ARC review: Mask of Shadows

29960675Title: Mask of Shadows
Author: Linsey Miller
Genre: Fantasy, young adult

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary: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 Leon steals a poster announcing open auditions for the Left Hand, a powerful collection of the Queen's personal assassins named for the rings she wears -- Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal -- their world changes. They know it's a chance for a new life.
Except 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. But Sal must survive to put their real reason for auditioning into play: revenge.

The premise sounded so cool (Assassin school! politics! revenge!) and I was really excited about the genderfluid MC, but sadly this is no Nevernight.

I usually really like flawed/morally ambiguous main characters, but Sal was borderline psychotic, so I had a hard time rooting for them. Mild spoilers, but all of this is mentioned in the premise/back-of-the-book-blurb, so I think it's fair game to talk about. Within the first chapter or two, we've established that Sal is an excellent thief and is great at sleight-of-hand. Somehow an advertisement flyer is enough incentive for Sal to violently kill someone and audition to be one of the Queen's elite bodyguards. Wtf, Sal, how did you think you would make it through the audition with a bunch of trained killers when you've been a common thief all your life? And even suspending disbelief on that, it was so hard for me to swallow how easily Sal justifies the murder and never acknowledges it again. And the clincher, you don't even find out Sal's true motivation for all this until much later in the book. I spent so much of the beginning questioning why Sal was making the decisions they did, which made it really hard for me to get on board with the whole premise. There were a bunch of other "wtf" moments for me throughout the book, again mostly stemming from Sal doing things that made no sense and not responding like a normal human being to disturbing situations.

And now to talk about the genderfluidity of our main character. I love that this book features an LGBTQ main character, and the book definitely helped me understand what it's like to identify as genderfluid. I also really liked that gender fluidity was accepted in this society, since many characters were familiar with the concept and what pronouns to use. And yet, there are still the assholes that refuse to make the effort to use the correct pronouns and acknowledge gender fluidity. I liked that these detractors existed, because it highlights the all-too-real struggle of minority groups of all kinds fighting to have their voices heard and identities acknowledged.

On the other hand, I was irritated by Sal's irrational anger towards people who made pronoun mistakes. Her reason behind the anger? "I dress like I am, plain as day." This rubbed me the wrong way, because it reinforces the idea that men and women must dress a certain way. There's no concept of people having the freedom to dress/present themselves as "femme" or "butch" depending on how they are feeling that day. I get that this book takes place in a medieval-inspired setting, and that women wear dresses and men wear pants in this world, but if we can bend historical truth a little to make gender-fluidity an openly accepted part of society, why not gender expression?

Now that I have my main complaints out of the way, I can talk about other things I enjoyed. I loved Maude, who was extraordinarily resourceful. She was a fully realized and important character with her own agency, which is so rare in servants and minor characters, especially when they are women. I also really liked how slowly the romance developed. It wasn't one of those cases of instalove or star-crossed romance (well...maybe a little bit of the latter), which was refreshing. I also really liked the different personalities of the elite members of the Queen's guard. Despite being masked and generally aloof, Emerald, Ruby, and Amethyst had distinct and lovable personalities. They are all dangerous but none of them are needlessly cruel, which was interesting given their job description. Just brownie points all around for featuring so many women who actually interact with and have bonds/relationships with one another, which is so rare in fantasy.

Overall, a quick and fun read. I definitely want people to read this because of how it brings in diversity to the usual cis white male-dominated fantasy world, but at the same time I had substantial reservations about the plot and the main character's sanity. I guess this is one of those see-for-yourself books!

A free eARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
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