“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.” (Source: Goodreads)
Last night, I finished reading Linsey Miller’s debut novel, Mask of Shadows. As it is Pride month, I figure a genderfluid main character makes a nice learning experience. Mix that with murder and mayhem, and you’ve got my perfect cocktail. Unless, you’ve already read Battle Royale or The Hunger Games, because it’s essentially the same story (with a much more interesting background). Before I delve into the plot and hash out my thoughts about it, I’d like to take a moment to focus on Sallot Leon, our main character. As a disclaimer, I am going to try my best to stick with them/they pro-nouns throughout this review; however, it is difficult for me to so easily dismiss grammatical rules in my writing. (This is purely grammar related; I have no issues with non-binary gender roles.)
Sal’s gender, in their words, depends on what they are wearing. If they dress like a woman or man, they expect to be called by their respective pronouns. This makes sense; however, I feel it simultaneously reinforces the idea certain clothes are “feminine” and others are “masculine” which seems counterproductive in a book set in a fairly progressive world that blurs the lines between gender roles. In fact, Sal’s genderfluidity simply exists. No questions asked. Well, aside from those unsure what to call them. It seems that Sal is less tolerant of others than others are of them. For example, in some cases, when referred to as the wrong pronoun, Sal becomes irritated and snide. It’s not a pretty look to wear. Other than that, it works. Sal’s fluidity is a key element of their ability to perform as an assassin.
Other characters in Mask of Shadows don’t seem to have much depth. Sure, a vibrant history is teased at for some of them, but most of them feel like nothing more than objects. The feelings that blossom between Sal and Elise feel forced, rather than natural. In contrast to my usual complaint, the romance in this book does not feel complete.
Earlier I mentioned the plot’s striking resemblance to The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. It’s a “fight to the death” scenario to achieve a goal, and thus there’s nothing new. Miller does weave a fantastically beautiful, dark world for her characters though. Erland, Alona, and Nacea, the three lands that later become Ignis, are vastly different. The blight that fell upon them and led up to their union as a single country is fascinating. In fact, I would love to see Miller do a prequel series. I really want to read about the shadows, the mages, and the lengths the Queen went to save her people, beyond what’s hinted at in the book.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Mask of Shadows and may read the second part of the duology. My biggest qualm with this book has more to do with its flow than anything else. There are several times where I re-read passages in order to understand what was happening. For me, this can be a deterrent. Beyond that, Miller definitely has a way with words and I look forward to more of her work in the future. Also, she’s an Arkansan. That makes her pretty kick-ass in my book.
I would like to thank NetGalley, Sourcebooks Fire, and Linsey Miller for the opportunity to read this arc in exchange for an unbiased review.