Years ago, an incurable plague wiped out the majority of the city's population, and it continues to destroy lives left and right. The rich protect themselves by wearing porcelain masks at all times, while the poor... well, the poor do what they've always done: they try to survive as best they can.
Seventeen-year-old Araby Worth, daughter of the scientist who created the masks, has never really forgiven herself for her twin brother's death. Her existence is almost entirely comprised of getting tarted up with her friend April, going to the Debauchery Club, getting obliterated, sleeping it off, and starting the cycle again the next day.
Then, she meets two very different handsome young men—one rich, one poor; one a revolutionary, one a survivor; one damaged and dangerous, one warm and hopeful—and her perspective changes forever.
In Masque of the Red Death, Bethany Griffin has created an atmospheric nightmare of a world. It's sumptuous and diseased, opulent and decaying... which is very fitting, as this story was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short story Masque of the Red Death. The descriptions of the clothing and transportation, the vast differences between the classes, and, of course, the steam carriages and the airship all give it a fun steampunk flavor, though it's never quite clear where or when it's set. (My vote is for Florida, because of the swamps and crocodiles, but there are other places in the world where there are swamps and crocodiles which are just as likely.)
While the atmosphere really is wonderfully done—Araby's narration fittingly shares that muffled, deadened quality—and I very much appreciated Griffin's writing, I can't say that Masque of the Red Death was an entirely enjoyable read. (Which isn't necessarily a necessity in a book, of course. But, you know. It's a factor in recommending it to other people.)
I had two main problems. First: Araby herself. She's guilty about her brother's death. She hates herself. She feels that her parents hate her for surviving when Finn died. While she's not teetering on the brink of deliberate suicide at this point, she's certainly got a death wish. It's all in keeping with her character, there's no inconsistency, it's not a matter of poor characterization. I totally get it. The self-loathing, the pain, the tortured feelings, they all make sense and they all feel genuine. However. Just because I Get It doesn't mean that reading 300+ pages of it makes for a good time.
Secondly: Elliott. This is going to get SPOILERY. So, there are the two dudes. There's Will (the nice, poor one) and Elliott (the rich one who's all "YOU CAN'T TRUST ME, NOW LET'S MAKE OUT"). Now, ultimately, Will sells Araby out, but it's to save his younger siblings, so I gave him a minor pass. (Minor pass: I don't hate him, but I still don't think Araby should get involved with him.) Elliott, however, for no particular reason, grabs Araby and dangles her off the side of a boat over crocodile-infested waters. Oh, wait. He did have a reason. He did it to prove to her that she shouldn't trust him. LESSON LEARNED, RIGHT? Wrong. Yeesh. I suspect that at the end of the series, she'll ultimately end up with Will, but this is a case in which I strongly feel that the heroine should kick them both to the curb.
TL;DR: Atmosphere awesome. Writing strong. Heroine not much fun to be around. Romantic interests problematic.
Book source: ILLed through my library.