Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Genre: YA Fantasy
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.
Source: ARC from Sourcebooks Fire via NetGalley
Okay, so I admit, the whole reason I wanted to read this book was because it had a genderfluid protagonist. I also don’t mind assassin tales too much, although there are a lot of them in the YA genre these days, but I hoped this one would be original enough to make it seem fresh.
Yeah, no. Sadly. There were things I liked and things I was indifferent about, and although I never outright hated any of it, I’m not sure how long it will actually stick with me, because a lot of it I’ve seen before.
I did, however, really like the idea of the rings on the Queen’s left hand becoming the identities of her personal assassins – Emerald, Opal, Ruby and Amethyst – that was lovely imagery. I also quite liked the history of the country, with the divided lands and the disgruntled nobles and the disappeared magic. I possibly didn’t need it all to be dumped on my head at once, but at least the world has some depth to it.
However, there was a problem with the characters. Other than Sal we don’t get much of an impression of any of them, except for Ruby. The other two Left Hands, Emerald and Amethyst were pretty interchangeable (and should not have been, because both women were supposed to be kickass and amazing!), while most of Sal’s fellow Opal competitors were utterly forgettable – Four and Five stand out, but that’s it from twenty-three. We also have Sal’s plucky maid, who is in this for her own reasons, and the Love Interest, who is winsome one moment and snarky the next. And not a single one of any of them is anything but binary gendered.
Which annoyed me. I mean, yay! A genderfluid protagonist! Representation! But it also felt like a nice gimmicky label to stick onto both the book and the character to make Sal just that little bit more different and special from the rest of the genre. The lack of any other obvious non-binary representation made it seem really random when Ruby asks Sal how they prefer to be addressed – at which point they say they use dress to indicate their preferred pronoun, although that doesn’t explain about days when Sal wishes to be addressed as they. The misgendering issue only arises on a couple of occasions, usually with a character Sal dislikes, so it didn’t feel particularly well handled to me. Either it’s a regularly accepted part of society, in which case it isn’t an issue, or it’s not and could have been explored a little better. But only because the marketing made it such a massive selling point for the book. If you raise expectations, you’d better try to meet them, or you’ll get a lot of disappointed readers.
Which leads me to the training. Twenty-three wannabe Opals turn up on day one, they’re told to kill as many of their fellow competitors as possible without getting caught, and are also thrown into training. Strength training, sword training, archery… for like a week. What is the point of that? Then comes poison and etiquette training, which lasts barely a few days, and tick, you’re all good to go. Nope and nope. To be fair, Sal doesn’t claim to be an expert in any of it, but clearly they have enough to get by. Which was… unsatisfying. Like the reading and writing lessons, which they’re an instant pro at. Why bother? (In order to keep meeting the Love Interest, of course!)
I also wish Sal had more of a personality beyond the tragic past, hatred of magic and nobles and a burning desire for revenge. There really isn’t anything else. At the beginning there are glimmers of hope in the way Sal robs the carriage and looks after their fellow thief, but then comes the invitation and suddenly we’re all about killing and fighting and not sleeping because of nightmares. I never felt any real connection to Sal, and probably wouldn’t have been too upset if they hadn’t made it to the end. Death becomes too easy and Sal is a bit of a psychopath. I didn’t feel remotely moved by the death of anyone, and usually I’ll cry at the drop of an adequately plot-described hat.
So, eh, I’m torn. I found it an easy enough read and I didn’t hate any of it, but beyond the Left Hand idea, I didn’t really love any of it either. It’s enjoyable, up to a point, but it’s also pretty forgettable (seriously, at one point Sal has to recount how many people they have personally killed, and I was confused about some of them because I had forgotten about them completely) in a market already flooded with assassin books.
Basically, tl;dr: YMMV.
Which isn’t helpful, I know, but I’m disappointed and can’t come up with anything better.
Mask of Shadows is Out Now.
Visit Linsey Miller for more details.