Title: Always Masked
Author: Megan Derr
Length: 12,500 words
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: m/m fantasy paranormal romance
Once a highly regarded member of the Moon Clan, one of the secretive, notorious Masked, Naoki was afflicted by a terrible, incurable curse in the line of duty. Now, for the safety of the clan and all they protect, he spends his days exiled to a remote mountain region, far from the islands he once called home.
His misery is briefly lifted when he chances upon a man being attacked by bandits—a man who proves to be far more than he appears, who needs the unique skills Naoki can provide, and can offer far more than Naoki ever dared hope he could find.
I’ve developed rather a fondness for Megan Derr’s stories recently, being rather late to the party in terms of her books. This means that I’m trying to work through her backlist as well as keep up with each new release (of which there seems to be about one or more a month). This story is new, but is from a series which started with Behind The Mask. I’ve not read that first book (yet) but I found that this one worked fine as a standalone.
We begin with a lonely vampire, Naoki, who was once part of a clan of semi-magical men and women who are famed for their skills in protecting others. They wear a charmed mask at all times and this aids them in their endeavours. When Naoki contracted the ‘blood curse’ on a mission, his clan banished him and now he travels alone, rejected and despised for what he is. Whilst on the road he rescues a man from bandits and the two find common ground.
There was much to like about this story. Firstly I liked the setting and the way that the background and world building was interwoven with the story. The setting has some elements of Japanese culture which gave an anchor for building on the paranormal aspects of the story. We are fed information about Naoki’s clan, his background and the different myths surrounding ‘The Masked’. We learn the importance of Naoki’s mask and how it sets him apart. We also learn much about Gosse. Every so often a little snippet of information is passed to the reader, so that by the end I felt comfortable with the setting and felt that the two main characters were fleshed out.
Another aspect which worked well for me was the way the romance between Gosse and Naoki develops. They are both wounded and lonely souls and I enjoyed seeing how they healed each other. The romance moves quickly but I still managed to believe the feelings they have for each other. I liked how the romance showed off Naoki’s duel personality. He’s both a killer and a lover; ruthless yet also vulnerable, and the way this is shown through the use of the mask was cleverly done.
Any niggles I had with the story stem from a slight frustration with the ending. I wasn’t sure I liked how things were resolved for Naoki and the clan. It seemed a little too convenient and struck a false note with me. In some way I would have preferred that part of the story to remain unresolved, although I can see how some readers will like the resolution for Naoki.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this story. So much so that I intend reading Behind the Mask as soon as possible so as to get more from the world this author has created. If you like fantasy paranormals and especially vampires, then I recommend this story to you.