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You would think, that after 11 years of living in Wichita, I would cease to be surprised about things. And yet, soon after beginning Wichita State MFA student Linsey Miller's debut novel, Mask of Shadows, I found myself both surprised and delighted: being a picky fantasy reader, it's not often I pick one up head over heels for the characters, the world, and the whole book.
Sal Leon is many things: a refugee from war, the only survivor of a fallen land; a thief; ambitious; reckless; and set on revenge for the lords who were responsible for the deaths of an entire country. The problem is that Sal has no access to those lords... so when Sal comes into the possession of an audition poster for the Queen's Left Hand -- a group of highly trained assassins in the service of the queen -- Sal decides to take the chance. But little do the auditioners know that the trial is to the death, and that there will be many obstacles in their way.
To get this out of the way: Sal is gender fluid -- sometimes a she, sometimes a he, and sometimes a they, as Sal puts it -- and while the gender fluidity is part of the story (Sal was often annoyed when people didn't get their gender; they did what they could to help people "get" it, but some characters were willfully obtuse), it wasn't the entire story. In fact, there was so much to love! Miller has done some incredible world building, parsing out enough information to help the reader understand the world, but not going into long tangents about the history (though there is one attached at the end, if the reader is interested). There was magic, but that was banished, which leaves for some intriguing subplots (and maybe some more exploration in the sequel?), but that doesn't play a huge role in the narrative. Instead, this is a survival story: Sal needs to survive the trials and become the new assassin if they want to enact revenge for the systematic murder of their people. It's written in first person, and Sal's life/head is a good place to be: they are a smart, intuitive, and creative survivor. The book is also populated with a lot of fantastic secondary characters, from the servant Sal gets when they join the trials to the other members of the Left Hand. It's a brutal book: in a trial to the death, there is bound to be people killed that the reader cares about. All that gives it heft, though, and shows that Miller's not afraid to tell the story that needs to be told.
An excellent debut novel, and I can't wait to read the sequel.
— Melissa Fox
"I love every aspect of this amazing book--a genderfluid hero, a deadly contest, and vicious courtly intrigue. Get Read Now " --Tamora Pierce, #1 New York Times bestselling author
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.
More Praise for Mask of Shadows:
A Bustle Most Anticipated YA of 2017
"Compelling and relatable characters, a fascinating world with dangerous magic, and a dash of political intrigue: Mask of Shadows completely delivered. Fantasy fans will love this book."--Jodi Meadows, New York Times bestselling coauthor of My Lady Jane
"An intriguing world and a fantastically compelling main character make for a can't-miss debut. Miller's Mask of Shadows will make you glad you're not an assassin--and even gladder Sal is."--Kiersten White, New York Times bestselling author of And I Darken and Now I Rise