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.

Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy Book Cover Grave Mercy
Robin LaFevers

Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts – and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must be willing to take the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany, where she must pose as mistress to the darkly mysterious Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Once there, she finds herself woefully underprepared – not only for the deadly games of love and intrigue, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Review:

I started off feeling quite enthusiastic about Grave Mercy. The beginning of the book reminded me a lot of Poison Study, and also a bit of Crown Duel, as it features a strong, capable heroine struggling to keep up with the intrigues of court; a mysterious hero who is alternately alluring and dangerous; and a treacherous plot that must be uncovered and stopped before it is too late. As I read on, however, my initial excitement faded as the mysterious hero and court intrigue failed to measure up to my expectations.

Said hero, Gavriel Duval, was probably the biggest disappointment. I had such high hopes for him, as he seemed to be a great match for Ismae, the book’s feisty assassin protagonist. He’s dangerous, sexy, and capable of meeting any challenge, the type of character who would make either a formidable opponent or a powerful ally. Anticipating all sorts of daring hijinks and near-death experiences, I couldn’t wait to discover what dangerous situations Duval and Ismae would find themselves in at the royal court of Brittany.

The reality fell far short of my imagination. Duval’s loyalty to the Duchess of Brittany requires him to spend the majority of his time debating political alliances or attending privy council meetings. While I got the impression that there is a capable, deadly side to Duval, I seldom got to see it in action, as Duval was generally acting in the role of politician rather than soldier. With the exception of one or two brief fight scenes, he paces, broods, and strategizes more than he does anything else.

Another letdown was the plot. I enjoyed the air of mystery and liked that it was Ismae’s mission to protect the Duchess of Brittany from traitors in her court. However, like Duval, the storyline stops short of being as amazing as it has the potential to be. For example, there isn’t nearly enough tension surrounding Ismae’s day-to-day life in the royal court. There is little to no cattiness, gossip, or manipulation going on, which is disappointingly unrealistic, especially considering that all of the courtiers assume Ismae to be the mistress of the most influential man in the kingdom. I had hoped for scenes in which Ismae must contend with jealous rivals, judgmental old biddies, or handsome yet wily casanovas, but said scenes never transpired.

Despite these disappointments, I did enjoy reading Grave Mercy. This is mostly because of Ismae, the novel’s saving grace. In the beginning I was worried that she might become one of those protagonists who is so strong and capable that she is impossible to relate to, but this fear turned out to be unfounded. Ismae’s prodigious talent for poisoning, disemboweling, and otherwise incapacitating foes is tempered by her lack of social and relationship skills. Ismae is closed off, has a hard time trusting people, and struggles to convincingly play the role of a seductress. She possesses fears, doubts, and a degree of self-consciousness that is at odds with her physical strength. These vulnerabilities went a long way toward endearing her to me.

Another great thing about Grave Mercy is that it’s set in a historical period with which I’m not very familiar. I appreciated reading a regency novel that wasn’t based in Tudor England, and it was a good opportunity to learn about a new era. I was struck by just how authentic the characters’ language and behavior feels and was so relieved to find that there were no jarring sentences or turns of phrase to ruin the flow and throw me out of the time period.

All in all, Grave Mercy is a decent book, and I did like reading it, even if Duval didn’t turn out to be the next Valek or Marquis of Shevraeth. Therefore, if you liked Poison Study and have come to terms with the fact that no other novel can quite measure up to it, then Grave Mercy might be a good book for you.

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Throne of Glass Book Cover Throne of Glass
Sarah J. Maas

After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin. Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king's council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she'll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.

Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she's bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her... but it's the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead... quickly followed by another.

Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

Review:

I’m a fan of strong female characters in books. Forget damsels in distress who sit around wringing their hands and yearning for a hero to come and rescue them – I like a girl with spunk, wit, and the ability to take care of herself. That being said, however, there’s a fine line between a strong, independent heroine and a heroine who’s seemingly invincible.

Believable characters must have some sort of weakness or vulnerability. Celaena Sardothien, the protagonist in Throne of Glass, is lacking this, making it very difficult for me to really feel invested in the book. From the very beginning, Celaena is an uninteresting heroine because she’s just too perfect. Even when she’s competing against the biggest, baddest, toughest fighters around, she has no worthy opponents. It seems like every third paragraph is about how easy it would be to disarm the dozen trained soldiers surrounding her, or how laughable it is that the captain of the king’s guard believes manacles and chains can contain her. I get that she’s an assassin, but come on. Her strategic and physical prowess requires no effort whatsoever, making it lose all meaning.

I also would have appreciated more of an emotional range for Celaena than just arrogance and anger. If she has to be a physical and tactical prodigy, she should at least have some more emotional vulnerability. Fear, doubt, loneliness, alienation, guilt…there’s an entire array of feelings that the author could have used to make Celaena a little more relatable. Her occasional nightmares and a flash or two of nervousness are not enough to make her believable, and that’s a serious flaw of the book.

One thing that I did enjoy about Throne of Glass was the ending. I don’t want to give anything away, but I appreciate that the love triangle (if you can even call it that – one side of that triangle was rather underdeveloped) didn’t have a clear-cut resolution.

I won’t go so far as saying that Throne of Glass is terrible, but it’s certainly not one I’d recommend.  There are better and brighter books out there that you should be reading instead.

Review: Dualed by Elsie Chapman

Dualed Book Cover Dualed
Elsie Chapman

The city of Kersh is a haven, but the price of safety is high. Everyone has a genetic Alternate, a twin raised by another family, and teens must prove their worth by eliminating their Alts before their twentieth birthday. Survival means advanced schooling, a good job, marriage – life.

West Grayer has trained as a fighter, preparing for the day when her assignment arrives and she will have one month to hunt down and kill her Alt. But a tragic misstep shakes West’s confidence. Stricken with grief and guilt, she’s no longer certain that she’s the best version of herself, the version worthy of a future. If she is to have any chance of winning, she must stop running not only from her Alt, but also from love…though both have the power to destroy her.

Review:

I’m amazed. I had no idea that a book containing as many life-or-death situations as Dualed could be so incredibly boring.

I was completely underwhelmed by this book, which is disappointing – the idea behind it had so much promise.  As mentioned in the blurb, Kersh, the futuristic city in which the story takes place, is a walled stronghold in North America. It was built to protect those who live there from the war and violence that dominates the rest of the world. In exchange for safety, the citizens of Kersh must prove themselves worthy of the city’s hospitality. They do so by fighting against their genetic Alternate until only the smarter, tougher twin is left standing, thus ensuring that Kersh has an army of capable soldiers available to fight in case of an outside attack. It’s Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept taken to the extreme.

A story idea like this one has tremendous potential, but that potential is undermined by the fact that almost nothing that happens in this book makes any sense. I found myself questioning just about every move and decision the characters make, as these moves seem to be completely counterintuitive.

I try very hard not to include spoilers in my reviews, but in this case I’m making an exception. If you plan to read this book, you shouldn’t read anything below this point.

Early in the book, West, the protagonist, discovers that there is a group of assassins, called Strikers, who can be hired to illegally kill a person’s Alternate for a large fee. The leader of the Strikers justifies his occupation by stating that it’s wrong for the government to use the Alternate rivalry to decide which person is worthy of survival; just because someone is willing and able to murder his/her genetic twin doesn’t mean they’re the better of the pair.

I agree with that sentiment, but what I don’t understand is how the Strikers assassinating Alternates makes for a fairer system. Accepting money to act as hitmen serves only to ensure that wealthier Alternates survive rather than Alternates who are better fighters, which doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement over the current system. It’d be different if the Strikers secretly followed Alternates around to determine which is the kinder, more decent human being, and then killed the lesser of the two, but that isn’t the case here. It’s all for profit, nothing more and nothing less.

Despite the Strikers’ lack of proper reasoning, West decides to join their ranks, thinking that killing other people’s Alternates will give her enough practice to increase her chances of killing her own. Again, this seems illogical to me. If West is afraid she’s not skilled enough to kill her Alternate without practice, how on Earth does she expect to murder dozens of other people? Also, doesn’t it seem counterintuitive to put herself in dangerous situations multiple times in order to “make it safer” when she and her Alternate ultimately fight their final battle?

Another thing that bothers me is West’s determination to push away Chord, a childhood friend and the closest thing she has left to family. She’s afraid that his affection for her will put him in danger, that he’ll want to be by her side when it’s time for her to fight her Alternate. This makes her do everything in her power to distance herself from Chord in order to keep him safe. I can understand why she might wish to do so, but she never seems to realize that attempting to separate herself from Chord just makes him more persistent in his efforts to stick by her. Because West refuses to keep in contact with him and update him on her safety, Chord must resort to tailing her all across town to make sure that she’s okay, thereby putting himself in more danger than if West had just allowed him to tag along in the first place. West sees that this is happening but still insists on pushing Chord away regardless of how ineffective it is to do so.

These are only a few examples of the many illogical situations and decisions in Dualed, so numerous that I just couldn’t get past them. It didn’t help that there are jarring sections in the novel where weeks pass from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next, making the story jump around in a way that is confusing. I gave up trying to make sense of this story and instead focused on getting to the end as quickly as possible.

Review: Nobody by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Nobody Book Cover Nobody
Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Some people are Nobodies: ignored, unloved, practically invisible in every way. No one notices them. No one cares about them. They exist under the radar, forgotten as soon as you turn away. No one sees them coming. No one sees them leave.

That’s why Nobodies make the perfect assassins.

Seventeen-year-old Nix is very good at his job. So when the organization he works for sends him after a teenage girl named Claire, he doesn’t ask questions. He’s a killer. She needs to die.

For sixteen years, Claire has led a normal life being overlooked. Her parents are absent. She doesn’t have any friends. She has no idea what she is, or why anyone would want her dead. But she’s about to find out, because from the moment Nix attempts to carry out his mission, the two are caught up in a conspiracy of murder, cover-ups, and betrayal.

Nix is a killer. Claire is his target. But when he sets eyes on her, everything changes, because only the two of them can truly see each other – and two Nobodies are twice as dangerous as one.

Review:

I respect what Barnes is trying to do here, but Nobody just didn’t work for me. I like that the premise is unique, but its intrinsic limitations made it impossible for me to finish the book.

The problem with two protagonists who are “practically invisible in every way” is that no one notices or cares about them. Claire’s own parents forget she exists, and other people fail to register her presence even when she bumps into them hard enough to knock what they’re carrying out of their hands. The lack of meaningful interactions results in a boring plot.

The rare cases when Claire and Nix do manage to get someone to acknowledge their presence are unsatisfying. At one point, Nix confronts his boss and demands to know why he has been ordered to kill a seemingly innocent girl. Nix is angry, threatening, and obviously dangerous – he’s an assassin, after all – but his boss is completely unfazed. She’s not afraid of him, or angry, and even when Nix wraps his hands around his boss’ neck and tries to choke the answer out of her, she barely fights back.

A book like this just isn’t sustainable. The romance between Nix and Claire can’t compensate for the anticlimactic nature of the rest of the relationships in the book. It’s possible that the novel picks up pace as it goes on, but I didn’t stick around to find out.