A daring debut novel, Mask of Shadows is definitely on the top of my favorite 2017 fantasy releases. Breaking bounds in LGBTQ+ representation in YA literature and mixing it into a fantasy world, Linsey Miller’s novel mixes action, adventure, and magic into one stunning debut.
Please note that if you are unfamiliar with how to refer to a gender neutral person, check out this link on Gender Pronouns by the LGBT Resource Center. For this review, we will be using they/them/their for Sal per Linsey Miller’s request below.
“There are new ARCs out, so bringing this back. Sal explains it in text, but please use they/them pronouns for Sal in reviews & discussions.”
Gender-fluid Sal has been living their life as a thief under the overbearing Grell. Sal is an orphan as their family and most of the people of their country, Nacea, were killed by the shadows. They have a thirst for vengeance as the Erland people in the north retracted their soldiers from Nacea in order to save themselves from the shadows, which in turn demolished Nacea.
Now, the shadows are gone and Sal is taking their chance at doing something besides thieving for Grell. Living under the Queen who has united they try out to be one of the Queen’s Left Hands who are her personal assassins. There is Ruby, Amethyst, Opal, and Emerald, one for each gemstone ring the Queen wears. Opal has died, and there’s now a competition for the empty place.
Sal is ready to get out of Grell’s hold and get some revenge on the Erlands who killed their people. The competition is to the death, and Sal will have to face deadly opponents if they want to be Opal.
Read the official summary here:
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.
Can I just say WOW because doesn’t the summary sound so exciting? And the story really is.
One of the first things I’d like to go over is Sal’s gender fluidity. Some days they want to be a he, while others they’ll want to be a she. Depending on the gender Sal chooses, they’ll dress accordingly. The entire concept is explained well, especially for readers unfamiliar with the use of gender neutral pronouns, etc.
I know some people have criticized the lack of conflict pertaining to Sal’s gender fluidity, but do we really have to make such a big deal out of this? Isn’t it better to send a message that says “Yeah, gender fluidity should be accepted. Look at how cool all the characters in Mask of Shadows are acting–this is what life should be like”?
And it’s not true that there’s a lack of conflict. Five repeatedly messes up Sal’s gender and doesn’t bother to correct himself, and Sal reacts. The acceptance of Sal’s gender fluidity is not perfect in Miller’s fantasy world, but it’s definitely improved.
The way Miller addresses their gender fluidity is subtle and poignant as this is what our society should aspire to be. We should be accepting of those of LGBTQ+ nature. It shouldn’t be something to overreact about.
The gender fluidity in Mask of Shadows isn’t the focus of the novel, and sometimes I feel like people forget that. It’s definitely a plus diversity-wise, but this isn’t a contemporary novel about finding yourself and learning about the big message in life. It’s a fantasy with all sorts of action and adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
And speaking of keeping me on the edge of my seat, Mask of Shadows was such an enjoyable read that I absolutely sped through. The pacing was smooth and there weren’t any moments that the narrative lulled since, remember, you’re in a fight to the death.
It’s fast paced, action-filled, and this definitely makes Mask of Shadows an enjoyable read.
The plot isn’t very twisty, and you know who the winner has to be if there’s going to be a second book. Nevertheless, Miller still throws a few twists in near the end, all of which are justified.
I’ve also read that people think this is a Hunger Games knockoff, but I don’t agree. Mask of Shadows is not as dystopian and Sal’s less empathetic. Sal wants revenge & honestly just to get out of Grell’s hold, while Katniss was all about saving her sister and was greatly influenced by her emotions.
The case is much different with Sal who’s a pretty logical character–smart, cunning, and sometimes apathetic. It’s justified that Sal’s this way because if they want to win, they have to be willing to kill other people to do it. They’re an assassin and they should do their job correctly, even if it is a job of an unsavory nature.
Despite the less emotional personality, we can still connect with Sal when looking at their romantic relationships.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but Sal has a very large soft spot of their writing tutor, who’s a pretty, kind of nerdy, dark-skinned Erland girl. They have a very cute dynamic and I can’t wait to see more of how it progresses in the sequel.
On a small side note, the diversity isn’t ever forced or awkward like it is in some books. I almost didn’t catch the tidbit about the tutor being dark-skinned, but I can just imagine how pretty she is, glasses and all. Like with the gender fluidity, it shouldn’t matter what skin color the characters are. They are all people, and that’s what’s important.
All of the people participating in the game are given numbers (Sal is 23), and they never show their faces which are instead covered by a mask. It’s enlightening to see how you can still bond with characters even if you don’t have names. Miller does a good job of picking out what you need to know as she develops the important characters and skims over the unimportant ones.
I think all the characters were developed nicely, and if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t be too expressive either. The other contestants are ready to kill you so you try to keep information about yourself hidden.
I didn’t see anything exceptional in the prose; nothing stood out to me as positive or negative. This is what contributed to the drop by a half star for me because with such a rich and interesting new world, I wanted details. I think the world-building was done nicely in explaining the dynamics of the past years and the strenuous political balance, but I think in explaining the politics of Nacea & the other states, Miller had to X out some of the description.
I still got a good idea of some of the landscape, but I still have many burning questions of what the world looks like. It was still very nice to have the political balance of the world explained instead of leaving the readers in the dark about what happened with Erland and Nacea.
I can’t wait to see more of Sal’s world in the second and final book! All in all, I would recommend Mask of Shadows to anyone who’s looking for a fun, action-packed read. It was always entertaining to read, and I will definitely buy myself a copy (though I’m not sure if I want to wait for a box set to come out 🤔).
You can preorder Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller or buy it in bookstores on August 29th!
Thank you to NetGalley/Sourcebooks FIRE for providing me with a Digital Review Copy of Mask of Shadows in exchange for an honest review!
Are you excited to read Mask of Shadows? What do you think of the summary? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!