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: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

Flame in the Mist Book Cover Flame in the Mist
Renee Ahdieh

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn, comes a sweeping, action-packed YA adventure set against the backdrop of Feudal Japan where Mulan meets Throne of Glass.

The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place—she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor's favorite consort—a political marriage that will elevate her family's standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she's within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she's appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she's ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

 

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

Flame in the Mist, you had me at “dangerous gang of bandits.” Authors, publishers, listen up – if you ever want to get me to read your book, all you have to do is make the slightest mention of thieves, bandits, or other disreputable rogues and I will be at the bookstore or library in a flash. These sorts of characters are my kryptonite, and the ones in Flame in the Mist are especially delightful.

Flame in the Mist follows the adventures of Hattori Mariko, a young woman whose traveling party is attacked on the way to Mariko’s wedding. Though she survives, Mariko is presumed dead, and she takes advantage of the newfound freedom this brings from obligation and expectation. Disguising herself as a boy, Mariko strikes out in pursuit of the Black Clan, the notorious band of thieves she presumes to be responsible for the attack. Her hope is to bring them down from the inside, and thus prove to her family that her worth goes beyond that of her value as a bride.

The Black Clan members are everything a rascal-loving reader could wish for. First off, there’s Ranmaru, their leader. He’s young, sharp, and canny, too clever by half. Then there’s his right-hand man, Ōkami. Known as the Wolf, Ōkami is the Black Clan’s deadliest warrior. He’s enigmatic, dangerous, and aloof, and his interactions with Mariko are my favorite parts of the book. The two needle one another constantly, and Mariko is both annoyed by Ōkami and drawn to him.

“‘If you were me, you would have done the same thing.’ She could not prevent her voice from quavering on the last word.

‘No, I wouldn’t.’ Ōkami’s dark brows lowered. Shadowed his gaze. Something tugged at his lips. ‘I would’ve succeeded.’”

Mariko herself is an interesting character, though I’m not sure I can truthfully say I like her. She has certain traits that I respect, and I could sympathize with her, but there’s something about Mariko that kept me from fully connecting with her. I did appreciate that she seems like a real person; not annoyingly inept, but not unrealistically capable, either. I like that she knows her own limitations and goes about finding ways to work around them. Likewise, she is able to acknowledge disappointing truths and deal with them accordingly. She’s smart and a quick study, but still errs and misjudges from time to time. She has weaknesses and flaws and frustrations, the most interesting of which is her resentment of the strictures placed upon her as a woman. She aches to prove herself and rages against her femininity like a trapped moth beating its wings against a glass jar.

“Mariko suddenly felt acutely aware of her appearance. Almost self-conscious. A feeling she disdained.

So much like a girl, despite all her efforts to the contrary.”

During Mariko’s time with the Black Clan, she attempts to insinuate herself into their ranks. She’s at a disadvantage among the older, tougher men but does everything in her power to show herself as willing and able to contribute. At the same time she works to unravel the mysteries surrounding the band. Ranmaru and Ōkami are particularly inscrutable. You get the sense that everyone in the book has secrets, and everyone is lying. You’re always trying to keep up and figure out who people are, what their motivations are, and whether they can be trusted. This constant second-guessing kept me engaged from beginning to end, so much so that I read the entire book in one sitting.

“That same awful feeling of being mocked took hold of Mariko. Vicious, unrelenting hold. Making her feel so much smaller than those around her. So much less of everything when all she wished was to feel taller and stronger and braver. So much more. It made her afraid to be herself. Afraid these men would see how every step she took each day was a lie.”

One last thing worth mentioning about Flame in the Mist is that it’s set in a magical version of feudal Japan. This means there are samurai, and bloodthirsty trees, and shape-shifting, and tea houses, and beautiful, mouth-watering descriptions of Japanese cuisine. I’m hopeful there’ll be even more of these things in the second book, which I will certainly be reading. There’s so much going on in the world of Flame in the Mist that I want to soak in as much of it as I can!

Fictional Tricksters – An April Fools’ Day Book List

April Fools' Day Fictional Tricksters

I’ve long had a soft spot for scallywags and scamps in books, and what better time to celebrate them than on April Fools’ Day? If you’re looking for some ideas on how to pull off the ultimate scheme or prank, these fictional tricksters can point you in the right direction.

Book cover for This Can't Be Happening at MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman1) Bruno and Boots from the MacDonald Hall series by Gordan Korman: Korman’s This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall is the book that first kindled my love for mischievous troublemakers. The protagonists, Boots and Bruno, are two boarding school boys who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. They’re constantly wreaking havoc, like putting Alka-Seltzer in the swimming pool, stealing a rival school’s mascot, or letting a classmate’s ant farm loose in the halls. Fifth-grade me found the MacDonald Hall series delightfully hilarious and couldn’t get enough of Bruno and Boots’ hijinks.

Book cover for Bloody Jack by L. A. Meyer2) Jacky Faber from the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer: Spunky, theatrical, and resilient, Jacky Faber is my fictional BFF. Her initial “trick” is to disguise herself as a boy in order to secure a spot upon a British warship, but as the series progresses Jacky becomes embroiled in myriad other schemes and capers. She’s a natural actress and has no problem playing the wretched waif, coy maiden, saucy minx, or fearsome pirate. She’s always up for an adventure, which usually leads to her getting herself in and out of hilarious scrapes.

Book cover for The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner3) Eugenides from the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner: Eugenides has the distinction of being the cleverest, most cunning character I’ve had the pleasure of reading about. He’s a master thief and brilliant strategist whose plans have the power to alter the fate of kingdoms. I’m completely in awe of Eugenides and count him as one of my top two favorite fictional characters of all time.

Book cover for How I Paid For College by Marc Acito4) Edward and friends from How I Paid For College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater by Marc Acito: When Edward’s father cuts off his financial resources, right before Edward is supposed to start college, it seems like he’s hit a dead end. But Edward will do whatever it takes to come up with the money for Juilliard, and his ragtag group of friends will do whatever it takes to help him. Together they cook up a daring, hysterical, outrageous plot to scrape together Edward’s tuition, involving blackmail, money laundering, nun costumes, and a lot of other questionable behavior.

Book cover for The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch5) Locke Lamora from the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch: Locke and his band of professional con artists are crafty, shameless, and infinitely ballsy. There’s nothing they won’t do to pull off their impressively intricate schemes, which are jaw-dropping in their scope and execution.

Book cover for Dodger by Terry Pratchett6) Dodger from Dodger by Terry Pratchett: Inspired by The Artful Dodger from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Pratchett’s Dodger is a resourceful pickpocket living on the streets of 19th century London. He’s charismatic, scrappy, and mischievous, capable of producing tears on demand, charming passersby, and getting himself out of (and then back into) sticky situations and schemes.

Book cover for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling7) Fred and George from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: No trickster list is complete without the Weasley twins! We could all do with some of their Weasley Wizard Wheezes, like the Extendable Ears to help eavesdrop on conversations, or Puking Pastilles to get out of tiresome obligations. To me, though, Fred and George’s most epic trick is their grand exit from Hogwarts, with its epic fireworks dragon and other chaos-causing charms.

Know any other tricksters who should be on this list? Let me know by leaving me a comment!

Waiting on Wednesday: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo


Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at 
Breaking the Spine. It spotlights upcoming releases we are eagerly anticipating.

This Wednesday I’m Waiting For…

Book cover for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Six of Crows
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publication Date: September 29, 2015

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

I’m Waiting Because…

I’m a sucker for cunning, conniving characters, especially thieves, so Six of Crows sounds like it’s right up my alley; I practically lost my mind when I read the words “criminal prodigy” and “deadly heist” in the same paragraph. A few years ago I read How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kristen Miller, a novel about a school of teenage pickpockets, prostitutes, and con artists. It had great potential but ended up losing steam and failing to live up to my expectations. I’m hoping that Six of Crows ends up being as gritty and dark and clever as I once wanted How To Live a Life of Crime to be.

People were practically fighting each other for ARCs of Six of Crows at BEA this year, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to snag a copy for myself. Guess I’ll just have to count down the days to the September 29 release date with the rest of the world! If this book turns out to be even half as good as it sounds, then I’m in for a treat.

Is there a new book you’re super excited for? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger Book Cover Dodger
Terry Pratchett

A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse-drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's...Dodger.

Seventeen-year-old Dodger may be a street urchin, but he gleans a living from London's sewers, and he knows a jewel when he sees one. He's not about to let anything happen to the unknown girl--not even if her fate impacts some of the most powerful people in England.

From Dodger's encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disraeli, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery.

Beloved and bestselling author Sir Terry Pratchett combines high comedy with deep wisdom in this tale of an unexpected coming-of-age and one remarkable boy's rise in a complex and fascinating world.

Review:

I don’t usually presume to speak for famous authors, let alone one as prestigious as Charles Dickens. In this case, however, I feel justified in saying that Dickens would probably have been very, very pleased with Terry Pratchett’s Dodger.

Pratchett’s reimagining of The Artful Dodger, who appears in Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This story is packed with everything I love in a book: a charming, clever scallywag of a main character; a colorful and unforgettable supporting cast; tongue-in-cheek wit; inside jokes that you may only get after reading the book for a second time; and a setting that is so unique and well described that it’s practically a character in its own right.

We first meet our scrappy protagonist when he springs from the London sewers on a stormy night to rescue a young woman being beaten in the street. This feat brings Dodger to the attention of Charlie Dickens and his friend Henry Mayhew, who happen to be passing by at the time and assist Dodger in taking the unconscious lady to safety.

Dodger, infuriated by the treatment of the beautiful, mysterious girl, refuses to rest until her attackers are brought to justice. Assisted by Dickens and a motley assortment of waifs and urchins, Dodger sets forth to track down the people responsible for the girl’s mistreatment and do whatever it takes to secure her safety.

It’s usually characters that make or break a book for me, but in the case of Dodger it’s actually the setting that made me fall in love. This isn’t to say that Dodger doesn’t have fantastic characters – it does, and I’ll get to them in a minute. However, the setting is so spectacular, so vividly drawn, that it outshines everything else in the book, even its charming hero.

Like Dickens, Pratchett has a gift for bringing 19th-century London, in all its glory and filth, to life on the page. The sounds and smells and tastes of London permeate the book until you can actually hear the coaches rattling by and smell the fog rolling in from the Thames. It’s a world of chimney sweeps and violet sellers, pickpockets and Punch and Judy puppet shows, prostitutes and games of Crown and Anchor at the local pub. There are a million little details that build the “character” of London and enrich the story, from the slang the street urchins use (“cove,” “tosher,” and “Bobbies”/ “Peelers” are a few of my favorites) to descriptions of the weather:

“The rain was falling faster now, rain that was undeniably London rain, already grubby before it hit the ground, putting back on the streets what had been taken away by the chimneys. It tasted like licking a dirty penny.”

Pratchett does more than simply paint a picture of London; he paints it in a way that is insightful and entertaining. Dodger is filled with observations that are as amusing as they are astute, such as this description of the Thames: “[One] could only call what was in the river ‘water’ because it was too runny to be called ‘dirt.” There’s a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor, not just in the story itself but also in the helpful and hilarious footnotes that are used to explain certain words and facts within the book.

The setting may be my absolute favorite part of Dodger, but the characters come in at a close second. I’ve always been delighted by crafty, mischievous characters, and Dodger fits the bill perfectly. He’s scrappy, resourceful, and a skillful actor, able to produce tears on demand or charm the pants off of a well-to-do passerby. He’s an all-around fun, hilarious, and wily protagonist, and I couldn’t have loved him more if I tried. Although he’s a little rough around the edges and liable to pick your pocket as soon as look at you, Dodger’s what the folks in this book would call a “decent cove.” He’s always quick to jump to the aid of the defenseless, even if it means donning a dress in order to save a group of young flower girls:

“And so when the sharp-suited gentlemen who liked to go down among the poor flower girls to see if there were any new blossoms they could pluck came to ply them with strong liquor until they could have their wicked way with them, they would actually be subtly directed to the shrinking and simpering violet who was, in fact, Dodger.

Actually, he had to admit that he had been incredibly good at it, because to be a geezer was to be an actor and so Dodger was better at being a shrinking violet than any of the other flower girls who had, how could you put it, better qualifications. He had already sold quite a lot of his violets because his voice hadn’t broken then and he could make himself a real little virgin when he wanted to. After a few hours of this, the girls tipped him off to the whereabouts of a particularly nasty dandy who always hung around the smaller girls, and who was heading towards him with his nice coat and his cane, jingling the money in his pockets. And the street applauded when a suddenly rather athletic little flower girl grabbed the smarmy bastard, punched him, dragged him into an alley and made certain that he would not be able to jingle anything in his pockets for some time to come.”

The secondary characters in Dodger are spectacular as well. Historical figures make cameo appearances, such as Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdetts-Coutts, Robert Peel, and John Tenniel. There’s also a cast of fictional – but no-less-interesting – characters with fun names like Mary-Go-Round, Messy Bessie, and Stumpy Higgins who play small yet memorable roles in the story.

Dodger‘s phenomenal setting and smart, hilarious characters make this book a definite must-read. My enjoyment of this novel grows every time I read it, something I intend to keep doing as often as possible.