A review by hailandwellread
Mask of Shadows, by Linsey Miller

4.0

4 STARS

TW: violence, misgendering

Ohhhhh did I love this one, and I can't believe I let it sit on my shelf so long. It was fast and exciting and action-packed AND THE SEQUEL COMES OUT TOMORROW.

Thanks to someone incredibly generous, I was gifted a pre-order, and as soon as I finish unpacking and easing into my new apartment (tomorrow is move-in for senior year omg), you know I'm going to have my nose straight in that book! It doesn't stand a chance.

But returning to the book that is out, wow, I had such a good time! I've seen a lot of folks really mixed on this, saying they either loved it or hated it, but I'm definitely in the loved it camp. Was it perfect? No. Did I have a good time anyways? You betcha!

It helps that I really loved the main character, Sal. For starters, their willingness to adapt really stuck out to me, and despite how ruthless the circumstances they ended up, they still managed to survive. I do love a good survivor character, after all. Especially an angry survivor, who sometimes gets a reminder that they're not the invincible fury they sometimes wish they could be. Sal has their share of successes, but there are some setbacks along the way that shake what they believe about their heroes, and how much they believe in their own strengths.

You'll notice I'm referring to Sal with they/them pronouns, which was the other super awesome part. Sal is genderfluid, and I thought the story handled it really well. Granted, I'm cis, so I'm not speaking from lived experience, but I thought it was well done how Sal expressed their gender and stood up for it as well when necessary. It was straightforward and unapologetic how they handled it, and certainly something I was extremely happy to see a main character refuse to compromise on. As a note, Miller has stated that even though Sal uses he and she pronouns at times in the story, they/them is the best way to address them in reviewing, in case you're also thinking of reading this and writing a review.

In addition to Sal, I really liked the love interest, who's bi, smart, and cute as hell. I also loved the Left Hand, the group of assassins Sal is auditioning to join. They each had a distinct personality that slowly unveiled as the auditioners dealt with them more, and one of them had a particular secret that I'll admit I didn't see coming despite the clues leading up to it.

On top of all that, I liked the plot. Most fantasy tournaments involve magic and rules to prevent participants from dying, but this tournament is entirely without magic and based on who survives long enough to reach the end. It's an audition for assassins, so of course it's based around killing the competition without leaving a trace. Of course anyone could die. And somehow, even though everyone is referred to by number throughout the competition, there are a few competitors who start to come alive, and there's one I'm hoping to see more of in the sequel.

The only thing that really gave me pause was the worldbuilding. As much as I had a great time with the fast-moving plot and watching Sal in action, all adaptability and vengeance, the worldbuilding tended to lean towards info-dumps, and I couldn't visualize the countries that were supposed to be at war and where they were and why exactly they'd been fighting. It felt too fast, too much, whenever more worldbuilding was introduced, especially the rules of magic that once flourished as that gradually pertained to the story. Some of it felt a lot like a plot device, and didn't feel very organic as a result. More than once, I had to reread a passage to get a proper grasp on what was going on because of this. Occasionally, given the face pace, scenes would also hop in such a way that I was confused and had to backtrack a little to regain my bearings. It slowed my reading a bit to have to do that, and I really wish the book had had a map in it for clarity's sake.

Still, though, I came out of the book absolutely delighted and having a really fun time, and I'm SO READY to open up Ruin of Stars, especially since this is a duology! Long live fantasy duologies because anything longer tries my patience and my wallet!