Released on August 29th, 2017, Mask of Shadows is Linsey Miller’s debut novel, and the first book in a planned duology. Riddled with action and deceit, Mask of Shadows is sure to draw readers in right from the get-go. Perfect for YA fantasy fans of Sarah J. Maas, Susan Dennard and Leigh Bardugo, Mask of Shadows features a compelling gender fluid main character, impressive worldbuilding, and fast-paced action. I initially received an ARC of this book through Net Galley, and quickly fell in love with Miller’s writing style and irresistibly human characters – now that the finished book has (finally) been released to the world, I knew I had to pick my own copy up and share my thoughts with the world!
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 (Chapters.Indigo.ca).
I initially requested an ARC of Mask of Shadows, and later picked up my own copy of Mask of Shadows because it sounded exactly like my kind of book – riddled with action, deceit and cut-throat characters who are willing to risk it all to succeed at seemingly impossible goals. Then, I was even further intrigued by the promise of a gender-fluid main character – a point which promised to add some much needed diversity to the Young Adult Fantasy genre. I was intrigued to see how Miller would handle Sal’s sexuality within a fantasy setting – would it be accepted, or ridiculed, or somewhere in between? Or, as is sadly often the case, would Sal’s sexuality merely end up being a plot device without meaning to draw in readers with the promise of diversity?
To sum it up, I pretty much loved everything about this book. It was exactly what it promised to be, delivering on the action, the political intrigue and the inclusion of diverse characters. Sallot Leon (Sal) was a consistent main character who stayed true to their morals, and to themselves as an individual – including in regards to they’re sexuality. Sal is openly gender-fluid, and it was refreshing to see this diversity reflected in YA Fantasy – and despite my fears that Sal’s sexuality would end up being a meaningless plot device (as has often been the case in YA of late), Miller executed Sal’s experience as a gender-fluid individual within the created world wonderfully. As Sal puts it, when they dress as a woman, Sal is a she; when they dress as a man, Sal is a he; and when their dress reflects neither gender, Sal should be referred to as they. Sal’s society is reflective of our own society in terms of the acceptance of the LGBTQ2+ community – some people, like the other Hands of the Queen, or Elise, accept Sal and understand their sexuality; others don’t understand Sal’s sexuality, but choose to be tolerant of it; and others, like many of Sal’s competitors, choose to ignore Sal’s sexuality, insisting on referring to Sal as she, or openly shaming Sal for their sexuality. I think this reflection of our own society in a fantasy setting was really important, and very well done – it makes Sal’s experience resonate more truthfully with the reader, and brings some much needed diversity into YA Fantasy.
Furthermore, Mask of Shadows was riddled with tons of action, and yes, even a little bit of romance that is sure to appeal to YA fantasy fans (especially those who enjoy Sarah J. Maas, Susan Dennard and Leigh Bardugo) who find themselves looking for more than just a cut and dry assassins tale. In fact, Mask of Shadows definitely had some major Throne of Glass vibes going on, while still maintaining autonomy as its own story.
One final point – to be honest, I enjoyed most everything in this book, but there was one thing that I felt seriously limited Mask of Shadows – the lack of world-building beyond the competition. While external conflicts, both past and present (such as Sal’s shadows) are mentioned, they aren’t really built upon, and I felt like this limited the scope of the story, because the reader was extremely limited in the understanding and compassion for Sal’s experience, in addition to being left more than a little confused about what, exactly, the over-arching threat/plot is.
Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller’s is a strong, well-rounded debut novel. While Miller fell short of the exploration of world-building, she made up for it in regards to the strength of her character development and in the action-riddled plot that was certainly never dull. Sal, as a character, was really interesting and strong, while also bringing some much needed diversity into the YA Fantasy genre (4/5).
You can find and excerpt from Mask of Shadows here.