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.
My short, to-the-point review is that Mask of Shadows was good, but it was trying too hard. Not in reference to the plot and writing, not at all! Linsey Miller cooked up an interesting world, an entertaining plot, and one of the most memorable, ultra immersive romances I’ve read in quite a long time. Unfortunately, what could be one of the most interesting aspects of this book, the gender fluidity of Sal, the, protagonist, is thrown into the mix in a strange way.
Sal’s nonbinary gender is almost nonchalant for a character who grew up in the streets. There’s a strange unreality to a character growing up with such an impoverished, desperate background not having experienced any discrimination for not conforming to a gender expectation, which would lead a reader to ask if the society in which the character lives has a general acceptance for nonconformists. This question isn’t addressed in Mask of Shadows; at least, not in a clear way. In addition to being sort of unscathed by society in regard to gender, Sal is remarkably well-spoken, to the point that Elise, the love interest, remarks upon it. Sal quickly puts Elise in her place, by calling out her assumption that Sal couldn’t be articulate, rather than addressing the unlikeliness of a street kid attaining an education while trying to stay alive and conduct a life of petty crime. I have to take a step back and acknowledge that yes, this is a fantasy world, therefore the society, from bottom to top, can operate any way the author dictates. The issue then is that it’s not clearly dictated. Miller is a good writer, and subtle, but the choices Miller made in choosing not to replicate the way human societies in reality work makes it difficult to relate to as a Eutopian goal. The reader is shown a great deal, but not told a whole lot, and in this one particular aspect it hinders the book. In every other sense, Miller’s style and writing are super.
The romance between Sal and Elise was really enjoyable to read. It’s difficult to really nail down the roiling emotions of a crush but Miller does it perfectly. The romance is also not a terribly huge part of the plot, not the entire focus of the protagonist’s arc. It’s just a nice, delightful little detour in the the otherwise action packed plot.
Very similar to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass, Sal and a number of other hopefuls are competing to be the monarch’s assassin.The competition takes place at a royal estate and there is murder, intrigue, and mayhem. Sal is kind of disappointingly good at everything, having never done much of what she learns before. The other competitors are unfortunately not very likeable nor are they easy to get attached to. Miller does make it feasible that Sal might lose and not become one of The Left Hand, which was believable enough to me to make me want to find out how the plot ends.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the competition plot, books that go light on the fantastical aspect while still incorporating elements of the genre, and strong, non-entirely-masculine characters. Disclosure: I received an ARC of Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller from the publisher via NetGalley.