Published by Sourcebooks Fire on August 29th 2017
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 this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I enjoyed this fast-paced fantasy novel so very much! I’m honestly baffled by the amount of one- and two-star reviews of this book on Goodreads. If you’re a fantasy lover like I am, don’t let the negative reviews deter you from picking up this book!
I’ll preface this by saying that I am cisgender, but one of the elements of Mask of Shadows I was most looking forward to was the fact that it features a genderfluid protagonist. I’ve only read one other book with a nonbinary POV character, and I was so excited to see this representation in a YA fantasy! Sal’s genderfluid identity isn’t a huge part of the plot, largely because they seem to be fairly widely accepted by others in this world, but the couple conversations about it were incredibly well-done, in my opinion. Sal goes by they/them, she/her, and he/him pronouns over the course of the book. Any time another character misgenders them, that character is quickly corrected. Again, I am a cisgender woman, but I will be linking to #ownvoices reviews by nonbinary reviewers of this book below (and I will be updating this list as I find more), so be sure to take a look at those!
I loved Sal as a character in general. They were definitely morally ambiguous (so are real people, though, right?), but they were incredibly easy to root for. It wasn’t a typical “chosen one” story, which I really appreciated since that plot is quite overdone in YA and can get tiresome. Sal had to work hard to improve their skills and stay alive throughout the competition; nothing was handed to them. All of the other characters won my heart, too– especially Sal’s love interest, Elise, and their servant during the tournament, Maud. Both of these ladies were resourceful and quietly clever, and Sal 100% would have been dead without the help of both of them. I also loved getting to know the members of Our Queen’s Left Hand, the guild of assassins Sal is competing to join. I thought the whole idea of the Left Hand– them being named after the gems the Queen wears on her actual left hand, the fact that no one except each other sees their faces unmasked, and their deadly skill– was incredibly clever and unique. Really, none of the characters in Mask of Shadows are completely “good.” All of them are doing what it takes to survive and therefore they all are morally grey in some way. I love love love books like this, because the characters react to real situations the same way that real people would. That element kind of gave me Six of Crows vibes.
As for the actual plot, I’m a sucker for a magical/fantasy tournament plot (think Goblet of Fire, A Gathering of Shadows, Throne of Glass, etc.), and this one completely delivered on that front! Again, Sal is competing to fill the spot of Opal, one of Our Queen’s assassins who makes up her inner circle known as The Left Hand. I loved the high stakes of the competition, and I enjoyed reading about the various tasks and challenges Amethyst, Ruby, and Emerald put the contestants through over the course of the story.
Basically, it’s like Throne of Glass, but without Sarah J. Maas’s shitty writing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ The other contestants all had interesting backstories and motivations that were fun to learn about. Mostly, I loved Sal’s resourcefulness throughout the audition. Like I mentioned before, they had to work hard to make it through, and it was really refreshing to read from the POV of a protagonist who actually planned their next move instead of always just acting impulsively and getting through every challenge through some miracle or stroke of good luck. I’ve seen many reviews where people took issue with the pacing of this story, but I found it compulsively readable and perfectly paced! I read this entire book in one sitting on an airplane, which is incredibly rare for me with fantasy books.
I think if you’re new to the fantasy genre, Mask of Shadows would be a wonderful starting place. The world is interesting (and comes with a helpful historical timeline in the back of the book!), but it’s not too dense or confusing, and there are no huge info-dumps. Plus, the magical elements of the world play a relatively small part, at least in this first book.
All in all, I cannot wait to see where the story goes in the sequel! The action built steadily til the end of this first book, and think the conclusion to this duology is sure to be an action-packed ride. I highly recommend Mask of Shadows to established fantasy lovers and to those new to the genre of YA fantasy alike.
Have you read Mask of Shadows? If so, did you enjoy it? And if not, do you plan to pick it up?
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