Sallot “Sal” Leon’s only motivation is avenging the loss of their family, friends, and country. As the last-known living Nacean, Sal’s primary motivations are survival…and revenge against the nobles that abandoned their country to the shadows. Petty thieves don’t have much access to nobility, but a chance carriage robbery garners a flyer advertising auditions for one of the Queen’s assassins, Opal, which could open the doors of the palace to a crafty, ruthless thief with an agenda.
Linsey Miller’s debut novel, Mask of Shadows, is a riveting read featuring a gender-fluid character, a well-developed world, and a wonderful blend of action and intrigue. I finished the entire novel in 3 ½ days, because the various twists and turns kept me riveted. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a new type of YA fantasy story that opens the door to non-cis, non-hetero primary characters.
Mask of Shadows features a lot of marketing on Sal’s gender-fluidity, but it truthfully never affects their choices throughout the story, which is amazingly deft characterization. A few other characters use it to insult or needle Sal, but their non-binary gender really is a non-issue in Miller’s society. The other members of The Left Hand, the Queen’s assassins, only address Sal’s gender-fluidity by asking which pronouns they should utilize.
There is a romance in the novel between Sal and a young noblewoman, Elise de Farone, that has to carefully side-step anything that would indicate the protagonist’s genitalia. Miller manages to get around it with exquisitely erotic, but non-explicit, encounters between the pair. At one point, Elise says she is attracted to men and people who are not necessarily men, but she never uses a term for her own sexuality. It’s unclear whether she would identify as bi or pansexual, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. Sal and Elise’s entanglement occurs between two human beings drawn to each other, and while I didn’t love this plot angle, it sets up the events for the second book in the duology, so it plays an important part.
I rank Mask of Shadows as mature YA, thanks to the violence and dark subject matter, as the auditions involve several young people competing to kill each other and be the last one standing; however, like The Hunger Games, I can see many of the more complex topics being great jumping-off points to talk with teen readers about some of the harsher aspects of reality.
Some aspects of Mask of Shadows aren’t really a surprise, but there are enough twists and turns to be a highly engaging read. The story has stuck with me since I finished the book many days ago, and I believe its representation of gender-fluidity mixed with a riveting adventure plot will appeal to many readers.
4.5 Poison-Testing Mice out of 5