Okay, before anyone brings it up in the comments: Joker Joker Joker, danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight, why so serious?
Even amongst the minor factions of the 40K universe the Harlequins are a group which most authors seem to have made a point of never going near. Never mind the fact that writing about the psychic ninja elves is hard enough to do right, writing about a god’s personal attack jesters is a difficult to be written seriously. Especially when so much time and emphasis is placed upon how mysterious they are even to the eldar themselves. The Masque of Vyle however? It manages to shed light upon them but in the right way, emphasising upon their role in judicial events.
Having found a craftworld dead and drifting within the realms of the webway, a troupe of Harlquins investigate the vessel to find it ransacked and corrupt beyond repair. Worse still, others of their race are responsible for this act. Travelling to the outlying realms of Commorragh they begin a plan to draw out the perpetrator by staging a masque for the archons.
The first thing to praise is the style in which it’s written, mostly because it’s one which would not work in any other novella. The book moves into its chosen location with high speed and begins introducing its troupe on the first page, giving little to no time for the reader to really adjust to them. Distancing the characters from the reader and creating a sense of disconnection. This means that no matter how they are presented or what information is given they still feel like an enigma, though thankfully information is given sparingly.
We learn little about the characters themselves, more the roles in which they perform and how it shapes them in terms of personality and performance. The one thing which Path of the Warrior spent so much time trying but largely failing to get right. This allows the book to use them to give information on the Harlequins as a whole in subtle or minute ways. Yes I just used the word subtle in relation to a book with killer elf jesters as the focus. The dark eldar are the same, frequently being used to detail the sadistic, scheming nature of their species Commorragh. Plus just how morally bankrupt they truly are in their desires to attain power.
The reason this works here rather than elsewhere is that the eldar are supposed to be unknowable rather than directly relatable to humans. While this wouldn’t have worked for a full length book, the 125 page novella is just short enough for this to not become an issue. It’s also helped by many of the surreal aspects which come into play with the Harlequins, minor theatrical details or notes about the which change depending upon events taking place. While they might come across as a little cartoonish, the way they’re handled in environmental details comes across as strangely befitting the novel even during their most overt moments.
So for all this you’d think this is a great short story right? Well not exactly.
While the occasional moment of being told something rather than seeing it is forgivable, there’s no denying it’s very flawed at its core; failing spectacularly as a murder mystery. Along with only having three suspects it’s easily predictable who the perpetrator is. Something not helped by the fact the Harlequins are effectively, unintentionally or not, bumping off suspects one at a time. This combined with the lack and without any twists or developments just turns it into a waiting game until they get to the right person. There’s a reason Mrs Marple never went around snapping suspects necks because you know a killing spree will result in the murderer being taken out no matter what happens. The only thing which really keeps the book going after the troupe begin performing is the details of the performances themselves and a new, but very fitting, reveal about the nature of the Solitaires who accompany them.
It’s hard to say how the novel could have been done better given its focus but there’s no doubting that the eventual result is very flawed. While I do definitely recommend picking this one up for the same reason Demon World had its appeal, background insights and fleshing out the universe, it you want a true story you’ll want to look elsewhere.