Thomas Fawkes is turning to stone, and the only cure to the Stone Plague is to join his father's plot to assassinate the king of England.
Silent wars leave the most carnage.The wars that are never declared but are carried out in dark alleys with masks and hidden knives. Wars where color power alters the natural rhythm of 17th-century London. And when the king calls for peace, no one listens until he finally calls for death.
But what if death finds him first?
Keepers think the Igniters caused the plague. Igniters think the Keepers did it. But all Thomas knows is that the Stone Plague infecting his eye is spreading. And if he doesn't do something soon, he'll be a lifeless statue. So when his Keeper father, Guy Fawkes, invites him to join the Gunpowder Plot--claiming it will put an end to the plague--Thomas is in.
The plan: use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Igniter King.
The problem: Doing so will destroy the family of the girl Thomas loves. But backing out of the plot will send his father and the other plotters to the gallows. To save one, Thomas will lose the other. No matter Thomas's choice, one thing is clear: once the decision is made and the color masks have been put on, there's no turning back.
Nadine Brandes' novel Fawkes puts a fantasy spin on the true story of The Gunpowder Plot, involving an assassination attempt on King James I of England in 1605. Our protagonist is Thomas, the teenage son of Guy Fawkes. The real Guy Fawkes served as explosives specialist during the plot, Thomas is an invention of Brandes' imagination, as is the story of the Stone Plague (obviously, lol).
In 17th century London, a plague has been taking over the city. It works much like any other plague you've read of, as far as the speed in which it spreads, but in this instance victims literally turn to stone, little by little, until the infection reaches the airway, forcing them to suffocate and die. Thomas Fawkes is one of the infected. So far he has lost sight in one of his eyes due to the plague, but in his case it is moving slowly so he has a small window of time to seek a cure.
Thomas hasn't seen his father in thirteen years, but now Guy is expected to make an appearance at Thomas' school to present his son with his color mask, a right of passage of utmost importance in this world. But on the night of the event, Thomas is given word that his father wrote a note refusing to attend. Additionally, Thomas is informed that he is now being expelled from the school; his only chance at saving his social standing relies on finding his father and getting that mask! If he doesn't find his father, he will be considered an orphan and cast out into lower society to fend for himself. So begins a journey across London to track down the whereabouts of legendary soldier Guy Fawkes.
After some time of little food and nights exposed to the elements of chilly London nights, Thomas ends up bumping into his father purely by chance. Their initial meeting after so many years is nearly cut ridiculously short when Guy mistakes Thomas for a pitiful street urchin he wants to run a sword through! But Thomas quickly screams out an introduction and the family reunion we're all here for follows shortly after. Within the hour, Thomas is being brought into the fold of the Gunpowder Plot team. After hearing the details of the plan, the poor kid has a tough choice to make: if he agrees to help Guy in the assassination plot, he potentially finds a cure to the plague that is slowly killing him but he could also likely ruin the bond between himself and the woman he's beginning to fall for. If he declines, the plague will likely kill him and his father will almost certainly face capture and execution.
From a historical fiction aspect, this is not a bad YA novel. The key details are there, the general world building of 17th century London is well-done. I could easily imagine the characters as they traverse city streets, have whispered discussions in pubs or parlors, the descriptions of the masks themselves was vivid, the character bonds and conversations engaging for the most part. Where this novel fell apart a bit was on the magical end. Those elements could've been a little stronger or just better explained. But because that IS such a integral part of the story, it did cause the rest of the plot to be problematic for me. It's hard to root for characters if you, the reader, are not entirely sure what their motivations are, why these things are important, what makes them worth fighting for.
It's not that there's no explanation at all, it's just that man, Brandes makes you WORK for it. This novel is 400+ pages long and it's the chore of the reader to slog through a lot of slow bits to get little nuggets of information regarding this magic system. I finished the book and I'm still not entirely sure I fully grasp what Brandes was going for... and it's not that it's so complex a world, it's that her explanations were messy.
But here's the gist of how I think the magic system is supposed to work:
>> At a certain age, and perhaps someone in a certain social standing, it is expected for a parent to publicly present a color mask to their child. It has to be a biological parent presenting the mask or the magic won't work. This mask, I believe, determines social rankings and natural abilities. Once the mask is presented, it seems to be up to personal choice whether the recipient wears it full time or not, most seem to prefer to keep theirs on as it somehow makes the magic within the mask stronger with prolonged wearing. (It's still a little unclear to me WHO qualifies for a mask --- at the beginning it seemed like it was an upper society thing, since servants are described as maskless, but later in the story we're introduced to a lady selling flowers on the street who has one).
The color system, as far as I can decipher:
* White -- ultimate power, controls all other color abilities
* Brown -- earth / soil
* Yellow -- fire
* Black -- night world (abilities in stealth)
* Green -- herbology / flora (natural healers)
* Blue -- water related
* Grey -- metal or stone?
* Red -- not 100% sure but I think combat skills, maybe?
Any other colors don't really get much of a mention.
>> Then there's the division between the Keepers and the Igniters. Keepers are given the ability to manage one color, while Igniters can simultaneously handle two or more. But Keepers guard the secrets of the White Light, the most powerful of all colors. Igniters (many royals in this story are Igniters) want that power.
Both sides believe the other is responsible for the Stone Plague. Keepers believe blame lies on the Igniters for trying to steal the secrets of the White Light and "breaking the laws of color speech", but Igniters say the plague was brought about because Keepers are hiding the secrets... well, that's what you do with secrets, soooo... LOL
Regardless, Keepers are being executed on a monthly basis, Igniters believing that each death of a Keeper will cure one person of the plague. It becomes so frequent that surviving Keepers begin to see their best chance at survival being in executing the king and getting a Keeper on the throne.
Thomas does agree to help in The Gunpowder Plot, partly out of a tugging sense of loyalty to his father despite their frayed relationship, partly because it might be his one last chance at survival. Not long after agreeing though, he begins to have second thoughts about being an accomplice to murder. Thomas finds he can hear the voice of the White Light in his mind, a voice he is told to ignore if he wishes to remain true to his Keeper heart. The voice is (IMO) not anything all that mystical like one might expect for a fantasy novel, but more that of an annoying middle grader. Still, this voice does serve a purpose in that when Thomas does listen to it, it does bring him closer to his love, Emma. But even there there is a struggle. While Thomas identifies as a Keeper, Emma is often secret about her Igniter heart. They have their arguments, but over time they start to see they want similar things, they're just coming at it from different angles.
Magic mess aside, there are some solid action sequences in this story, would've been nice if there was a little more of that. There's also some good analogy work in the confrontations between Keepers and Igniters, when you apply it to modern day struggles between warring factions -- political, religious, or otherwise.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.