Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29, 2017
Genres: YA, YA Fantasy
Source: eARC via NetGalley, print ARC from Amazon Vine
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.
Diversity Rating: 4 – This Is Our World
Racial-Ethnic: ? (Elise is brown-skinned, there’s a Japan-expy country called Mizuho and some of its people are in the book)
QUILTBAG: 5 (they don’t have the words for any of these identities, but Sal is genderfluid with pronouns depending on Sal’s choice of dress for the day, Elise is either bisexual or pansexual, Ruby skips off with a guy at one point during a party, and there are same-sex relationships all over the place)
Disability: ? (Emerald of the Left Hand is missing an eye)
(The question marks are because my ebook of Mask of Shadows locked up due to graphic overload and I can’t access any of my notes/highlights. The only category I can completely recall is QUILTBAG, but the book is definitely worthy of a 4 rating.)
Since we heard the words “genderfluid assassin” about this book, pretty much the entire bookish community has been excited for Mask of Shadows. It’s hard enough to get genderfluid characters in contemporary YA, let alone, fantasy YA–and if you want to bring quality into the debate as we always should when discussing the representation of marginalized people, it’s probably going to end with someone crying. I’ve got a few small quibbles with the book, but Mask of Shadows is otherwise a solid debut.
Sal’s genderfluidity isn’t dwelled on, so if this book is the one to introduce you to the concept, it’s not going to walk you through things. Sal’s choice of pronouns depend on their choice of outfit for the day: she/her if wearing a dress or otherwise feminine clothing, he/him if wearing pants and a specific style of shirt, and they/them if their outfit is more androgynous.
This approach relies heavily on the gender perceptions we the readers attach to clothing, which doesn’t gel with the internal logic of the world Miller builds. There’s a single character in the novel who misgenders Sal, but everyone else seems perfectly accepting of Sal’s gender identity. With such a lax attitude toward the fluidity of gender, it doesn’t seem like they would attach the same gendered ideas to clothing that our own society does.
Nevertheless, I’m a cis woman typing all this. A genderfluid person who reads the book might be perfectly fine with this representation, but I don’t currently know of any reviews of this book from genderfluid people. If I were still in college, I’d pass my copy along to my genderfluid friend Ten for his opinion. (Ten generally uses he/him pronouns but lets people know when his pronouns change.)
CRUD, I DIDN’T MEAN TO START WITH THE NEGATIVE. Okay, now the good stuff: Sal’s desperation for revenge against the nobles who let his entire country Nacea be wiped out by mages’ shadow creatures. Though some have called Sal bland, they’re determined to see their revenge through as soon as they learn about the auditions to become the queen’s new Opal assassin. Almost as soon as they learn of it, they make the massive leap from being a small-time thief and pickpocket to being a killer by murdering his heavily-wanted-by-the-government boss and using the man’s hand to get into the competition.
And that’s far from Sal’s only kill in the book. They’re willing to do absolutely anything to get at the two nobles most responsible for Nacea’s destruction. Such determination to do anything and cross all moral lines in the name of justice for the dead is my catnip, so Sal will be in my memory for a long time to come.
Though the plot is a bit predictable and the pacing is uneven, the book is just really fun. It seems like I’ve said more negative than positive about Mask of Shadows, but that doesn’t make it bad! The bad just needed more words to explain. The good is easily summed up as “Mask of Shadows is a fun romp with a vengeful, determined main character and queer people everywhere.”
If you loved Throne of Glass but wanted a more diverse cast and an assassin who kills people throughout the competition, Mask of Shadows will give you exactly that and more. Sal is ready to raze the land of the by the end of the book and I’m excited to see them do just that in the second book of this duology.