Review: MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller
Dark, Young Adult Fantasy, Gender Fluid main character, LGBTQIA+
I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.
Perfect for fantasy fans of Sarah J. Maas and Leigh Bardugo, the first book in this new duology features a compelling gender fluid main character, impressive worldbuilding, and fast-paced action.
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.
I don’t read a lot of YA because it has to be so dark it pretty much isn’t meant for younger kids for me to enjoy it.
This book did not disappoint. It’s upper YA, the main character is in their late teens and they grew up hard, an orphan from a war. They’re a thief who becomes an assassin. PERFECT.
I first asked for the book from Netgalley when I heard through Twitter that it had a gender fluid main character.
Being non-binary and the parent of someone I think is likely to decide they’re enby too, I couldn’t click on the request link fast enough.
The voice in this lifts up off the pages and grabs you from page one. I fell in love with the MC, Sal, by page three and by chapter three the book had hooked me good and hard.
It doesn’t feel like a debut novel. (Though, as an author/editor/publisher, I know most debuts aren’t the author’s first book.)
It felt so amazing to see a gender fluid character being accepted for who they are. Not a lot of fuss or muss about it. I even loved Sal’s prickliness about the issue. It’s perfect.
Content Warning for a misgendering by one of the antagonists.
The story was fast paced enough to keep me flipping pages and I fell more and more under Sal’s spell the entire time I read. Nearing the 3/4 mark I once again bemoaned my inability to draw well enough to capture my ideas because there is a scene between Sal and the love interest Elise that I want to draw soooo badly.
I’ll just have to wait until someone more talented than me does so.
I just loved this book so much. I love it enough that I’m preordering a hardcover copy for my DD, who I have a feeling will be enby when xie figures xyrself out.
Side characters are real and well developed with their own clear motivations and lives. Quirks that bring them to life. The auditions chilled my blood and made me need to know what would happen next.
I will critique it a bit here though because I do feel, from an editorial standpoint, that it could have been deepened better with more physical description of the characters, things like facial expressions, how their bodies are positioned within the rooms. The assassination and battle scenes are fantastic, some of the more passive scenes needed a bit more depth.
I craved more backstory of the world (because I loved it so much). It wasn’t needed but I do like very richly detailed stories and I wanted a bit more detail. Grounding the scenes in the five senses would have made me feel the story more.
I’d also say that adding beats to lead into scene breaks would be helpful. It felt a little jumpy from one place to the next, almost retconned at the end. A chapter detailing what happened from the end of climax chapter to beginning of denouement chapter really would have tied things together very neatly.
The climax felt rushed and little confusing, I had to actually go back and reread it to make it clear in my mind what was happening. That’s where grounding the scenes really could have helped more because I shouldn’t have to go back and reread to keep track of what was going on.
I also really should’ve FELT the sadness of what happened. I didn’t, which made me sad. Gah, reviewing without spoilers is hard.
Leave it at this, something bad happens, and I didn’t feel the bad as much as I should’ve. With what happened, I really should’ve had an aching chest from Sal’s responses, and I didn’t. I wanted more of that.
I had a few issues with the likelihood of the lead in to the next book, as well. It just doesn’t make sense that what happened, could’ve happened in a palace with guards and what not around. It fell a little flat for me. But anyone who knows me, knows I’m incredibly picky and a gifted developmental editor, sooo… it’s just me saying, gods this is so good, but it could have been better IF.
Yes, I drive my husband nuts.
Absolutely none of my critiques ruined the book. I’m still buying one for a gift and I’ll be eagerly looking for the second book in the duology.
Readability: 5/5 I’m a character driven story lover, and Sal is so REAL in this book that I feel like I know them, that they could walk through my door and I could have (very carefully policed) tea with this amazing young assassin. I stayed up past my bedtime until I forced myself to put the book down.
Arcs: 4/5 Here I’m probably being too picky. It is YA and it felt it, but what can I expect from YA? The arcs are solid for the age group. Character and story arcs are very good, romantic arc was sweet and made me go awwww, more than once. But it’s also why I don’t read a lot of YA because I always want MORE. More real, deep, gut wrenching… more visceral description, more sex… Regardless, arcs are extremely solid and well expressed for the age range.
Craft: 4/5: Absolutely excellent leap-off-the-page-and-strangle-you-characterization. Amazing pacing. Needed beats in between scenes, needed a tie it all together chapter between climax and denouement, needed to have the scenes grounded in the five senses. Story is fantastic, page turning, and the gender fluid character is deftly handled. I caught one homonym error and a couple of uses of passive voice that the story would’ve been better served without. Other than that? It’s excellent. (Do keep in mind that ARCs are uncorrected, so the final book you get when released may not have those issues.)
Go and do the pre-order thing already! (It makes a huge difference to the author if you preorder, because then the publisher knows to put more money into marketing and that people want to read that kind of book from this author.) I promise this book is worth it.
You can pre-order from:
Barnes & Noble
You can connect with the author, Linsey Miller via her