Mask of Shadows, an action packed fantasy debut by Linsey Miller, sets a new standard for the LGBTQ+ community by introducing a gender fluid main character. Sallot Leon has been forced into a life of thievery following the destruction of Nacea. Without a family, Sal grudgingly became a shadow, merely following the orders of a wanted street thug named Grell, in order to survive. During a mission in which Sal robs a beautiful young noble woman, a new opportunity appears in the form of an open audition to be a member of the Queen’s Left Hand, an elite group of assassins. While Sal has never killed before, the opportunity is too good to pass up, as if offers a better life, as well as a chance at revenge. When the auditions prove to be incredibly dangerous, Sal develops a steel resolve, learns new tricks, and uncovers a few mysterious secrets as deadly events unfold.
This is an ARC review of Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows, which releases August 29, 2017.
*Special thanks to Sourcebooks Fire for allowing us to review ahead of publication.
This review contains some spoilers and quotes from the book.
A few months ago, I was excited to gain access to a DRC of Mask of Shadows for two reasons. Besides the idea of a gender fluid character, I have been searching for a better version of The Hunger Games for a few years now. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I was not a huge fan of Suzanne Collins‘ series. While the ideas where there, the execution was not, and after the first novel in the series, I lost interest, as I thought Collins took things too far. While I was not expecting Mask of Shadows to be The Hunger Games, it certainly shares a few similarities that fans of the series will enjoy.
The premise of Mask of Shadows is a competition in which “auditioners” fight to the death in a battle to become a new member of the Queen’s group of assassins. Although the auditions are open, those who wish to participate in the competition must provide proof of their skill or an “invitation” in order to participate in the anything goes battle of skill, stealth, and wit, on the condition that they do not harm anyone other than their fellow competitors. Upon being chosen by members of the current guard, each competitor dawns a mask with nothing but a number on it, ranging from 1-23. Based on their skill (or lack thereof) the auditioners are subject to training during the day from rigorous exercise regimes, sword fighting and archery practice, to healing and poisons, as well as everything in-between that might be deemed necessary for survival as one of the Queen’s elite group of fighters.
Outside of the competition and varied, yet increasingly intense training sessions, Mask of Shadows is very different from other novels in the battle royale, fantasy genre. Instead of being a forced fight to the death, the competition is optional. And, instead of a single task (kill one another), auditioners are given a few other tasks, including a foot race, a dangerous dinner with the members of the Left Hand, and a stealth task designed to hone their skills as an assassin. Furthermore, although the battle is on during the day (even during training lessons), throughout the competition, the auditioners are given down time where fights are forbidden.
While the world and character building could be improved upon, the competition itself and the idea of a powerful group of assassins under the control of the Queen were wonderfully fresh. I was drawn to the idea of masked assassins, each named for a ring worn on the Queen’s finger: Ruby, Amethyst, Emerald and Opal. The initial idea was enhanced through the use of colored masks to denote their rank and role. When paired alongside the gender fluid Sal, the use of masks as a whole really reinforces the idea of a fluid gender identity. For the Queen’s Left Hand, gender doesn’t matter. By putting a mask on each of the members of the guard, as well as the combatants, Miller makes a strong argument not only about the acceptance a fluid gender, but about gender equality as well. A person’s sex or gender identity doesn’t matter in the least where the Queen’s guard is concerned. Instead, the position is determined based off of ability alone.
Sal in particular, makes a stand for the idea of a fluid gender identity. Through Sal’s character, it becomes clear that gender doesn’t matter. Sal represents all of the frustrations with gender identity, as well. While many accept Sal as a person, it is clear, through speech, that the idea of a fluid gender has its fair share of problems where acceptance is concerned.
I dress how I like to be addressed – he, she, or they.
“And you can call me ‘she’ when I dress like this. I dress how I am” Which was fine by me. I wore a dress, and people treated me like a girl. I wore trousers and one of those floppy-collared men’s shirts, and they treated me like a boy. “And if you dress like neither?” Emerald asked. “They,” I said.
“Address me however I look.” I was both. I was neither. I was everything, but that wasn’t exactly a friendly conversation between strangers trying to kill each other.
– excerpt from Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows
While I loved the idea of Sal, it was so hard to picture a physical character due to a lack of description. While the words “he”, “she”, and “they” are used to describe Sal along with descriptions of clothing, where Sal was concerned the descriptions felt vague. I also found it incredibly hard to relate to Sal. Not because of the gender fluid identity, but because I found it hard to believe that Sal would have the ability to go from a thief, to a trained assassin in such a short period of time. Surely revenge can drive a character to preform outstanding feats and develop new skills, but Sal makes regular comments about how the act of killing is repulsive in itself.
Although I found it difficult to connect, envision, and, at times, believe in Sal’s abilities due to vague details surrounding the character, I enjoyed the amount of detail given to the Left Hand (Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst), as well as Sal’s tutor, the beautiful and educated noble, Elise. Miller introduces Elise as a coincidental acquaintance – early on in the story, Sal robs her, but finds that it is difficult to forget her. When Sal, who spent a childhood on the streets, is given lessons on how to read and write, Elise is a willing tutor. As the events of the novel unfold, Elise transforms from a pretty noble girl, to a daring love interest, and the detail given to her character is beautiful.
Smudges of charcoal darkened her delicate hands, wisps of curls at the base of her neck escaped from gold pins with every twist of her neck, and her pulse fluttered beneath the blue lace collar of her dress. She was clever, and so caught up in actually trying to teach me, that she didn’t notice she’d scrawled lines along her cheeks as well as the parchment when she brushed back her hair. She was nothing like any Erlend noble I’d ever met.
Her hair was bound today, braided tight and coiling down her back. Silver pins cluttered her dark hair like stars, and her long purple tunic glittered with silver thread. A constellation incarnate.
– excerpt from Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows
Along with descriptions of Elise, Miller offered close attention to detail where lessons where concerned as well. From physical routines meant to strengthen combatants, to basic sword fighting and archery lessons, Mask of Shadows is full of detail. If you are the type of reader who appreciates the little things and is interested in the everyday lives of characters, Mask of Shadows is definitely for you. While scouring Goodreads before deciding to request the ARC, I noticed that many people disliked this level of detail, but I found that it helped to create a setting and mood that fit the environment of competition. When paired with the brief touches at romance, and small intimate moments between Sal and Elise, I found Mask of Shadows to be quite an enjoyable read.
Aside from the rather vague descriptions given to Sal, I felt as though it was difficult to envision the world itself. While Miller does include a brief historical timeline at the end of the novel, which was incredibly helpful, I would have loved to see more detail about places, people and history. While I could clearly envision the rooms in which the auditioners were held during their downtime, I couldn’t picture the world itself.
Mask of Shadows ultimately feels YA in tone. In itself, that is not a bad thing, but I did not enjoy the style going in. Miller’s sentences were too short for my tastes. I love description, so her clipped sentences and abundant use of contractions threw me off. At times, the sentence structure was jarring and felt too forced for my tastes. As the novel progressed, however, I grew accustomed to Miller’s style and found myself enjoying the more intimate moments and hidden secrets that color its pages, as they were both descriptive and beautiful.
All in all, Linsey Miller’s debut novel is a unique pick that will please fans of The Hunger Games who are searching for new reads. Not only does it touch on, and introduce, an incredibly powerful and inspirational protagonist in the gender fluid, Sal, but it offers enough action that readers will remain thoroughly entertained along the way. I will definitely be looking out for a sequel, as I can’t imagine where Sal’s journey will take us next.