Book Review: Mask of Shadows

pic from NetGalley

Mask of Shadows
By Linsey Miller

My Edition:
ARC e-book, 352 pages
2017, Sourcbooks
ISBN: 9781492647492 (hardcover)
Expected Publication Date: August 29

Ever since her homeland was destroyed and her family brutally killed, gender fluid Sal has been living on the streets as a thief and a fighter – a good one at that. When they hear the new Queen is looking to fill the position of Opal, a skilled assassin in the group of four that makes up her Left Hand, Sal enters the auditions. If Sal can win the auditions and enter the court, it could be their chance at revenge against all those who wronged their people. But to do so they’ll have to fight off twenty-two other competitors and impress the judges while they’re at it.

I was intrigued by the genderfluidity of the main character, but wary of the assassin competition aspect of this YA fantasy. I didn’t hate the book (which we know, is kind of rare for me and YA) but I really wasn’t loving it either.

My first thought after reading is: why was Sal gender fluid? I liked the idea, but the way it was slapped into the story felt like it was an effort to check a box that’s not often (or ever?) checked in YA fantasy. Sal’s gender is reflected outwardly by how they dress. When they meet someone new, they explain that if they’re dressed as a male (I took this to mean pants and a shirt) they’re to be referred to as ‘he’ and when dressed as a female (a dress) ‘she’. If Sal’s outfit was more ambiguous then it was ‘they’ – I didn’t pick up on this last one happening at all, so I’m not sure why it was mentioned.

All of this made sense to me. It also made sense to everyone in the book that Sal explained it to. No one questioned Sal’s motives or asked why they chose to live their life this way or even really insulted their choice (except the one exceptionally douchey competitor, because of course, he was being douchey so we’d hate him) – so my question is, why did this even need to be explained several times? If the world Sal lives in is 100% accepting of their lifestyle, why should Sal ever have to talk about it? Why couldn’t Sal just be referred to as he and she throughout the book without a long-winded clothing-based explanation that felt more for the reader’s benefit? I just wish this had been handled more naturally. I had no problem keeping my mental image of Sal androgynous and shifting genders based on the scene cues and I wish I’d been allowed to do so on my own.

Sal was an interesting character, but no one else really caught my eye. Obviously, most of the other competitors are shallow, as they’re expendable. The final few obviously weren’t going to beat Sal out of the top spot (or it wouldn’t be much of a series, I imagine) so they didn’t really matter either. One of the competitors, Four (they go by numbers), apparently did what he could to look out for Sal, for no apparent reason, and I assume this was to make me care a little more about him, but it didn’t. Why would people competing to be a royal assassin bother to make friends?

The same goes for the nobility whom Sal was dead-set on getting revenge on. Their names were rather similar and there were too many to keep track of and because Sal’s backstory was crammed into large paragraphs of dense, boring, infodumps throughout the book, I didn’t really care about any of them, or take them as a threat.

Sal’s romantic interest felt forced and I honestly don’t think there needed to be romance in this book. That’s not to say Sal can’t have a relationship, I do find that interesting, but amid trying to stay alive, killing other contestants, trying to plan how to exact their revenge and training in the arts of swordplay, archery, poisons and antidotes, healing, etiquette and reading and writing, they found time to fall in love too!? Spare me. Sal met this girl, decided they kind of liked her and then randomly decided (mentally, to themselves) that the girl liked Sal back and suddenly, lo and behold, the girl declared her romantic interest in Sal and added in the fact that while she’s supposed to be interested in men, she’s not only interested in men. Again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these aspects, but the way they were presented was awkward.

I knew the assassin competition plotline wouldn’t be fun for me – I already learned that thanks to Throne of Glass and my feelings towards the idea aren’t any different here. Why would any king or queen hold auditions for an assassin, let alone one that’s open to the general public? It made even less sense in this story (it pains me to say) because the queen specifically invited eight people to compete for the spot – isn’t that enough? And if they all failed to live up to expectations, then comb your list for eight more, or maybe then ask the locals and peasants to try out. But…still. No matter how you cut it, it doesn’t work for me.

Okay, I know it seems like I really didn’t like this book. But that’s not the case! I had issues with the characters and the assassin school, but I liked most of Miller’s writing and I especially loved that Sal actually killed people! What’s that? An assassin that assasses!? Why yes! Within 8% (was reading on my Kindle), Sal had already brutally murdered someone. Finally (I hate to beat a dead horse – no I don’t, I actually love it – but you likely know which book I’m talking about, where the bestest, most scariest and sexiest assassin in all the land never kills anyone)! Sal was certainly fairly badass and while most of the training was boring, they did seem to learn and they had some skills, to begin with. I believe Sal killed about eight people throughout the book and because this is a book about assassins, I felt like it delivered on that standpoint.

Linsey’s website (I dig the graphics)
I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions in this post are my own.

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