ARC Review: Whitley: Mask of Shadows

title: Mask of Shadows
author: Linsey Miller
pages: 384
format: ARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 5/5 (from hated to loved) or 9/10 (all books I've ever read)

I Needed to Win.
They Needed to Die.

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.

Okay, I need to get something off my chest about the Maas and Bardugo comparisons (because a lot of other reviews have been):

If you liked those authors for the brutality, action, murder, and fantasy setting, read Mask of Shadows. If you liked those authors for the swashbuckling tone, energetic antics, and high-key-high-stakes romance, don’t. And if you didn’t know that’s why you liked those authors, don’t take it out on this book.

I thoroughly loved Mask of Shadows for being a story about brutal murder, complex morality, and gritty tone. For me, this book is what I wish Throne of Glass had been – similar plot but with less romance, grittier hijinks, and actual on-page murder. And—Well, I should stop there, I’ve ranted about ToG elsewhere.

But on that same note, many people are not going to like that Mask of Shadows has a much more subdued tone, or will at least want to know what’s what they’re getting into. This book has a relatively direct plot with lots of action but not necessarily a lot of mystery. The directness, however, leaves room for other aspects to become the draw: the time spent reflecting on morality, the focus on logistics when it comes to murdering and avoiding being murdered, Sal’s inner emotional turmoil. I love those things in general and, in this book, loved that they were given space to become the focus.

Sal especially carried this book for me. I loved their relationship with morals, the competition, the culture, and especially with the Queen. That hero-worshiping-from-afar kind of dynamic is not one I see too often in fiction. Sal’s reactions to the action are refreshingly practical without coming off as wooden or uncaring, and felt very organic to the environment created by this book. They are exactly my kind of grey-morals assassin character, all grit and melancholy but coated in so much vengeful determination that they’ll keep going anyway. God, I fucking love Sal.

The romance between Sal and Elise was very firmly a subplot in this book, without much in the way of high stakes until the end, but it was sweet and slow and perfect. It felt for me as a reader the same way (I think) it felt for Sal; a safe calm port in a storm full of action. A chance to breathe and get a little cuteness to store up against the rampant murder. I want more romance that’s a balm for the ills of the world, not moar angst. (I mean, moar angst is fun, too, but variety is the spice of life and all that.)

There’s only a few things that threw me out of the book. One is that the writing style is weak in descriptions, which, uh, is a bit of a hindrance when your main character’s gender is telegraphed by clothing? 95% of the time it didn’t matter (descriptions nor Sal’s gender at a given moment) but on the occasions that it did matter, the reader is still left wondering because Sal didn’t bother to tell us what they’re wearing that day. The other is that all the competitors are given numbers and masks instead of names, which made telling them apart hard. Only a couple actually stood out, and even then not until near the end.

Overall, I’d still consider this a strong fantasy offering and recommend it heartily. Its’ difference in tone from what’s most popular at the moment might throw people off, but if you think it might be your jam, please try it!

in a sentence

Smooth writing and an interesting premise doesn't save the plot from a heroine who is largely removed from the best part of the conflict.


will i read this author again?  Maybe   
will i continue the series?  I'll wait to see what reviews are like for the second book. Not as an ARC read again, though.

Note: I received this copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

1 comment:

  1. This makes me curious! I wouldn't mind seeing what I think of the tone of the book. I'm not entirely sure if it's something I would be really, really into or something I would get bored of. That makes the idea of reading it more exciting, though, since I don't know what to expect. Great review!