The Masked City might be my favourite book of the bunch so far. It mostly features Irene, on her own, doing her thing. The motivations aren’t all about world-ending disaster or terrifying eldritch horrors, and at root it’s all about friendship and going to any lengths necessary for someone. Almost at the start, Kai is kidnapped by Fae and taken to a high chaos world that is inimical to his very nature, to be sold to the highest bidder. It will lead to a war between the Fae and Dragons, and it probably won’t end well for Kai, so Irene plunges in to save him.
It is a little annoying that every book relies more or less heavily on the repeated plot motif of Irene being cut off from the Library. In the first book, she’s chaos-infested; in this book, she’s too deep into chaos to reach the Library… It makes sense that she can’t always be popping back and forth to research things, but I feel frustrated by how little of the Library we see.
Nonetheless, this instalment has some very fun things, including the world-building about the natures of the Fae. Maybe it’s partly a fondness for the aesthetics of Venice that prompt my love of this particular book; Irene moves in a fantasy-Venice, in which the water doesn’t smell and there’s always a gondola going where you want to go. It’s deliberately charming, the very best of Venice; painted scenery against which the lives of the Fae (and this story) are hung. It really works as imagery and as a theme because Venice is treated like that in the real world, too.
There is a bit, I think in this book, where Vale tests Irene’s motivations a little, and that’s a really good scene (though sort of inconclusive), because Irene and all the Librarians feel a little shallow. They could do all sorts of good in the worlds, they have immense power to affect reality… and yet they’re only interested in books? I can understand a love of literature, but the Library feels hollow when you think about its alleged purpose: just to collect books. That’s it. Collect and preserve books. Not just unique knowledge — much of it isn’t applicable between worlds anyway — but obscure variants and unique copies of books that exist already in other worlds. It all feels a bit thin, and I worry at times that there isn’t anything behind that apparent central mission.
So yes, overall, probably my favourite, and probably the book that really made me enthusiastic about the series, too.