Book Talk: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Talk: Mask of Shadows by Linsey MillerMask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
Series: Mask of Shadows #1
Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29, 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Romance
Pages: 352
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
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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.

Mask of Shadows feels like the midway point between Throne of Glass and Nevernight. The former’s about a competition to be a royal assassin, as is Mask of Shadows. The latter takes place in a school that trains assassins, and Mask of Shadows does that too. Indeed, in terms of darkness and murderiness (that’s a word, okay), Miller’s debut fits right there in the middle. That said, Miller’s debut novel and series opener doesn’t feel like a rehash of things I’ve seen before; there’s enough originality in character and world building to set this novel apart.

From the opening scenes, I was intrigued by Mask of Shadows. Sal works as part of a gang, robbing from the wealthy to earn enough to keep the boss from chopping fingers off. The opening scene, where Sal robs a wealthy lady but also flirts with her, establishes Sal as daring, morally gray at best, clever, and empathetic. In that one scene, I’m rooting for Sal, despite the whole robbery thing. I was also, however, side-eyeing the romance, which I would continue to do for the duration, though, admittedly, I still haven’t decided yet whether I’m into the ship or not so there is hope. I want to like this romance, but I’m still not totally sure what brings these two together, aside from the physical attraction and frisson of forbiddenness.

Sal, though, I’m definitely into. I will defend YA to my dying breath, but one weakness it can sometimes have is a lack of bloodiness. There’s probably a reason Kristoff’s novels, despite having YA-age characters, tend to land at adult imprints. Adult fantasy, overall, tends to go darker, because there’s a constant debate about what level of graphic violence, sex, etc is okay for younger readers. One thing I love about having read YA since 2007 and blogged about it since 2010 is seeing it become more daring and diverse every single year. Sal in no way comes off as heartless or a villain, but Sal’s definitively an antihero.

There’s this great realistic balance to Sal’s personality. Driven by revenge, Sal walks this powerful emotional arc of making friends and learning to trust, and you’re totally expecting there to be this lesson about revenge not being worth it. But that’s not really this book. Certainly opening up and learning who to trust is a big emotional thing for Sal, but so is revenge. There’s also this serious war in dealing with the fact that even our heroes aren’t perfect and what to do about that fact. This all works really, really well, and the complexities of Sal’s character make this book stand out and feel very distinct from any of the other YA assassin novels I’ve read (which is quite a few).

The plot of this novel does largely feel quite predictable. The large plot beats I saw coming from the very beginning or figured out long before they were revealed, with one notable exception. However, for all that, Mask of Shadows remained engaging and exciting. I scarcely wanted to put it down. Even though I knew what would happen on a large scale, the small beats were unknowns. HOW would things shake out? How would Sal change as a result? The plot’s fast-paced and full of adventure, without resorting to constant cliffhangers.

The endings of books are, no shit, very important, but especially the endings of series books. They need to make readers want to come back for book two. I’ve read any number of first books, really liked them, but then never felt motivated to make it back for book two. There needs to be that element of curiosity that makes me remember the book and want to find out what happens next, that makes it worth rereading book one if I need to before starting the second. Mask of Shadows very much had that quality for me. Again, it’s not what happened, but HOW it happened. The moment that really clinched it for me was View Spoiler »

Miller’s debut fantasy novel Mask of Shadows does a brilliant job kicking off a new series and establishing her as an author to watch. I’d like to see more character development in the cast around Sal and some big surprises added to the plot, but the MC’s voice, the pacing, and the darkness are already right where I want them. Though the darkness can always be cranked another notch. 😉

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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