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Edgar Allan Poe would be pleased by Bethany Griffin's wonderfully gothic riff on his classic tale of madness and immortality. Griffin sets Masque of the Red Death in a vaguely Victorian age. A plague called the Weeping Sickness has ravaged the population with the poorer lower city hit hardest. The ruler, Prince Prospero, has fled with other aristocrats to a nearby fortress where they party while unrest festers in the city. Araby Worth lives with her parents in a luxury high-rise in the relatively safer upper city. Araby's father is the scientist who created the face masks that filter the plague for the uninfected. His status has made him a saint in the eyes of the people. Araby's life would seem blessed but for the death of her twin brother, Finn. Araby's survivor guilt has crippled her life and her relationship with her mother, who wasn't living with the family when Finn died. Araby's coping mechanism is to shun her parents and get high at the exclusive Debauchery Club with her best friend and neighbor, April.
The disease is horrible and disfiguring and everywhere. Bodies are carted away daily and the city crumbles with its decimated population. There is no electricity, no animals, no production of any kind except the saving masks. Araby and April, dolled up in flashy colors and glittery makeup, are driven in a steam-powered carriage with armed guards to the club where hedonists gather to live up to the club's name. The denizens of the place are unquestionably without the plague, but are equally without heart. They are grasping and pernicious and uniformly creepy. Araby has taken a vow of basically not living in memory of Finn, so she won't do anything that Finn was not able to. (Somehow the drugs don't count unless twelve-year-old Finn was shooting up.) The only person she isn't afraid of is the bouncer, who tests every entrant's blood for the plague. Will is edgy, but attractive and curiously understated.
The characters are all initially painted soulless and jaded. Griffin evokes the weary hopelessness most people are feeling in the I'd-rather-be-unconscious Araby and the we're-all-going-to-hell-but-we-should-still-look-good April. They're an odd pair to be friends, but in their terrible world nothing really makes sense anymore. The awful people in regular life have become predatory and opportunistic now that social order is disintegrating under the constant pressure for survival. The atmosphere is appropriately shadowy and smoky in a world lit by gas and candles. Everything feels cold and moldy in the city and the mood permeates the story beautifully.
Yeah, so, this isn't exactly a beach read if you want the full effect. The setting is expressively written and the characterization matches; that is, all life has been sucked out of the city and these people. There is precious little to like about them, but the storytelling propels you past the uninviting portrayals until something jolts people out of their misery to question, fight, and hope. For Araby, Will gives her something unpredictable to wonder about, to not be numb about. The story then comes to life with Araby. The gothic transitions closer to horror as she sheds her grief and sees what has become of them all. Just as she starts finding reasons for living again, there are darker events unfolding and she is almost helpless to stop it.
The Weeping Sickness is the reason these people are who they are now, but the characters really make this a book worth reading. Everyone in this book is flawed, but to what extent is a mystery that keeps you unsure of who to trust. The only one who is known completely is Araby since she narrates the story. All the others, from her family to the people on the streets, are wildcards and Griffin will surprise you again and again. No two readers will feel alike about these characters and the choices they have made and the choices they face. Griffin opens the messiness of human nature to expose the many layers that lead to the irrevocable. It's absolutely delicious.