Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Series: #1 in a duology
Genre: YA, fantasy, LGBTQIAP+
Format: eARC from Sourcebooks Fire via Netgalley
Release Date: August 29th, 2017
Rating: 🌟🌟🌟 + 1/2
Synopsis: Perfect for fantasy fans of Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo, the first book in this new duology features a compelling gender fluid main character, impressive worldbuilding, and fast-paced action.
Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class―and the nobles who destroyed their home.
When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand―the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears―Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.
But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.
Mask of Shadows left me with two impressions: one of a bland, boring novel that I kept trying to push myself through; and the other of a really intriguing YA fantasy with a slightly off-beat story and a unique protagonist. I’m still having trouble reconciling both these feelings into a single rating and coherent review, but overall I really did enjoy this book. There were just a few flaws that stuck out pretty strongly for me.
To start off, this book has some rough pacing. There were times that I flew through the pages and couldn’t tear my eyes away, while others I couldn’t convince myself to pick the book back up. It was inconsistent, and I was left feeling bored for a significant portion of the time. The action scenes themselves are very intense and captivating though, and I really enjoyed seeing how Sal, the main character, managed to get themself out of tricky predicaments. I also feel like it’s important to mention that this book has fairly graphic violence and gore, so I only recommend it for older teenage audiences (15 and above, definitely not anyone below 13).
It took me a long time to get through the beginning portion of Mask of Shadows, mainly because the dialogue and world-building is so confusing. There are way too many euphemisms and metaphors, so it was very difficult to follow certain conversations. While things do clear up a bit as you read, there were still times I couldn’t tell who or what the characters were referring to, or what they even meant. The writing overall is clunky and didn’t impress me in the slightest.
But the thing that takes the cake in terms of my annoyance is by far the romance. It’s generally unnecessary, poorly developed, and WAY too lusty. Sal and Elise basically just want to touch each other the whole time, but not in a “Ahh this is so cute and steamy!!” sort of way, but in a “This is weird and there is too much PDA going on” way. With some more build-up, the romance could’ve been really good. But the characters jump into it super randomly and suddenly, so I just … wasn’t a fan. Elise’s character is also virtually irrelevant and wholly uninteresting; she does nothing for the plot and has a total of two personality traits throughout the entirety of the book.
The side-characters in general needed a LOT more development. Sal is introduced to the reader not really having any friends, and while they do gain one likable confidant that plays a real role in the book (Maud), the whole story felt very detached because our narrator is isolated from the other characters. I think this is probably the main reason I wasn’t totally hooked by this book. Two of the other contestants in the competition to be the Queen’s assassin are mildly intriguing, but overall they didn’t feel that important.
I really did love Sal as a protagonist though! They’re very daring and never afraid to try something risky, even if it gave me a heart attack a few times. I also appreciated how they didn’t shy away from actually killing. I know that sounds strange, but I personally get very tired of seeing heroes neglect to kill off a villain just because it’s the “honorable” thing to leave them alive. Maybe I’m evil or something, but it’s sooo much more satisfying to read about a main character that’s a little gutsy and shameless
no wonder I like Kaz Brekker so much. I’m definitely not saying I condone murder or violence (I’m a decent human I swear) but sometimes a hero’s gotta do what they gotta do! I will say that Sal’s motivations throughout the novel are a little weak though. An explanation of wanting cold-blooded revenge for a war crime that feels very distant to the reader didn’t cut it for me. And things also seemed to go a little too perfectly for Sal; I would’ve liked to see them struggle through just a few more unexpected obstacles.
“They were dead, blood drained and bodies burned, but they were my deaths to carry and mine to remember, no matter how dark their pasts.”
Oh, and of course I loved seeing a gender fluid character as the protagonist! While I can’t and shouldn’t speak for the representation because I’m cisgender, I will provide links below to some ownvoices reviews of Mask of Shadows. If you know of any that I did not list, please send me a link and I will happily add them! We really need more books with positive representation of non-cis characters, especially in fantasy and sci-fi!
“Most everyone else wanted me to pick one, make addressing me easier on them by denying myself. I was already dressing so they could get it right. The least they could do was try. I didn’t see why I had to choose.”
In terms of the fantasy setting, it isn’t anything special, but there are a handful of unique aspects that I really liked. I was very interested by the banned system of magic and runes that the author works in, along with the ultra-creepy Shadows. I think it adds a necessary layer of depth to the plot, as the inter-kingdom politics are entertaining, but not mind-blowing. I also really liked the idea of the Left Hand and its quirky characters, I really hope we get to be more involved with them in the sequel! The overall premise of the competition was a pleasant surprise, I’d seen several reviews comparing it to The Hunger Games (which I can see why), but to me it had a different style to it with a different end goal. So I definitely wouldn’t go into this book expecting anything like Hunger Games!
The ending, to put it in one word, is AWESOME. I didn’t expect the twist that the author threw in at the last second, and the big climactic finale scene had my heart racing! It definitely put me on a course for reading book 2 in the series, which I’m now pretty excited for!
Wow, I didn’t intend for this review to be so long, but I had a lot of thoughts about this book! As it says in the synopsis, I would probably recommend this to fans of SJM or Leigh Bardugo (since many of the themes and core elements are the same), but don’t expect that caliber of work (I mean, we’re talking about Leigh Bardugo after all)!
- Kuzu on Goodreads (genderfluid/transgender reviewer)
- Leah @ Small Queer, Big Opinions (demigirl reviewer)
Have you read Mask of Shadows? Is it on your list of anticipated reads for the year? What are some of your favorite YA fantasies featuring LGBTQIAP+ characters?
Thanks to Sourcebooks Fire and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!