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.

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