming a hot, high-class professional fashion designer, which could be an interesting moral battle if Ryan had ever bothered to use it in a moral context at all. Instead, Rielle is self-righteous and nasty about her former profession, looking down on the friends and associates from that time in her life and generally adopting a holier-than-thou attitude without Ryan bothering to do any work to describe her mental state or whether this is a reaction to her own experiences then.

 

There's a lot of blather about how she secretly feels guilty over the people she hoodwinked, which lasts until it's convenient for her to be spunky and spirited again, at which point she doesn't feel bad at all because she's like a modern-day Robin Hood and only conned people who could afford it and deserved it because they were mean rich jerks. Her supposed bouts of guilt are so unconvincing that they totally failed to generate any sympathy from me, especially since it was pretty much implied (accidentally, I assume) that she had only gone straight to avoid getting caught and doing time, and not because she'd suddenly discovered a conscience. Half the time she's snorting and informing people self-righteously that "saints only exist in mythology" (by the way, what an awesome turn of phrase - not any particular religion, MYTHOLOGY, just what I needed, a Dawkins-esque heroine), and the other half she's thinking disdainfully that anyone who chooses to remain in a life of crime must be an idiot. Ryan was attempting to give her both the glamorous Catwoman-esque feel of a semi-dangerous ex-criminal while still making her a sympathetic, pure of heart little soul, but the end result was just that I wanted to leave her and her obnoxious inconsistent morals in the woods somewhere.
 
Oh, and she's from Baton Rouge. She's a New Orleans southern belle ex-con with a heart of gold, who lives in London and is a high-powered fashion designer. She's basically just a collection of backstory traits without an actual character inside of them.
 
Rielle's character (or lack thereof) isn't the only problemt. My notes say, "Wait. What fucking time period is this?", which is an ongoing and never-solved mystery. I'd assumed it was modern-day from the fashion designer reference, but then the book started reading like a bad Victorian thriller - Rielle worrying about a Jack the Ripper-like attacker, a narration of a ridiculous guttersnipe chase across chimney-stack rooftops, etc. Later references make it clear that the story is at least post-WWII, and the people on the cover are modern-day (for the early nineties), so that was the time period I finally settled on (there's some videotaping equipment later, too). But the whole thing read like a really terrible Gothic thriller, borrowing so many elements from every time period from the Industrial Revolution on that I would not be surprised if the character was, in fact, some sort of time-traveling imposter.


Chapter 2:


After a lot of gratuitous "suspense" (gratuitous suspense is key in this book) in the first chapter, we finally get the set-up of the big mystery: a series of actresses have been murdered, always in a theater, always in full costume and makeup, always strangled. The killer has been dubbed the Phantom and is said to be able to change his appearance on a whim, appearing as whomever he chooses due to his mastery of makeup and stagecraft; the idea seems to be an outgrowth of the various "faces" of the Phantom in the 1989 Little/Englund film, but there really aren't many other similarities (would that there had been. I liked that film, which is more than I can say for this book).
 
We also meet the Brazilian (did I already say he was Brazilian? Too bad. You're going to get to hear it all the fucking time just like I did) hero of the story, Adrian, who is a dick for no real reason aside from his omg so tragic past and his aloneness and the fact that, according to bad romance novel rules, he has to be one so Rielle can redeem him with the healing power of her love. There's a lot of unnecessary angsting over his tragic past and his dead mother and how none of his siblings talk to him anymore (but that's by choice, because he's a lone wolf and he wants it that way), and I don't care. At all. He's as flat and personality-less as a pancake. Ryan's assurance that he is hot really doesn't do much to convince me that he's going to be at all interesting to watch over the course of the novel.
 
By the way, Adrian is also an ex-thief and con man, who is now a celebrity race car driver (I KNOW, right? How do they keep getting these awesomely realistic jobs right out of Crook School?). He also feels no remorse about his past because they were all rich tourists who deserved it, except when it's convenient for him to randomly grow some mores and angst over how he led a life of iniquity, which happens about once every five chapters. I actually wrote a sarcastic note about how this was like a really weird fantasy Oliver Twist and sadly, ironically, cruelly, that note would become hilarious in about t-minus one chapter.
 
Anyway, Rielle goes and, after managing to pass through racetrack security with ridiculous ease (because she's totally smart and sassy, you guys), enlists Adrian's help in investigating some kind of sinister, death-fraught plot that her ex (another con man thief! amazing!) became embroiled in shortly before disappearing. Adrian is obliged to help her with this because her ex, Luke, is his cousin, even though he totally admits in his internal monologue that he doesn't give a shit about his cousin so much as he thinks Rielle has a great ass.


Chapter 3:


We have a short little interlude here that's from the Phantom's perspective, and it was enough to make me hang on and keep going despite the dreadful boredom that was descending on me like a really hot, uncomfortable sweater. Ryan actually does a great job of making the Phantom seem menacing and frightening and of giving us a nice insight into his motivations, which are creative, to say the least. He seems to be killing women because he believes that they're reincarnations of his great love, an actress who spurned him years ago, which is reminiscent of the 1944 Waggner/Karloff movie. He believes the woman is evil and is returning to torment him, so he keeps killing her despite the fact that, miserably, he still loves her. It's a neat psychological thriller idea, that the Phantom continues to kidnap and kill women over and over, always believing that he is abducting and being rejected by his "Christine", an actress named Sybil - a nicely symbolic choice as the name of the mythological  Roman prophetess.

 

Unfortunately, every single character throughout the novel will think that Sybil is an evil monster woman who destroyed the poor baby Phantom's psyche, revealing Ryan's not-so-subtle master plan to instill in us some sympathy for her villain. I sincerely wish that the entire novel had been about the Phantom and his unremitting, starkly depicted damage, because the bits that were from his perspective were the only ones that I gave even the tiniest portion of a damn about, but I could seriously have done without the constant misogynistic nonsense (I mean, I'm already swallowing the misogynist premise of "make villain interesting by murdering a whole bunch of defenseless women, and you want to go and make that worse, Ryan?).
 
Alas, the Phantom has had little time in the spotlight, and now we are back to staring blankly at pages of neverending dullness, and making notes about sloppy grammar.
 
Then we discover that the owner of the mansion they're heading off to, ANOTHER (current) thief and con-artist, is named... Fagan. Well, I'm a visionary once again, but as usual, I don't like it.


Chapter 4:


Then, my friends, Ryan just decides to go all in on this concept. She starts dropping literary references like an inept hot-potato player. I am not kidding when I say that she referenced Night of the Living Dead, Brigadoon, Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Pimpernel, William Shakespeare, Alfred Hitchcock, Dracula, and Boris Karloff (maybe that 1944 influence isn't a dream!) within the SAME FIVE PAGES. Let's not forget that we already had Jack the Ripper and Oliver Twist and Robin Hood in the last chapter.

 

Now, see, I LIKE it when authors reference relevant other works, I really do! But unfortunately, there's no real connection to all these ideas, which are sort of thrown into a giant blender, after which Ryan hits High and then tries to re-serve it as an Original Story Smoothie. None of the references add anything to the story, other than to describe something to us that Ryan is too lazy to describe herself. She doesn't tell us what the guy looks like; she says he looks like Dracula. She doesn't tell us what the people at the train station look like; she says it looks like a scene from Night of the Living Dead. It's sloppy and boring and just makes people wonder why they aren't enjoying those other stories instead. Maybe the idea is to make Rielle seem like a savvy pop-culture-aware type of character, but since she's not any type of a character except for the lazy kind, it doesn't work out so well.
 
Some people are there at the train station when Rielle and Adrian, who are pretending to be dating for reasons which are unclear to me, unless they're the all important Attempts To Heighten the Romantic Tension ones; despite the fact that they keep harping on about how they're both so reserved and they'll never let their unruly feelings get the best of them, they touch each other ALL THE TIME. They wander up to them and start talking, and I am not kidding when I say that it took about four chapters for me to figure out that these people knew Adrian beforehand and they didn't just walk up to some random people getting off the train and start babbling. These are the other five people we haven't met yet from the dramatis personaeReuben, Noah, Ivan, Ava, and Jonathan. Feel free to forget them right away; they don't matter until the end anyway.
 
Ivan's (the man who looks like Dracula, in case you were wondering) last name is Ragozcy, by the way; it sounded familiar, so I went to the encyclopedia, and sure enough, Ragozcy is the original name of Count St. Germaine, one of the hugest figures in Theosophy and the man who was said to have discovered the alchemical secret of eternal life. Unsurprisingly, the eternal life angle has gotten him frequently associated with vampire lore, so feel free to file that away with the rest of the mess up above there. I tried to write a note about how maybe the eternal life angle might fit into the Phantom's conviction that Sybil is eternally returning, but... yeah, I gave up when I realized it would just be a defense mechanism I would cling to for the rest of the book.
 
Then comes the incredibly ham-handed local legend of Sir Arundel and the faeries Amelia and Odessa, in which we learn that changing one's appearance is evil, which is not at all an unsubtle statement about the acting profession and women and their fancy clothes and makeup as a whole. Basically, Arundel and Amelia are in love, Odessa is jealous, Odessa is a "Metamorph" and uses this power to create mischief and confusion and seals the lovers away from one another, tragedy ensues until they somehow, someday manage to reunite and defeat her.
 
No, it's nothing like Swan Lake. Cough.
 
I don't understand what's up with this Metamorph thing. Is "shape-changer" or "shapeshifter" not good enough now? Why the random capitalization? Why the obviously modern word in connection with what is supposed to be an ancient Celtic legend? Are there other Metamorphs, and they're capitalized because it's a race? Aliens, maybe? Science-fiction faerie legends? Can I go read a book about them, instead, on the off chance that it'll be more interesting?
 
Thanks for telling us the entire folktale straight up, as if the character was telling a bedtime story to Rielle, by the way. Thanks for that. I loved how graceless and gratuitous the delivery was.


Chapter 5:


The Persian gets dragged briefly into things, but only in a peripheral way as Luke is dressed up as a Persian dude while slumming in Morocco to avoid the Phantom's wrath (I have no idea what the reasoning behind this is, so don't ask). I was unimpressed by his internal monologue about how awful he felt and how he hoped Rielle was safe even though he intentionally involved her in his lethal criminal mess and then ran away to Morocco leaving her to deal with it herself. Angst on your own time, asshole.
 
Went back to the wine after various statements were made describing people as "Dickensian characters" and as possessing "deliberate resemblances" to literary characters. Who did this deliberately, Ryan, God?
 
This is obviously a highly altered version of the story, and it's a little confusing to figure out where the characters of the original Phantom story fit as far as roles go (god knows this never-ending book has plenty of characters, but most of them are extraneous). Rielle, as the major female lead, seems like the likely candidate for the Christine role, but her complete lack of resemblance to said character doesn't bear that out; rather, it's Sybil (and later Ava) that fulfills that function, making this far more of a sequel story than a retelling. Adrian's a little harder to peg, but he seems to be following a popular trend in modernizations of the story; like Ethan in the Stuart romance, he's a combination of those traits that are most attractive in both Raoul and Erik. He has Erik's angsty past, his dark and troubled allure, and his sexual magnetism, while he also has Raoul's riches, social position, and unswerving dedication to Rielle's rescue. The Phantom has basically been split into two characters here, as in the 1974 de Palma/Finley film; but unlike the nuanced characters in that movie, all of the Phantom's positive characteristics are handed off to Adrian so that the reader can view Adrian as the hero and the Phantom as the villain without any confusion or mixed feelings.
 
There are a lot of Romani folks running around the moors, by the way, for reasons which are unclear to me. They figure prominently in the "heathen legends" portions of the book, but disappear while the rest of the cast make disparaging comments about them the rest of the time. How nice to see that that the modern context of the book hasn't made Ryan feel the need to treat the Romani people with anything other than extreme stereotyping, or forced her to consider any pesky research into a foreign culture.
 
Every chapter in this festival of misery attempts to end on a cliffhanger, trying to keep the story suspenseful and intriguing (it doesn't succeed much). This chapter's cliffhanger involves the housekeeper stalking murderously around with a big fucking medieval mace. What is this, The Rocky Horror Show?


Chapter 6:


Despite the fact that there is a dangerous woman with a mace bearing down on their poorly-conceived hiding place, Adrian manages to be sidetracked by how pretty Rielle smells, or something, as he holds her against the wall. This is not the time to be poking her with your erection, Adrian. There is a woman whom you believe is going to kill you with a mace breathing directly down your necks. How can you possibly be distracted by Rielle's physical charms under these circumstances? Most men I know consider possible IMMINENT DEATH to be a deflater.
 
Needless to say, nobody dies because the housekeeper puts the mace away in a display case and wanders back off, and the whole thing was just a cheap ploy to try to get the reader to the edge of his or her seat. This can be funny when done right; it is not funny here. It is even less funny the next TEN TIMES Ryan does it at the end of her chapters. A master of dramatic redirection she is not.
 
We get another short foray into the Phantom's perspective, and again I wished he were the one we were following instead of the insipid little failures of characterization that make up the rest of the cast. I can't help feeling that Ryan could do better writing straight up thrillers than romantic-suspense novels; yeah, I think she isn't really great at a lot of the suspense she tries to pull off, but the parts where she was describing and implying the Phantom's mental state and motivations had the best imagery and the most interesting turns of phrase out of the entire novel. He's hanging out in the walls, eavesdropping like a good Phantom, and of course it becomes clear that he's one of the people at the mansion in disguise, though of course we're not allowed to know who until the end.
 
There's a wee bit of credibility in research when Ryan mentions the glaistig on page 75, a vampiric Scottish faerie upon which Odessa is apparently based. It's nice to see a mostly accurate legend in this, but like pretty much every other reference in the text, it's a smoke screen to avoid having to do too much explaining herself. I was unimpressed. And, by the way, why are the Romani side characters all about this Celtic legend, anyway? Is there some reason they aren't more concerned with their own cultural legends? The answer is of course that these are just multi-purpose, pan-occult mystics with the all-important power of Enabling the Author's Laziness, rather than having any connection to real peoples or cultures, which is itself a shitty and time-honored stereotype too often applied to the Romani as a whole.

 

Rielle overhears some of their legends and apparently thinks this is something to worry about because it might come true, despite the fact that I thought this was modern-day and who worries about that shit, right? Once again, WHAT TIME PERIOD IS IT?
 
I didn't break down the next sixteen chapters. Why? Because they are all exactly the fucking same until the very end and I just didn't have it in me. Discover some meaningless shit, angst over past, angst over lust, poke at things that shouldn't be poked, run in panic at something that appears to be life-threatening but turns out to be nothing at the beginning of the next chapter, throw in a racial slur, rinse, repeat. I was so bored. I was SO BORED. Blah blah blah, festival and legend, blah blah blah everybody eavesdropping on everybody else, blah blah blah theatre people are snakes, etc. Rielle has a large collection of Gothic novels and is spunky yet charming. Adrian is smolderingly sexy, according to Rielle, though I am still unsure what, exactly, he looks like from the skimpy descriptions. We finally catch up to the prologue (aha, remember? Flashback!) at chapter 20. I note that there are only two chapters to go and have some more wine in celebration (and also because I have two more chapters to go).
 
Turns out that Lynch is the Phantom, which Rielle keeps whining that she should have known all along (fact: she is right, and it is not a good look). What we don't see coming, and again one of the most interesting twists in the book (always related to the Phantom, apparently), is that Ava is pulling his strings; as a rising actress herself, she's directing him toward the actresses that might be competition for her and using him to kill them. It's a very cool switch of the balance of power; where Leroux's Phantom was getting rid of performers on Christine's behalf, it was because he demanded that his wishes be honored and that his protégé be allowed to perform, whereas here it is the "protégé" that is using him to clear the way for her performing ambitions. Ava accomplishes this by whispering in the Phantom's ear; the poor guy believes that she's a disembodied voice in his head, some kind of spirit or angel (oh, look - another switch from the original!).

 

Cool as the idea is, and much as I really enjoy it, Ryan gets lazy as fuck in the execution once again. Ava just shrugs when explaining it and says that the Phantom only listens to her, isn't that odd? Yeah... yeah, it is, assbag, because there's absolutely no goddamn reason for him to do so. I hate this.
 
And then Ava accidentally kills herself and the Phantom gets shipped off to a mental institution and Adrian and Rielle make out because apparently the overwhelming horrors did not affect them. The end. Thank God.
 
If this book were a parody, wouldn't it be AWESOME? Wouldn't the ridiculousness of it all be redeemed by the hilarity? I wanted it to be a parody so very badly, but I never get what I want.
 
It's all supposed to be very Agatha Christie; a house full of strangers who barely know one another, dangerous secrets, an impostor waiting to be uncovered. Unfortunately, where Christie's mysteries are intriguing, layered, and populated by characters we enjoy discovering, this one is coma-inducingly boring, flatly unimaginative, and full of undeveloped people I hated. Abandon all hope, ye who readeth here.

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