Mask of Shadows was just some random fantasy novel I requested on NetGalley in exchange for a review, and then I started hearing all about it elsewhere. Linsey Miller’s debut novel features a genderfluid protagonist trying to become the next assassin to the queen. Sal is a thief and one of the few survivors of a massacre that wiped out almost all of their countrypeople. They view the assassin position as a chance to align themselves with the queen who ended that war and drove back the shadows—but by getting involved in nation-level politics, Sal might have bitten off more than they can chew.
One of the central elements of Mask of Shadows is a trope I really enjoy and one I’ve built into my own eternally-WIP fantasy novel: the story takes place after the Big Bad is vanquished. In this case, the Big Bad are the shadows that infiltrated this world. It’s about a decade since Marianna da Ignasi kicked the shadows out of the world by getting rid of all magic. That in and of itself might have been an epic story to tell, but for whatever reason, Miller didn’t choose to start there. Instead we start with Sal, embittered by the slaughter of their family and countrypeople by the shadows.
Sal’s spur-of-the-moment decision to try out for a role as royal assassin might seem strange to those of us who are just meeting them. As the book continues, though, and we learn more about Sal, it starts to make more sense. It’s as if Sal’s entire life since the destruction of Nicea has been an interim period, where Sal has been floating as this thief and highway robber, waiting for an opportunity to become involved in something bigger.
The assassin competition itself was OK. These types of stories, to be honest, seldom do much for me. The repetitive nature of having to eliminate the various members of the competition until only a few remain for the climax gets dull for me, fast. Miller does a lot to make it easier. In particular, the other members of the Left Hand are a delight. Similarly, their rules for the auditions make sense; I can actually imagine this type of assassin-audition setup working.
I’m a little ambivalent about how Sal goes in with almost no experience in this field and very few other skills and the Left Hand is basically all, “Yeah, we will train you at whatevs.” But I think that’s Miller trying to show us that this world has slightly different mores than the cookie-cutter fantasy we’re used to. There is a sense of compassion running through the social interactions in this story: almost all of the upper-class characters respect and treat servants well, and people in authority, like the Left Hand, generally want to level the playing field. This is, of course problematic in and of itself, as it is framed paradoxically within a feudal society wherein social mobility is very limited and imperfect. I’m willing to cut Miller some slack here—it’s hard to interrogate all these ideas in a single novel, especially when limited to one person’s perspective. I’m curious to see where this goes in subsequent novels.
Mask of Shadows is steeped in conflict, and not just the violent kind. Miller does a good job presenting people who are, on the face of things, reasonable people whose goals merely conflict with Sal’s. In some cases this leads to compromise; in other cases it is more … fatal. Similarly, we encounter situations where Miller invites us to disagree with Sal’s beliefs, goals, or actions. This is an imperfect protagonist. Sal’s drive and determination to become Opal and then to use the position as a way to enact revenge is powerful yet very unhealthy, and Miller does not hesitate to underscore this latter fact. I really appreciated the frank conversation between Sal and the Queen near the ending of the book and for the glimpse it offers us of Marianna da Ignasi’s character.
As I said earlier, these types of competition plots seldom interest me. This was true for this book—but I still had a really good time! I was so interested in what Sal would do next, in what mistake they would make or plot they would hatch. Overall the character development is very uneven: there are some twists and reveals that seemed mainly there for dramatic effect, and some of the characters are very flat. The same can be said for the worldbuilding. Miller errs on the side of less infodumping rather than more, and while that is the correct side of the line to be on, in my opinion, sometimes she veers a little too far away from giving us information that could deepen our understanding of this world. I don’t want to have to wait for a timeline in an appendix to give me that.
Critiquing the presentation of Sal’s genderfluidity isn’t in my lane. However, I did like that Sal’s gender identity is not a big deal in this book. There are a couple of instances of unintentional misgendering and at least one instance of intentional misgendering, but by and large, even the people who have a problem with Sal take care to use the correct pronouns and apologize when they mess up. Similarly, Miller includes numerous other queer characters. We even learn, near the end of the book, that one character is aromantic—she mentions it in passing (does not use the term), so it’s easy to miss, but it got me really excited. So, in general, I like how Miller handles the diversity of her characters by making it a foregone conclusion that they are everywhere instead of people who must be announced, discovered, or otherwise explained.
Mask of Shadows feels like a debut novel. The writing, particularly the characterization, is uneven. It recycles a lot of common fantasy tropes. Parts of it are clunky. At the same time, however, it tells a great story, has a satisfying arc to it, and it leaves me wanting more. Parts of it are brilliant. I’m curious to see where Sal goes from here, and whether their responsibilities will conflict with their personal goals.