Series: Mask of Shadows #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29th 2017
Source: Publisher, Netgalley
Genres: Action & Adventure, Diversity, Fantasy, Romance, Young Adult
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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.
Note: The author has content warning posted on her Tumblr, which you can find here. Mask of Shadows contains violence, abuse, PTSD, displacement, misgendering, and self-harm. Please be aware of this before reading!
After searching relentlessly for a fantasy that would capture my attention from beginning to end, I finally found it in Mask of Shadows, an action-packed, diverse fantasy full of intrigue and action. This is an assassin book done really well, with a fast pace that never takes a break. I fell in love with Sal’s characterization and their journey of becoming the next Opal in the court. The politics in the world is rather in-depth as the author explores this newly created nation of Igna and the political machinations behind the formation of the nation. Sal is out to get revenge, and there is nothing to stop them.
The world is written with descriptions that capture a nation recently ravaged by war. The fear of entities called Shadows plague people, and magic is seen as a wary defense. When the countries of Erlend and Alona were at war, before the story began, the small country of Nacea was caught in the crossfire – eventually getting wiped out. Sal is one of the only people from that country who remembers the Shadows and what they can do. Now that Our Queen Ignasi took the throne after wiping out the Shadows, however, Erlend and Alona joined to become Igna and a new era of peace. Or is there? I love how there’s a subtle focus on female power in the hierarchy of this book, and in general. It’s not blatant, but there are many powerful women in the court (and among the assassins) – this detail is pretty significant though, as many fantasies would have just as many males in those positions of power.
Sal’s revenge focuses on the Erlend nobles that let the Shadows destroy Nacea and their family. Sal grew up as a thief, and survival was always the main point of their day-to-day life. When the opportunity arises for Sal to become the next Opal, they don’t hesitate to become an auditioner and kill to claim that spot. Our Queen has a team of elite assassins called the Left Hand with names after jewels – the same ones she wears on her left hand. Not only do these jewels have influence with her, but they are at the top of the social hierarchy, interacting with nobles and merchants. This kind of interaction is exactly what Sal needs to exact their revenge and right the wrongs done to their country.
Sal was gone. That was the point, wasn’t it? I wasn’t tied to anything, no one knew my face, and I’d no friends or family that could be held against me, no allies to betray me. I had inherited ghosts, and I would become one.
I absolutely adored Sal’s characterization. They didn’t start the book as a killer, but to enter the audition of Opal, they had to get used to it quickly. Sal was direct, focused, and extremely quick-witted, all characteristics that made them enjoyable to read about. Although they join the auditions, they are by no means perfect. The audition itself take up the majority of the book as Sal competes against other people – labeled as numbers – to become the Opal. With it also comes training for archery, strength, and even learning how to write and read for Sal. Sal’s gender fluidity was added to the story very naturally. While some misgendering does happen, it’s quickly addressed and corrected by Sal (unless it’s in the form of a veiled insult). I liked how much the author made it a non-issue. Sal is gender fluid, yes, but the book doesn’t wholly revolve around this aspect of their character. It’s just another part of who they are.
‘I dress how I like to be addressed – he, she, or they. It’s simple enough.’
The audition is full of action and deception as Sal strives to stay alive. They make a great partnership with their maid, Maud, even as Maud has her own reasons for making sure Sal wins the audition. It’s a bit reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but instead of survival of the fittest, it’s the survival of the most fit and wit – especially in court. Not only do the auditioners have to fight to the death, they must learn poisons and royal etiquette. Each of the opponents are addressed as numbers, yet Miller still manages to characterize them. Whether it’s the vengeful Five, quiet and purposeful Eleven, or friendly yet deadly Four, I found myself enjoying their personalities – even if I didn’t know their names. I don’t think readers will have a trouble with keeping track of these numbered characters, as the author’s writing makes it easy to follow their actions and dialogue. The quick pace also works nicely, as each event Sal finds themselves in further reinforce certain characterizations of the other auditioners.
There is a lovely and exceptionally light romance that happens in the midst of these killings, with the tutor Sal has for reading and writing. Elise is an Erlend noble – everything that Sal is fighting against. But Sal finds their beliefs challenged as they take in Elise’s compassion, intellect, and empathy. Elise was so sweet and endearing. She knew Sal was a thief because of a past interaction but looks past their upbringing. When she accidentally insults Sal’s past, she immediately apologizes, making her a very empathetic character whose big heart is full of justice. Sal finds themselves enraptured by this Erlend noble, who feels so much compassion, despite their deep prejudice against the Erlends. I loved how this particular relationship developed, and the stolen, flirty interactions that they had.
‘You shouldn’t kiss people who could kill you,’ I whispered, all the blood in my veins singing her name and urging me to kiss her.
Mask of Shadows had me captivated from start to finish, making it one of my favorite fantasies of this summer. Sal’s ruthlessness in the competition and awesome characterization made their first person POV extremely easy to read. Although the blurb says this book is great for fans of Sarah J Maas and Leigh Bardugo, it clearly stands out on its own with its intriguing plot, fantastic characters, and never-ending action that just sucks a reader in. I would love to see more of an exploration of the magic, runes, and Shadow that make up so much of the nation’s young history in the sequel – especially with how important it is to Sal’s past. Fantasy readers should not hesitate to pick this one up (I mean seriously – look at that cover!) if you’re looking for a fun and fulfilling read with plenty of cunning characters that will make you shiver with both excitement and dread. I absolutely can’t wait to see where Sal’s journey takes them next, and with the Left Hand at their side.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Thank you Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the review copy!