Mask of Shadows Balances Trauma, Revenge, and Love

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Mask of Shadows (MoS hereafter) is the breakout novel from debut YA author Linsey Miller, released August 29, 2017. The stunning cover masks a serious game of life or death with an intriguing protagonist, secondary characters that will steal your heart, a fascinating world, and a forbidden romance that bridges class, war, and our protagonist’s thirst for revenge.

If you felt let down by the assassin protagonist and weak worldbuilding in Throne of Glass, as fellow Fandomentals contributor Gabby did, this just may be the remedy you’re looking for.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Summary

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that.

But genderfluid 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 succeds 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.

Please Note: While Sal variously prefers he/him, she/her, and they/them pronouns, Miller has clarified that they/them ought to be used as default, so that’s what I will be using throughout.

What I loved

I found Sal’s perspective riveting (I’ll get to Sal’s gender identity later, as I believe it deserves its own discussion). First person perspective relies on enjoying the protagonists headspace and for me, Miller accomplished that. Sal is clever, no-nonsense, and blunt. They flout conventions just enough—but always to a purpose—without being too much of a Snarky Rebel Hero™. There have some really insightful one liners sprinkled throughout the novel that made me think, too, like:

“The only difference between robbery and murder was what you stole.”

Much of Sal’s character relies on a delicate balance between seemingly opposing traits. They’re simultaneously highly perceptive of minor details about other people’s mannerisms that point to geographical or class origins while also almost completely unaware of political intrigues. I find the combination charming and refreshing. While it does make certain aspects of the final act of the book feel a bit rushed in places, it makes sense of their character and history. I understand this may frustrate some, but to me, it worked well. All the pieces are there in hindsight for the reader to make sense of even if Sal didn’t see them right away. And I have every belief that given the trajectory laid out for the second and final book in the duology, these matters will become more prominent.

Sal’s personal trauma and the burden of being a sole survivor of what amounts to a genocide by proxy are felt throughout, and Miller does a good job balancing Sal’s desire for revenge with the more pressing concerns of surviving the assassin auditions. All while falling in love with a member of the ruling class they so despise to boot. As someone who lives with PTSD—though not from watching the brutal deaths of my family and the destruction of my entire culture—I believe Miller did an excellent job depicting what that headspace can (but definitely not always) look like.

Sal’s sometimes dispassionate, sometimes triggered, sometimes guilty feelings about violence and death for example, make perfect sense to me. They’re all a piece of the complicated experience of living with trauma. Though it may not feel perfectly cohesive to someone who hasn’t lived with PTSD, I think Miller brought out the dynamic in a believable, authentic way.

The same goes for their struggle to both retain and erase their history and identity. Sal wants to cling to the being the last Nacean while also fully become Opal, the assigned name of the Queen’s assassin role they’re auditioning for. They desperately try to give nothing away about themself—to hide behind their numbered mask that functions as their ‘name’/designation throughout the competition—yet unwittingly give pieces away that we see reflected in other characters’ interactions with them. I found this tension between a desired loss of self and defining oneself by one’s trauma to be one of the most compelling aspects of Sal’s character.

Similarly, the way Miller interwove the theme of masks, hiding, and identity throughout the worldbuilding and characters impressed me. Aside from Sal’s personal struggles, you have the creatures called shadows—the disembodied souls who kill indiscriminately in order to regain their former body—stealing human faces as ‘masks’ as they search for their former selves. Miller juxtaposes these with the Queen’s faceless/masked yet all too human assassins who kill to protect her and the peace she maintains. The souls-in-search-of-bodies also act as a foil to the would-be Opals. The shadows steal people’s faces to regain their sense of self and embodiment; the competitors attempt to become someone else (Opal) behind their masks, but their bodies and actions betray their true selves.

Interesting Side Characters

A compelling protagonist ought to have an equally complementary array of side characters, and MoS fits the bill. Maud, Sal’s assigned servant, captured my heart almost instantly, and the dynamic between her and Sal were some of the funniest moments in the story. Yet there’s a tenderness that adds even more layers of enjoyment. They shape each other and both learn to trust, open up, and help each other. I always appreciate when a loner character learns to make friends and isn’t punished for it, so Sal finding Maud warms my heart.

Elise, Sal’s love interest, is no less intriguing. She’s smart, witty, and bookish without feeling like a Hermione rip-off. Miller also explicates her resistance to certain aspects of courtly life and the society’s political history realistically. In other hands, Elise could have been Not Like Other Girls™, but she doesn’t, and I appreciate that.

Sal and Elise play off each other well. The deeply romantic and intimate moments between them took my breath away. There’s a real sense of forbiddenness about their growing love without it veering too close to Romeo and Juliet-eque melodrama. It’s not so much star-crossed as a sense of underlying culture clash that may come to a head…or not, depending on what happens in the sequel. Either way, I liked it. The development felt well-paced, neither insta-love nor a slow burn. And absolutely zero love triangles, yay!

The three assassins Ruby, Amethyst, and Emerald completely captivated me the moment they appeared on page and that feeling never left. For not having ‘real’ names nor even visible faces since they wear masks almost the entire time, they’re surprisingly fleshed out. Despite being supposedly interchangeable fingers of death in-universe, they’re each unique individuals. I could read an entire novel about their exploits. Definitely faves.

They’re not the ‘nameless’ characters, the rest of the competitors don’t have ‘real’ names either. They go by the number assigned to them in order of their addition to the competition. One, Two, Three, Four, and so on down to Sal, who is Twenty Three. Most of the numbered competitors don’t matter to the plot, so a ‘real’ name wouldn’t make much difference. And for the ones who are significant, Miller gives enough personality traits to distinguish them. Just as Amilyn Holdo was the dreamy, weird one in Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Eleven was the nervous one who trained as an apothecary. In the end, I didn’t find “Four” all that harder to remember than a ‘real’ name like “Larry” would have been, just unconventional. The use of numbers as names actually added ambiance and worldbuilding.

Intriguing Worldbuilding

Speaking of worldbuilding, I devoured it. If people prefer a more action driven narrative with few to no breaks to provide worldbuilding details, character exposition, or backstory, this may not be the book for you. I, however, adore worldbulding when it’s done well, and this got my imaginative gears working big time.

If anything, I wanted even more because what we got was so rich and tantalizing. I want to know everything about this world, the politics, the history, the various religions and cultural norms. I love that the assassins are named after the Queen’s rings. Calling them the Left Hand is a funny little play off of “don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing”, only reversed because its the left hand that deals in shadows and secrets.

I want to know everything about the Queen and her role in the preceding war. Heck, I’d read a political thriller about her navigating court life after her ascension and maintaining the delicate balance of peace necessary to consolidate and hold her power. I want to know more about the mages, the runes, the magic. Are the shadows really gone? Is there still magic elsewhere that could bring them back? What was the world like when magic had not been drained from the land?

All that to say, I think Miller balanced worldbuilding and plot well. Sure, there were info-dumps, but all of them were relevant to the characters and/or plot. They also felt well placed and spaced out; I can’t think of a single moment where I felt like it was a wall of exposition I had to wade through to get back to the story. Everything was relevant, nothing was extraneous.

Some Potential Drawbacks

I’ll be honest, MoS is pretty violent and gory. As I mentioned, Sal suffered major trauma and has PTSD, so that could be hard for people to read. As much as Linsey Miller sometimes jokes about her “goofy novel about color-coded assassins,” she also understands that MoS deals with some pretty dark stuff. It isn’t Grimdark by any means, but neither is it an angsty love/adventure story. Death is an ever-present theme; there are mentions of abuse, war crimes, mass murder, and torture. Self harm and misgendering occur, though every instance of the latter is handled immediately and firmly rejected.

Certain aspects of the competition might be hit or miss for some. I’ve read critiques that Sal progresses a bit too quickly through some of the challenges they face (like learning to read). Then again, I’ve seen other reviewers complain that the training montages were too boring, so it’s kind of a toss up. Too quick of a progression may get criticized for being unrealistic, but too much time on the work involved may get criticism for being slow. Perhaps a bit more of a struggle with literacy could have been included and less about proper foot placement in archery or swordfighting, but neither of these was enough to break my engagement.

I’ve also seen MoS criticized for being derivative, and I’ll admit I have not have read widely enough in YA circles to assess whether or not this is accurate. I haven’t read Throne of Glass, the book to which it is most commonly compared. But, from the summaries and snippets I’ve read from Throne of Glass and Gabby’s previously linked review, I don’t think they’re all that similar other than “assassins in a competition.” There may be other assassin books in YA that might be more similar (apparently this is a common trope?), but again, I haven’t read them so I can’t say to what degree MoS imitates them or offers something different.

I didn’t find the plot all that overly similar to Hunger Games either, other than “teens kill each other in a competition.” As with Throne of Glass, I don’t find such an oversimplification in plot comparison useful. With that kind of rubric, you could claim Firefly is the same as Star Wars because a group of rebels fight a tyrannical authority in space. To me, the execution, tone, characters, and worldbuilding of stories matters more than a broadly similar plot premise; there are only so many plots, after all. So, So while MoS may share some very basic plot points with Hunger Games or Throne of Glass, the stories aren’t the same because nothing else is the same. What matters to me isn’t “I’ve seen this plot point before” but rather “what sets this apart.”

But, that may not hold true for everyone. If you’ve read a lot of assassin YA stories lately, MoS may be one to come back to after a break. But I do think it’s worth coming back to, because it does some really interesting worldbuilding and the characters are delightful.

On Sal as a Genderfluid Protagonist

When it comes to the specifically genderfluid aspect, I’ll start out by admitting that I am a cis woman. I do not wish to talk over the experiences of those who are genderfluid. Nor did I think it appropriate for me to address this aspect without interacting with someone who identified this way. As much as I found Sal compelling and well written, that didn’t mean they were good rep. So, I talked to my friend Kay, who identifies as genderfluid, about certain aspects of the story to see what they thought.

The first being Sal’s clothing choices. Miller has Sal use stereotypically masculine, feminine, and neutral clothing choices as a shorthand for which pronouns they prefer (he/him, she/her, and they/them respectively). I had seen criticisms from cis writers of this convention and wasn’t sure how to react. Having not read MoS themself, Kay felt they couldn’t comment on it beyond it sounding like a reasonable, if admittedly simplistic, shorthand explanation based on the setting. However, Kay also admitted not every genderfluid person might like it as a storytelling convention.

I also discussed passages that stood out to me as reflecting a deep understanding of genderfluid experience with Kay. At one point, Sal uses the metaphor of a river to describe themself.

“Rath had asked once, a while after we’d met and been living together, and I’d not known how to explain it yet. I didn’t have the words. He always felt like Rath, and I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always.”

As Kay had used a similar metaphor in a short story they’d shared with me, it struck me as well done. Kay agreed wholeheartedly, especially as it spoke to their preferred self-description.

What struck me most talking with Kay about the book was that Sal’s genderfluidity just was. It didn’t define their character, but neither was it ignored. Sal explains themself clearly and for the most part, people accept them. Misgendering only occurs three times. The first is a matter of ignorance, the second two rudeness, yet all are immediately corrected in such a way that highlights respectful use of pronouns as a matter of basic human decency. Anything else is disrespectful. Only bullies and villains misgender people intentionally in MoS, which is precisely how I think such behavior should be handled.

By talking to Kay, I wasn’t looking to be told this was a perfect depiction, or even to justify my hesitantly positive reactions. I honestly wanted to hear whether or not it spoke somewhat to their genderfluid experience in a meaningful way or whether they believed it was harmful. If the latter, I would have immediately put it down and walked away.

At the same time, not all genderfluid experiences are interchangeable or the same across the board. Miller herself has been up front about this, and Kay asked that I mention they do not speak for all genderfluid experience, only their own. I have read/watched several positive reviews of the book from non-binary reviewers alongside my discussion with Kay; others are more critical of the representation.

The truth is, not every genderfluid person will like the depiction of or feel validated by Sal. And that’s perfectly fair. Other genderfluid persons may find their character, arc, and experiences meaningful, and that’s valid, too. As a cis person, I can’t tell anyone what to think about Sal. My opinion is about as useful as a bicycle to a fish.

I can only speak to other cis readers like myself, so I will. It’s not our job to tell genderfluid persons how to think about this character. The most important thing we can do is sit down and actively listen to all perspectives. We can advocate for more and varied literary depictions of this underrepresented community. And we can encourage the rest of the LGBTQ+ community and ourselves to support original works by non-binary and genderfluid authors that reflect their stories and experiences.

Final Score: 8/10

Please Note: As I do not believe it is my responsibility or place to ‘grade’ representation, my final score reflects my opinion of everything except Sal’s gender identity.

Engaging, complex protagonist and well-fleshed out secondary characters; the worldbuilding may be a bit info-dumpy to some, but is also detailed, rich, and always relevant. Pacing of the third act is slightly rushed compared to the second, but makes up for it by being page-turningly tense. There are some truly excellent plot twists I didn’t see coming, which gets bonus points from me because I can usually spot plot twists a mile away.

Oh, and I can’t think of a single character explicitly described in a way that came across as ‘white’ to me off the top of my head. There are other LGBTQ+ secondary characters, too, including at least one (I think two) who is bi/pan and one who is aro/ace. So that’s pretty awesome.

Images Courtesy of Sourcebooks Fire

This article is a reprint (with minor modification) of an article originally published by Gretchen on