{Review} MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller

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Mask of Shadows (Untitled, #1)
  THE THICK, briny scent of sweat-soaked leather seeped through my cloth mask. A guarded carriage rattled down the road upwind of me. I leaned out of my tree and caught a flicker of light from a carriage lamp. The carriage's blue paint shone, gilded and mud-splattered.

I groaned. "Nobles."

The branches beneath me creaked as footsteps scraped along the bark. I flipped a knife into my palm. The sentence for robbing nobles was hanging.

But only if they caught you.

"Lords, Sal! Where you at?" Rath burst through the leaves and tripped over my perch.

"Point of hiding is to stay hid." I shoved him backward and yanked his mask down over his face. "What do you want?"

Rath tapped my nose with his baton. "You up to robbing Erlends?"

Erlends were stiff and cold as the lands they ruled and merciless as death. They'd hold a picnic at the gallows.

I tightened the knots at the back of my maks. "You up to keeping quiet?"

(pg. 1, US E-ARC edition)

“There are only three rules while you are here: kill your competition, do not get caught doing so, and do not harm anyone outside of the audition. If any member of the Left Hand has significant evidence of your involvement in a death—enough to secure an arrest and sentencing were you brought before court—you will be disqualified. If we believe your actions caused injury or could have harmed anyone not involved, you will be disqualified or killed. At our discretion. Any questions?" Ruby raised his head, blind us with flickers of red light, and clapped. "Excellent. A servant will take you to your room. I hope to see fewer of you at breakfast."


How far would you let vengeance take you? Would you leave your life behind without a second thought? Would you take life for no other reason than because it was how you got to your end goal? Would you audition for the role of Queen's Assassin in the hopes that winning gave you access to those you wished you to enact simmering vengeance upon? If you were the main character of Linsey Miller's MASK OF SHADOWS, these are questions you would have to ask yourself very early on in the story. I'm not sure how you might answer, how I myself might answer, but for Sallot Leon there is no other answer but yes.

Sal has grown up haunted by the civil war that ended in the demise of their country Nacea and their entire family, sacrificed during a battle between two neighboring countries, abandoned by the Erlend lords who sacrificed men, women and children of Nacea to the flesh hungry, magic made shadows in order to save themselves. It's not surprising Sal has grown up with years worth of hatred burrowing deep in their chest, especially knowing most of the Erlend lords responsible for using Nacea as a shield have not faced any sort of justice or punishment. Sal has only known poverty since then, thieving and street fighting during the day and trying to avoid shadow-plagued nightmares after sundown. When they come upon a poster announcing open auditions for a new Opal—a member of Queen Ignasi's collection of assassins, The Left Hand—there is nothing holding them back from going. And of course this isn't the same as an audition for a job at the local bakery, no this audition is deadly. Competitor's must try to kill each other while training to become the most lethal assassins, and the hardest part is that you can't be seen killing any of your fellow auditioners. Sal seems like the runt of the litter at first, smaller and undernourished, but being a thief has given them valuable skills that quickly prove they are someone to be bargained with. For Sal the real test comes in trying to balance out doing well at training and surviving; in the hopes of eventually becoming a servant of the Queen, and focusing on their own ulterior motives, mainly finding and murdering all the guilty Erlend Lords. It's a lot to have on one plate, and it comes with risks, and it can be said that vengeance is not always easily sated and you have to face a lot of ugly truths on the journey.

The worldbuilding in this story makes me so insanely happy I could cry. There was never a moment where I felt like I was getting oversaturated with backstory or history. Mills did an amazing job of filtering facts through a mixture of conversation, actions, and internal thought, and the image of a broken nation trying with a new name but still boasting quiet scars from civil war was immediately sobering. Even set in another world it's a raw concept that can immediately be related to, especially once the political intrigue really starts to blossom and remind us how hard it can be to dispense justice and be fair but also bring people together. Everything in this world was described with such vivid intensity, from the scenery of trees turning into blurs of color as characters race through it, to the clothing styles and choices. I fell right into that really lovely medieval-inspired setting that I've always loved, and yet there was always an ethereal sort of edge to the imagery that kept me on my toes.

But the characters . . . the characters one hundred percent made this story for me. Sallot Leon swiftly won me over heart and soul, and I can't imagine trying to travel along the plot with any other character. As a gender fluid individual, Sal is constantly having to explain themselves to those around them. It really should be simple, as stated in words and in thoughts they make very certain to dress as they would like to be addressed. A dress against their skin means they are feeling like a she, more masculine clothing choices denote that you may refer to Sal as a he, and if clothing choices fall in between they are a they. Some of the characters embrace this without making a ripple, and others challenge and second guess Sal and the way both of these responses make our character feel adds a level of intense humanity that quite frankly brought me to tears sometimes. The relief Sal feels when people just let them be themself is palpable and it can be said that whether wearing a dress or a tunic this character is equally skilled and charming and filled with depth and utterly badass in a way that will probably win you over before they've even gotten to the audition. Aside from Sallot there are a litany of other characters in this world, and for most of them their level of importance to the plot depends on whether or not they have a name. Aside from Sal non of the other auditioners have names and are only known to the reader by assigned numbers. When there were twenty-three of them that was a little overwhelming, but the numbers dwindle fast and the numbers that will be most imperative to driving the plot forward and affecting Sal's journey definitely find ways to stick out. Then there are the other members of the Queen's group of Assasin's, The Left Hand. Emerald, Amethyst, and Ruby are deadly, sophisticated and I have pretty much never found myself wanting to be an assassin so badly in my entire life. Ruby in particular was just a standout with some great snark and a lot of my favorite quotes in the book. There's the Queen who we don't meet face to face until closer to the end of the book, but whose presence is felt throughout the storyline. Sal's servant for the audition, Maud is so smart and funny and the friendship that develops between herself and Sal is kind of everything. The only thing that tops it is Elise, who becomes Sal's tutor and comes as a surprise package which I won't ruin for you. These characters, even the ones who are temporary, are all whirling gears that have places in the storyline and keep it moving, keep it getting more complex as it goes.

I can't say too much more without getting spoiler-y, but what I will leave you with is that the competition is only the beginning, just an arc in a bigger picture that rises to a glorious crescendo and has my heart absolutely starved for the next book. Who will be the next Opal? Will the road to revenge be what Sal expects it to be? Can a nation really knit itself back together under a new name after it's fallen apart? You can have these questions explored and maaaaybe answered on August 29th when MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller bids you to audition for the Left Hand. Best of luck to you potential auditioners!!

Content Ratings: highlight between ( ) for details

Romance: ( Kissing, a lot of sensual touching and flirtatious cuddling)
Language: ( No cursing )
Violence: ( A lot of death and murder. Imagery doesn't purposefully linger longer than necessary but graphic violence is pretty much a constant companion in a battle to the death competition. )
Other: --
C O V E R   D E S I G N:

The wicked blades and insignia on this cover are immediately eye catching. What this cover promises you is action and intrigue, and it's one of those covers you go back and notice details in after you've read the book itself.
O F F I C I A L   I N F O:

Author: Linsey Miller
Release Date: August 29th, 2017
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Received: For Review


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.