Review: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

Mask of Shadows Book Cover Mask of Shadows
Linsey Miller

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.

I received a free copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Netgalley and Sourcebooks Fire for the review copy!

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’ve procrastinated writing this review. My feelings towards Mask of Shadows are so “meh” that it’s been hard to bring myself to care enough to write down my reaction.

Mask of Shadows’ synopsis makes it sound WAY more exciting than it really is. Thieves! Assassins! Fights to the death! While the book does deliver all of those elements, they fall so far short of their potential that I was severely annoyed. I’ve read enough books that do have amazing thieves, assassins, and fights to the death that I get frustrated when other books promise me the same thing but don’t live up to my expectations.

Below are a few of the problems I had with this book.

1) Sal has no personality: Sal basically has two – and only two – defining qualities: they’re genderfluid, and they’re driven by a thirst for vengeance. That’s it. That’s really all I’ve got to say about them.

2) The book is confusing: Keeping up with all of the characters, nations, and historical events in Mask of Shadows is a struggle. In order to understand where Sal’s desire for revenge comes from, Miller has to unpack the history of a war and the different countries and cultures involved in it. At the beginning of the book Sal info-dumps a ton of details about old battles, magic systems, political views, allegiances, and rivalries. My understanding of who everyone was and what they believed and what they were responsible for was murky at best. It was hard to take it all in, and I kept forgetting key points and players. For a while I tried flipping back and forth through the pages to try to remind myself, but eventually I gave up caring.

3) The competition’s inane: The entire premise of this novel is that a bunch of cutthroat adversaries are competing in a deadly contest to join the queen’s elite group of assassins. I expected something like a tournament, or a battle royale, or at the very last a free-for-all like in The Hunger Games. Nope. Instead, there are optional training sessions wherein the members of the Queen’s Left Hand teach the auditioners skills like poisoning and archery and etiquette. (That’s right. Assassins-in-training are taking freakin’ ettiquette.) And basically the auditioners are just supposed to go along with this and also randomly take opportunities to try to kill each other along the way. Um…okay. Seems kind of lame to me.

Also, why would the Queen’s Left Hand take the time to teach an entire group of auditioners the skills they want the new Opal to have; why not just select someone who’s already got most of those skills? Likewise, why waste resources on arranging a special tutor so that Sal, a single auditioner, can learn to read? Sal could very likely die during the competition – it would make far more sense to wait and see if they survive and win before investing the time to train them.

Something else I didn’t understand about the asinine competition was how far some competitors made it, seemingly without cultivating the desired skills. I’m thinking of Sal in particular. They might’ve been a thief, but they weren’t particularly gifted at sword fighting, feats of strength, or any of the other skills that the Queen’s Left Hand were teaching and evaluating. So how did Sal make it as far as they did? It made no sense.

4) I just wasn’t feeling any of it: Unfortunately, I wasn’t convinced by anything Mask of Shadows tried to tell me. I was supposed to think Sal was cunning and dangerous; I didn’t buy it. I was supposed to find the romance heartfelt and life-changing. Um, not so much. I was supposed to admire the queen and be a little in awe of her. Nope, sorry.

All in all, I’m intensely glad to be done with Mask of Shadows. I’m ready to go out and find a different book with a thief/assassin/competition, one that actually does those subjects justice.

Book Blitz and Giveaway: Charm by J.A. Armitage


About the Book

Charm (A Cinderella reverse fairytale)
J.A. Armitage
(Reverse Fairytales, #1)
Publication date: September 26th 2017
Genres: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Young Adult

You all know the story of Cinderella…
The kingdom needs an heir and Princess Charmaine is quite aware that the job rests solely upon her shoulders. The problem is, she has no intention of ever getting married, let alone pushing a child out of her ladyparts. When her elder sister dies, Charmaine has to take her place at the ball designed to find her a husband. The problem is, she doesn’t want to choose between a hundred eligible bachelors. She just wants to live her life in peace and find love in her own time.
Cynder knows about the impending war between the people of magic and those of his masters, but working as an underpaid servant in the palace kitchens leaves him with little power to do anything about it. On one hand, he’s a staunch supporter of equal rights for his own kind, but he can’t deny the attraction he feels for the daughter of the king and queen he works for.
When the two meet, sparks fly and not just the magical kind…
Charm is the first in the Reverse Fairytale series by USA Today bestselling author J.A.Armitage. Take everything you think you know about fairytales and turn it on its head.

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Picture and quote from Charm by J.A. Armitage

Author Bio

Born in a small town, J.Armitage longed for adventure and travel. Age 20 she moved to Dublin, then to San Diego, then Sydney and back to California where she did a brief stint working at Universal Studios being a minder to Sponge Bob.

Once back in Britain she got married, had babies and decided to write about the adventure she was now missing out on. She works full time, is a mum to three kids and has had a surrogate baby.

She has skydived twice (and survived), climbed Kilimanjaro and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. She has also worked as a professional clown and banana picker amongst other jobs.

Somehow she finds time to write. If you’d like to get her books for free, sign up to her mailing list here.

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Giveaway

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5 Middle Grade Books to Read on National Dog Day

Today is the greatest of all days – National Dog Day! In celebration of man’s (and woman’s) best friend, I thought it would be fitting to highlight five great books that feature beloved canine companions. I loved these stories as a kid and have very fond recollections of reading them over and over again.

My dog Bella reading a book for National Dog Day

My dog Bella wondering why I’m interrupting her book

1. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson: Confession time: I was actually obsessed with the movie adaptation of Old Yeller long before I ever realized there was a book. It also had the distinction of being the first movie to ever make me cry. Although both the book and movie will break your heart, you won’t be able to help loving the titular “ugly yeller dog” for his bravery and loyalty.

2. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls: Of all the books on this list, I’d say Rawls’ best encompasses the friendship and joy that comes from having a dog – or in this case, two. Set in the Ozarks, the story follows a young boy named Billy whose dearest wish is to save enough money to buy two coonhound puppies. He trains them as hunting dogs, and together the trio enjoy many ramblings and adventures.

3. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: The sheer imaginativeness of this book makes it perfect for any fantasy lover. When a young boy named Milo finds a magical tollbooth in his room, he climbs in and is transported to a variety of magical worlds, where he encounters all sorts of whimsical creatures. My favorite of these is Tock, a “watchdog” who has an enormous clock built into his torso and whose job is to police people to make sure they aren’t wasting time.

4. The Howliday Inn by James Howe: Howliday Inn is one of those delightful books that’s written for kids but is equally entertaining to adults. I absolutely loved its humor and clever references, and I was especially fond of Harold, the book’s sheepdog protagonist. When Harold and his feline friend Chester are left at a kennel while their human family’s away on vacation, the duo sets out on an investigation to get to the bottom of strange noises and mysterious disappearances of the kennel’s other inhabitants.

My dog Maya reading a book for National Dog Day

My dog Maya deep in literary thought

5. Henry and Ribsy by Beverly Cleary: My memory of this story’s a little fuzzy, as I haven’t read it in about 20 years; however, I remember having a lot of fun with it. The book is about a boy named Henry who’s trying to prove to his father that he’s well-behaved and responsible enough to be taken along on a big fishing trip. Unfortunately, staying out of trouble isn’t so easy when you’re surrounded by rambunctious neighbor kids and have an adventurous dog, Ribsy, to try to keep in line.

Bonus: How Fletcher Was Hatched by Wende Devlin: Although this is more of a children’s story than a Middle Grade read, it was my favorite dog book as a little girl. Devlin’s kooky picture book features a hound dog who decides to capture the attention of his distracted owner by getting his beaver friend to build a giant egg that he can hatch out of. It’s totally crazy and totally fun, and I read it non-stop in elementary school.

I’d love to hear from you – what dog books did you love as a kid? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

Blog Tour, Review, and Giveaway: Counting Wolves by Michael F. Stewart


About the Book

Counting Wolves
Michael F. Stewart
Publication date: August 14, 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult

The Breakfast Club meets Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the lair of an adolescent psych ward.

Milly’s evil stepmother commits her to a pediatric psych ward. That’s just what the wolf wants. With bunk mates like Red, who’s spiraling out of control; Pig, a fire-bug who claims Milly as her own—but just wants extra dessert—Vanet, a manic teen masquerading as a fairy godmother with wish-granting powers as likely to kill as to help; and the mysterious Wolfgang, rumored to roam for blood at night; it doesn’t take long for Milly to realize that only her dead mother’s book of tales can save her.

But Milly’s spells of protection weaken as her wolf stalks the hospital corridors. The ward’s a Dark Wood, and she’s not alone. As her power crumbles, she must let go of her magic and discover new weapons if she is to transform from hunted to hunter.

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Review:

Four-star rating

I received a free copy of this book from Xpresso Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the review copy!

Counting Wolves was a pleasant surprise for me. When I requested an ARC of the book, I was anticipating a dark fairy tale set in a creepy psych ward with sadistic nurses and tormented teenagers who aren’t crazy but can’t convince anyone of that fact. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved a book like that, but I ended up loving what Stewart actually delivered – a look at mental illness and recovery through the lens of a fairy tale – even more.

Fifteen-year-old Milly Malone, the book’s protagonist, knows that fairy tales are more than mere stories – after all, she’s being stalked by a creature from one of the tales, a ravenous wolf that’s out for her blood. The only way to keep the wolf at bay is a magic spell, which requires Milly to count to 100 every time she wants to speak, enter a doorway, take a bite of food, etc. Although Milly knows the spell’s necessary to keep herself and her loved ones safe from the wolf, no one else understands her motivations, and she ultimately finds herself locked away in a pediatric psychiatric ward.

Stewart does a fantastic job of imbuing his novel with symbolism, and the role fairy tales play in Counting Wolves is one of the things that appeals to me most about this book. Milly’s mother raised her on these tales as a way to teach her important lessons, and so fairy tales are how Milly views the world. There are myriad references to these stories – “What big teeth you have, Doctor” – and several of the fables Milly’s read over the years are interspersed throughout the book. The people she meets in the ward are the embodiment of various stories, like the comatose “Sleeping Beauty,” and it’s fascinating to see all of the fairy tale threads woven into the tapestry of this novel.

“This is how every fairy tale starts. With the storyteller explaining to the reader just how it is. There once was a girl named Milly who was the wolf’s coveted meal. Whose father left her in the clutches of an evil stepmother. Whose stepmother imprisoned her with monsters.

At first, Milly’s compulsions are exasperating to read about, in that waiting for her to count all the time can be frustrating and tedious. Her counting consumes her and alienates her from everyone, including the reader. After a while, though, as I grew used to Milly and more information was uncovered about the root of her battle with the wolf, I found myself less annoyed and more intrigued/sympathetic. I was especially enthralled by the sections of the story that focus on Milly’s respective relationships with her deceased mother and new stepmother.

I really appreciate how Stewart approaches mental illness in this book. As much fun as I admittedly have reading psychological thrillers and books about eerie asylums, it’s gratifying to see a positive portrayal of mental healthcare. It’s so rewarding to watch Milly gain strength and courage and to watch her personality emerge once she stops letting her fears define her. The progression of her treatment strikes me as believable and realistic, though I’m not an expert and can’t say for sure.

One of the only negatives about this book for me was Milly’s fellow patients. It’s not that they’re poorly written; it’s just that I didn’t really connect with them. They’re very intense, and while they’re memorable, they’re not especially likable. The times when they exhibit endearing traits are overshadowed by really bizarre, off-putting behavior, like masturbating in plain view or mentioning that they once slit a goat’s throat as part of a Satanic ritual. The characters did grow on me a bit by the end of the novel, but I still wouldn’t say that I felt comfortable around them.

That aside, I greatly enjoyed Counting Wolves and will likely seek out more of Stewart’s work. While this story wasn’t the dark, twisty psychological thriller I originally anticipated, I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve read those kinds of books before and will almost certainly read them again, but I haven’t come across many books about mental illness that use fairy tale symbolism effectively.

Author Bio

Michael F. Stewart is winner of both the 2015 Claymore Award and the 2014 inaugural Creation of Stories Award for best YA novel at the Toronto International Book Fair.

He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia, and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. In addition to his award winning Assured Destruction series, he has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights are published by Scholastic and early readers are out with Pearson Education.

For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS–a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next.

Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he was the Ottawa Public Library’s first Writer in Residence. To learn more about Michael and his next projects visit his website at www.michaelfstewart.com or connect via Twitter @MichaelFStewart.

Michael is represented by Talcott Notch.

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Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch Book Cover Akata Witch
Nnedi Okorafor

Sunny Nwazue lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. Her features are West African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits in. And then she discovers something amazing—she is a "free agent" with latent magical power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.

Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But just as she's finding her footing, Sunny and her friends are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a career criminal who knows magic, too. Will their training be enough to help them against a threat whose powers greatly outnumber theirs?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Penguin’s First to Read program for the review copy!

Unfortunately, Akata Witch just wasn’t for me. It didn’t hold my interest, and I spent much of the book compulsively checking how many pages I had left and hoping that I was almost at the end.

I’ve seen Akata Witch hailed as “the Nigerian Harry Potter,” but the book fails to live up to the hype. There are similarities between Akata Witch and the Harry Potter series – both star a preteen misfit who discovers they possess magical abilities and must be taught to wield that magic in order to fight an evil wizard – but Akata Witch lacks the richness and the “wow” factor that made me fall in love with Rowling’s novels.

Okorafor’s book stars a 12-year-old albino girl named Sunny who doesn’t feel she belongs. She’s picked on at school, and at home she has to deal with annoying older brothers and a father who doesn’t appreciate her “otherness.” Everything changes, though, when she learns she is a Leopard Person, or someone who possesses magic juju. She also finds out that she’s fated to be one fourth of a coven that’s purportedly destined for a great purpose. Like Sunny, her fellow coven members are very young – the oldest is about 14 or 15 – but they do their best to train and make ready for their ultimate battle with an evil Leopard Person who’s gone rogue. Much of the book focuses on the four coven members honing their juju, going to lessons and field trips, and teaching Sunny about the world of the Leopard People.

As much as I love fantasy stories, this particular one didn’t resonate with me for some reason. I was incredibly bored and didn’t feel the sense of wonder, delight, or amazement I usually experience when I read fantasy. Part of my problem is that I wasn’t enamored of the plot or the characters, who were flat at best and annoying at worst. I had a tough time connecting with them, and I partially blame this on the third-person point of view. I can’t help but feel that the book would have had a lot more personality if the story had been filtered through Sunny’s first-person viewpoint.

That said, there are a few interesting and creative bits of magic in the book now and then, like masquerades – spirits that enter the world through termite mounds; tungwas – balls of hair, flesh, and teeth that float around and explode at random; and wasp artists that build spectacular creations out of found household objects but are notoriously melodramatic if they feel their work isn’t valued:

“‘It’s a wasp artist,’ Orlu said. ‘They live for their art. If you want it to live for a long time, make sure you let it out like you’ve been doing, and show it that you appreciate its work.’

‘I’d smash the thing,’ Sasha said. ‘My sister had one when she was small , and when she forgot to give it praise once, it got pissed and stung her. Its sting paralyzes you for ten minutes so that you can do nothing but watch it build its ‘final masterpiece’ and then keep watching as it dramatically dies. The damn things are psychotic.’”

By far the most positive aspect of this book is that it opened my eyes to just how narrow my worldview is; it wasn’t until I read Akata Witch that I realized how rarely I read books that are set in a country and culture very different from my own. Growing up in the U.S., reading American books, and watching American movies and TV shows, my understanding of the world has been admittedly limited. I so infrequently venture outside of my comfort zone when it comes to books and other media that I was – stupidly – unprepared for Akata Witch’s descriptions of foods, expressions, residences, etc. that were so very unfamiliar to me. Sometimes this led to confusion (I still don’t understand what a “rapa” is, and what on Earth is a chewing stick?), but for the most part it was a humbling reminder that “my” way of life isn’t “the” way of life. This book showed me that there is so much I don’t know, and so much that I don’t even realize I don’t know.

One thing that really struck me was the fact that there are so many people speaking so many different languages in many scenes of the book. There’s no guarantee that everyone who needs to interact with one another in a given situation will speak the same language, which leads to a constant need for translation. This is viewed as the norm, as nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a stark contrast to what I’m used to in the U.S., where some people can sadly be rude – and downright ugly – when they hear people speaking anything but English. There’s even a reference to this in the book, which is, again, quite humbling:

“The toucan man scoffed. ‘They don’t teach them to understand others, they teach them to expect others to understand them,’ he said in English. He humphed and said, ‘Americans.’”

Bottom line? Much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of Akata Witch, I really struggled with staying invested in the story and characters. It just didn’t hold my attention, and I can’t say I’ll be reading the sequel when it comes out later this year.