Monday, June 18, 2012

The Masque of the Red Death – Bethany Griffin

First off, fist pound to Edgar Allan Poe who is the ONLY old school author students universally love. Nathaniel Hawthorne? Nothing but haterade. Mark Twain? Sadly underappreciated. F. Scott Fitzgerald? One big 'meh.' Harper Lee? Love or hate. But Poe? In my 20 years of school librarianhood, I’ve never met a tween or teen who didn’t think Poe was THE MAN. It is a fact that any edition of The Complete Works of Poe will get the most 800s check-out love. God bless you and your dark musings, Mr. Poe.

Bethany Griffin’s The Masque of the Red Death, the first in a series, isn’t so much a rewrite of the Poe short story as a steampunk re-imagining of the back story behind Poe’s tale. In a world decimated by a deadly plague, how do the remaining survivors carry on? Do they live as if nothing is happening outside their windows or weep and wait in a dark corner for sure death? In Griffin’s world as in Poe’s, one’s social status has a little to do with that answer…

Araby Worth is the daughter of the scientist who created special porcelain masks that, if worn, keep away the contagion. Of course, only the rich can actually afford these masks so only the rich are afforded the luxury of stepping over the poor dead bodies in the street on the way to their nightly visits to the Debauchery Club – which is just that, a club with drugs, sex and 1800s-style rock ‘n’ roll. Araby lives locked away with her father and mother in the Akkadian Towers, apartments which rise high above the city further protecting them from the death and disease below, except when Araby goes out with bestie April to The Debauchery Club. Decked out in their expensive, corseted gowns, with their vivid-hued hair and glittery make-up,  April and Araby take full advantage of their time partying with the privileged at the DC as a way to forget the death and chaos lurking outside its club walls.

Things change for Araby one night after a bad drug hit. Will, a maskless but oh-so-hot and tattooed club security guard, takes Araby back to his place to help her recover. There she meets Will’s younger brother and sister and sees first-hand how the other half live. Will’s young sister, Elise, is able to wear a mask since Will saved up money to buy one for her – his brother Henry isn’t so lucky. Araby determines to speak with her father and see if he can secure a mask for her to give to Henry.

Masks are scarce, though, even to Araby and her family since the city’s mad ruler, Prince Prospero (who also happens to be April’s uncle), only allows a certain number to be produced and sold. It’s his sadistic way of lording his power over the citizens and ensuring enough of the poor masses die so he can stay in control. Nice guy. Meanwhile, there’s another whack-a-doodle known as Reverend Malcontent, who is working underground to overthrow Prince Prospero, rid the city of masks and let God sort it all out. You’ll either die or not die, and God will be the ultimate determiner of that, so says the Rev.

Annnnnnd somewhere in the middle of these two crazies is April’s brother, Elliott. Elliott can’t stand his uncle because, duh, PP’s sick and twisted AND he killed April and Elliott’s father in front of them with a knife across daddy's throat. Therapy for the two isn’t available – but revenge is! Elliott sanely reasons if enough masks can be produced, then rich and poor both can be protected, Prospero can be overthrown, and order and life possibly restored to the city. To achieve this, Elliott sets his sights on Araby – afterall, a hook-up with Araby means access to her dad’s information on producing the masks. Clever. Transparent, but clever.

The first half of the book drags a bit as Griffin sets all this up, but once this back story is out of the way, the action really takes flight and the characters come to life. Why do Araby’s parents treat her so coldly? What happens to April when she mysteriously disappears after a night at the DC with some older men? Prince Prospero, Reverend Malcontent and Elliott – who’s the real Big Bad in all this? And what of the love triangle with Araby, Elliott and Will – who truly cares for Araby and will be able to break the porcelain mask she figuratively wears to protect her heart? Just when you think you've got it all sorted, Griffin throws in a plot twist and leaves you guessing again! What's worse, since it's the first in a planned series, don't expect things to wrap up into one nice, big, velvety gothic bow bustle at the end either. The cruelty...
Griffin is currently a middle school teacher who appreciates the importance of pairing current Y.A. literature with the classics. Can’t help but feel in this case, Poe would approve. To learn more about Bethany Griffin and this book, check out her website at http://www.bethanygriffin.com/masque.html .

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