Mask of Shadows
By Linsey Miller
Summary: “I love every aspect of this amazing book—a gender fluid hero, a deadly contest, and vicious courtly intrigue. Get! Read! Now!” —Tamora Pierce, #1 New York Times bestselling author
I Needed to Win.
They Needed to Die.
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: I received a digital ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Mask of Shadows started very strong and I fully expected to enjoy it. Sal was a confident, if somewhat arrogant, main character who intrigued me with the carriage robbery in which Sal was both sneaky and polite, flirting with the victim of the robbery in a witty banter. I was so excited to get a Celaena-like character in another fantasy who wasn’t afraid to be sassy/bold.
I kind of suck at reading book blurbs and remembering what the book was about, so I completely forgot about/ignored/never noticed that the main character was supposed to be gender fluid so I wasn’t really sure what Sal was when I first began and it took a few pages before Sal mentioned anything at all about gender fluidity, but aside from Sal’s few mentions about it, it wasn’t really talked about.
Side note: I don’t know much about gender fluidity at all, but the book did not help me to become any more knowledgable about it, which is a little disappointing because I usually expect books and fiction to educate the reader about issues if they are big enough issues to discuss. I often read to put myself in the shoes of others and a lot of readers do the same, so I had hoped to walk away from the book feeling a little less confused about it. Instead, Sal dressed sometimes like a girl and sometimes like a boy and preferred the pronoun that fit the dress and that was about the only thing mentioned about it. In fantasy novels, women often dress like men in order to fight/move around/be an assassin and also to be taken seriously. (And since pants weren’t really an option for women in the first place, any woman wearing pants would essentially be wearing men’s clothes.) I don’t really think it worked well to have that be the main and only mention of Sal’s gender fluidity because women who dress like men in fantasy books typically still wished to be addressed as women (and usually just want to wear pants!), so I didn’t really understand why Sal would get irritated when people addressed Sal as a girl when in men’s clothing, nor did I really get to know the other characters and understood what they were wearing in relation during each interaction to help me better understand it all. I get that in today’s society, perhaps those who are gender fluid can and do use their manner of dress in this way, but it doesn’t work as well for me given the setting. I think the whole gender fluid aspect only served to make people who already understand it happy that there was a main character who was and is a great aspect, but didn’t do much to really put anyone else in Sal’s shoes and enlighten them. (I am perfectly happy to look everything I have questions about up myself and did not expect to walk away from the book as an expert on the matter, I just hoped I’d have one or two less questions about it all)..
Truthfully, how Sal dressed or was or felt was a non issue and had no impact on my review or feelings about the novel in a negative way. The reason this review isn’t a stellar one is solely based on the rest of the book. In fact, Sal’s gender fluidity was the best and most unique aspect of the entire book.
Mask of Shadows did not do anything new in the YA fantasy genre aside from the diverse MC. It was the first book of Throne of Glass almost exactly in terms of plot. It was a competition among people to become the Queen’s Assassin with the tests involving training, expertise, and it was up to the contestants to wipe each other out and whoever was left standing would essentially be the winner. The main character also had issues with politics and those politics directly impacted the main character’s childhood and upbringing, so revenge was a big motivator. Sal was also like Celaena because of the romance with someone already at the court/palace and was not related to the game itself, but helped with aspects of training. Other than the gender fluidity of Sal, it felt like a book I’ve already read before.
Unlike Throne of Glass, the rest of the competition remained pretty much faceless strangers. I did not feel like I got to know anyone else at all. There was not a lot of character building or world building, as the competitors donned masks and avoided each other. I had hoped for some alliances to be made so that there was more at stake emotionally for Sal and/or the reader, but they were just faceless numbers falling off and helping Sal get closer to winning.
I kept reading the book hoping for a twist or turn that would make the book seem more exciting/dangerous, but Sal remained fairly unscathed for most of the book and I knew Sal would be chosen as the next Opal and that’s pretty much how the book would end. When the final test came about and Sal had to execute the name on the paper, I had hoped for it to conflict with Elise somehow so that there would at least be some romantic drama, but no.
Other reviews keep saying that Mask of Shadows had great world-building and was so action packed, but I just don’t agree and I kind of feel like I must have been reading a completely different book. The book did have a lot of potential to be amazing, but it fell short in just about every aspect. I needed more world and character building, more high stakes, and less Sal just being good at everything and eye-rolling insta-love. (As much as I loved how unconventional and diverse the whole relationship was, it’s still eye rolling insta-love and could’ve been much better developed).