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.
Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Category: Young Adult
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: August 29th, 2107
Format: Netgalley eARC
Length: 384 pages
Series or Standalone: Untitled Duology?
Themes: Revenge, intrigue
POV: First person
Why I Read It: Saw it on a Goodreads list of 2017 books, liked the description.
Reviewer: Atsiko Ureni
There was a lot to like about this book, based on the blurb. Non-cishet, non-binary main character? Sweet. Crazy assassin battles? Check. Tale of revenge against heartless political monsters? Got it.
Now look at that blurb again. “But gender fluid Sal…” Neither preceded nor followed by any possible related information. And that’s exactly how the gender-fluidity was played in the book. Had basically zero effect on the story or how the character was treated. There were a couple cliche scenes noting that Sal was gender-fluid, and some prejudice. But it was marginal and flattened early. Despite the sparse world-building and Sal’s own comments suggesting that their gender role or lack thereof was not common. There’s a sop made to the idea that perhaps Sal’s old country was a bit more gender-balanced because of their naming conventions. But on the whole there’s only gender politics when it could score the author cheap points with the reader, and it is not well-done. If you click on the Perpetual Pages review, there’s something of an own voices criticism of the gender rep in the book, which was mirrored by my own primarily cis-het opinion, and which also squares with my experience of the way gender-fluidity is treated in our world.
And the presentation of gender fluidity in the book was very odd. “I dress how I feel” but it only really works if we bring in all our context for gender-presentation from our world. There was no real look or even hint of if and how gender presentation in Sal’s world compares with ours.
So already we’ve lost one of the main selling points for the book, which appears to be just that: a selling point and not a particularly good-faith attempt to create representation in the YA MC community. I’m not saying the author didn’t have good intentions. But the outcome was less than stellar.
Sal’s character in general suffers from skin-deep syndrome. Though there are references to her minority heritage, they are almost entirely related to the politics between the nations’ nobility. And the regular citizens never comment at all on issues of race or class or ethnicity. It could be argued this is a good thing. But in the book, it just seemed like lack of characterization and world-building. We hear a lot about political conflict, but it’s all rare air plots between royals. The citizen on the ground never really gets a view of it, and if weren’t for Sal’s convenient placement at the side of the great powers, you might never have noticed. The world-building manages to be both info-dumpy and distressingly minimalist. We don’t learn a lot about the history or culture of Sal’s world, but when it comes up, it drops like the dreaded wall of text in an internet forum argument. We get only the highest-level hints of the world. And it’s boring.
Which leads us to the plot. Which is nothing you haven’t seen before and exactly what it says on the tin. It’s very predictable, and the universe seems to be conspiring to makes Sal’s life as easy as possible. There are lots of, “I know it was you, but I can’t prove it in court” moments, and a lot of the tension was from convenient misunderstandings. We get a huge training montage, but it manages to be simultaneously tedious and shallow. Also, everyone is waaaaaaaay too okay with this whole, murder each other to death and then we give the last one standing a high-paid government job shtick. There were so many ways to keep the same level of tension while not making every single character except the Designated Love Interest both unlikable and reprehensible. And, just imagine Gandolf or Ben Kenobi overseeing this murder-fest, and that’s how the Left Hand characters are played. Half-mentor, half executioner. You could certainly be a government assassin and a nice person or even admirable person. But nobody in this book is, except Sal by authorial fiat.
And speaking of the designated love interest! The idea seems to be that she is bisexual or pansexual, although she mostly just comes across as Sal-sexual. She’s way too perfect. Their meet-cute is far too coincidental. And her role i the climax is honestly one of the most teeth-grinding tension through stupidity moves I’ve ever seen. Why can no fantasy protag ever do the obvious safe thing? Because guess what! Doing the dumb thing has never, and will never, save the stain on your soul. Make the damn tough choice and live with it. You got here through the deaths of dozens of people. But this last deal is just conveniently too emotionally tough for you? No. Despite all the ways this book could have taken to save itself, the climax put fifty-two nails in the coffin on it being either believable or enjoyable. Literally the only reason I can think of to be curious about the sequel is that this book cliff-hangers you soooooo hard. And not even a “we’ve solved the immediate problem, and can take a break” cliffhanger. It’s a fuck-you-too-bad-its-forever-til-the-next-book cliffhanger ending that provides zero resolution. Bad author! Bad!
(I do disagree with many, many reviews about the other candidates being to concealed by their masks and numbers. I found them all identifiable, and even if they had names, the ones who were obviously just bit parts to show candidates dying were never going to be more than their role as redshirts, anyway.)
So yeah, was not a fan of this book. Any book decent enough to get through and agent and an editorial acquisitions board basically ends up with a 50/100 by default. If that tells you anything about what it means that I could only scrounge up five further points for this book. It disappointed me on every single one of the promises in the blurb.
And it’s got a GR rating to support my feelings on this. But enough people gave it good ratings to stay about 2 stars, so there’s an off chance that some readers may really enjoy it. I wish them well.
Conclusion: 55 /100 (Readable but boring and predictable)
Premise: 6 /10 (Standard fare)
Plot: 5 /10 (Lots of idiot ball)
Setting: 5 /10 (Very under-developed)
Main Character: 6 /10 (Nice idea, bad execution)
World-building 5 /10 (Lots of info-dumps, no depth)
Genderfluid Rep 5/10 (Tolerable)
Supporting Characters: 6 /10 (Cliche but competent)
Writing: 7 /10 (Decent prose)
Themes: 6 /10 (Interesting, but poorly-handled)
Resolution: 4 /10 (Gross/lame)
Buy Or Borrow: Borrow unless you really love assassin books in YA
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas