by Linsey Miller
Published on August 29, 2017 by Sourcebooks Fire
Genres: Fantasy, LGBTQ+, Young Adult
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 Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen's personal assassins named for the rings she wears -- Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal -- their world changes. They know it's a chance for a new life.
Except 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. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.
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Mask of Shadows was one of those books that I wanted to like. An assassin competition, a gender fluid protagonist, YA fantasy at it’s finest, sounds like the perfect fit. Unfortunately this book was really nothing more than average for me.
Let me start with Sal. Miller’s main character is gender fluid, preferring he/she/they pronouns depending on the situation, which is clearly stated in the story (though not until a little over 10% in). To be honest, I don’t know much about gender fluidity and that alone had me intrigued as to how this character would interact with the world. I think normalizing Sal’s gender fluidity in the text really worked here and the way in which Miller did it made less confusing for me, a reader who isn’t very familiar with it.
My biggest issue with this book came down to, well, everything else. Sal had potential to be an amazing character but fell flat for me. I wasn’t invested in Sal’s story and part of that is because I’ve read it before. Sal could be any of the stereotypical protagonists I pull off my shelves and that made them a forgettable character. Which I think it really unfortunate because I haven’t read about a gender fluid character in YA fantasy more and it seems that despite that, the execution of the character (and story) wasn’t enough to sell me on this book.
Don’t get me wrong, familiar plots aren’t anything new but this one read far too much like a mash-up of Throne of Glass and The Hunger Games. An assassin competition last-person-standing style? I’ve seen it, I’ve read it, I’m no longer interested in it. Not unless it’s done in a way that really stands out and this didn’t.
Maybe I read a different book from everyone else but I was missing the world-building. This book had too much of so parts, not enough of others, and left me feeling like I read a summary of what could be a much longer book. I wanted more depth. The whole beginning part felt very rushed and then when Sal goes to audition to be one of the Queen’s assassin’s, everyone gets a number and suddenly loses whatever made them unique. It might sound odd but I couldn’t really visualize the characters in this book. They were voices and personalities in my head as I read but I couldn’t describe them to you if I wanted to, not clearly at least. I want people, not numbers.
In the end, the info dumping, the descriptions, the things that fantasy is known for (unfortunately) did this book in. I was bored reading it. Nothing kept me moving through except a self-induced obligation to read the book from start to finish for the sake of this review. Mask of Shadows had SO much potential but fell on familiar tropes and left me with a story I’ve read before, but done. . . better, frankly. Yay for gender fluid protagonists but can’t cheer for predictability.