One of the first things that grabbed me as the cover. The crossed daggers and the light blue/grey background. Add that with the title, Mask of Shadows, and I couldn’t wait to find out what it was about.
Mask of Shadows is about Sal, who lives in a world where magic has been expelled from. They live under the rule of a queen they refer to as Our Queen. Sal, a thief, ends up finding out that the queen is looking for a new assassin to replace the one that just died. The title for this assassin is Opal. She has four assassins: Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, and Opal.
The book intrigued me, even more so when I learned that the main character is genderfluid.
Mask of Shadows is written in first person, past, so as the reader you never get a proper description of Sal. So you can imagine them however your mind wants to physically. I’m not gender fluid, but I think Miller summed it up pretty nicely:
“Rath had asked once, a while after we’d met and been living together, and I’d not known how to explain it yet. I didn’t have the words. He always felt like Rath, and I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water.”
When I started reading Mask of Shadows, I was really curious of the world. I wanted to know more about Erlend and Alona. And the story definitely had a Throne of Glass vibe. The whole book had that vibe, only it was poorly executed.
Our first impression of Sal is of them robbing a noble, lady, Elise. They show no violent side, and they actually let Elise keep a necklace that is important to her, but could probably get pawned for nice amount. Sal shows generosity and kindness, even though they do take everything else from Elise, like her purse. It’s through stealing this purse that Sal learns that Opal died and there are auditions for the new Opal.
It’s just a little weird that the queen is advertising that one of her assassins died and she’s in need of a new one. Sal finds a flyer in Elise’s purse. I don’t get why Elise had the flyer to begin with.
The queen is described as all powerful. Just staring at her knocks the breath from your lungs.
“I knew why those who’d worshipped The Lady had rebuilt their temples to honor Our Queen. She was power trapped in mortal form.”
Announcing to your kingdom that your assassin is dead and you need a new one kind of shows weakness. It would feel more real and authentic if the assassins that the queen used weren’t so easily connected to her. To the land the queen rules, the assassins should be known as her advisors. It would make a much more interesting story if Sal signed up to be an advisor and then found out they’re actually competing to be an assassin for the queen. And that leads me to my next point.
We need to see more ruthlessness from Sal if they’re supposed to go from a thief to a killer in a matter of pages. Even if they were a street fighter in the past. In order for Sal to become a killer, and a cold one at that, we need to know more about what drives them. We vaguely know that the family was murdered–slaughtered during a war. But we need to feel more of the pain that Sal feels. We need to feel the vengeance that drives Sal to kill without thought.
As the reader we need to know Sal’s incentive to become this killer that lists off names like Arya Stark.
I don’t know much about this world. I don’t know where the continents are. I don’t know if a body of water separates any of them. I don’t know how long ago this war was that Sal mentions time and time again. I don’t even know how old Sal is or how they got to be where they are. There are tons of questions I kept asking myself, and I was hoping that they’d be answered by the end, but they weren’t.
What I do know is that magic has been abolished by the queen, and with it, an entity they call: shadows. I don’t exactly know too much about them except that Sal is deathly scared of them, and that Sal’s siblings were killed by them.
The world building needed a lot of development. This might be because Miller herself doesn’t know too much about it yet, or that she knows so much about it she forgot that the reader doesn’t and needs to be informed. I don’t know. It’s sad though because the world, from what I gather, is a pretty interesting world. I wish I knew more.
The pacing in the story was off too. Things that Miller should’ve elaborated on, she didn’t. Sal, as a character that has to kill without question, should have a lot of internal conflict. Especially if they never killed before. Which they haven’t.
Sal’s first kill is their boss. They do it without though and without remorse. Further on in the book they say:
“”He recanted.” I pulled the nightshade extract from my pocket and shook the vial. “It’s not worth it.”
Ruby took the vial and pocketed it. “Because killing doesn’t bother you.”
I nodded. I’d never kill before auditions–all those people I’d robbed and fought could bounce back from boxed ears and a few missing jewels–but I wasn’t killing because I liked it. It was a job.”
Killing is killing. It’s going to affect you no matter what. You have to have something chemically wrong with you if it doesn’t bother you and I’m sorry Sal, but you don’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s a job, or self defense (not that they’re using that here) but it’s going to haunt you. You removed someone from the world. You don’t bounce back from that so easy.
When Sal gets to the audition to be Opal, they’re asked to kill a guard. Sal does it without hesitation or thought. Sal just lunges. I get that the test is to see if Sal would do it, no questions asked, but it was a little alarming how fast they act. I had to reread what was going on because it was so sudden. This happened throughout the book. Something would happen and Sal would just act and I got lost because there was no build up to it. Sometimes it’s not even an attack but boiled down to the placement in a room.
There’s one scene I remember in chapter eight that just confused me. No one’s placement, but Emerald’s is mentioned.
“…Emerald leaned across the couch and rested her chin on long, crooked fingers…Ruby peered at me through his eyeless mask, and the sting of it burned the tips of my ears…”
And at moments it’s as if Miller forgot where she put each of the characters.
“…Emerald studied my feet and worked her way up to my face. She corrected my posture till my spine was straight as hers…”
There was no mention of Emerald standing or walking towards Sal.
“…Ruby crossed his legs and let out a soft laugh…”
So Ruby’s sitting. That’s what I assume with the crossed legs.
“…Amethyst beckoned me and pried off my gloves…”
This is the first time Amethyst is mentioned. She basically checked Sal’s muscles and hands. Emerald did too. At the end of the chapter Ruby is mentioned “unfurling from his chair”
Scenes are awkwardly written and dialouge is badly placed. It was hard to follow at times and I found myself rereading paragraphs and pages just so I could mentally check to see who was saying what. There weren’t enough dialogue tags, just actions, like a smile or a laugh. And even though that sometimes signified that the person doing the action is the one that spoke, I still got lost and had to reread to make sure.
For example, at the end of chapter eight:
“He [Ruby] opened the door. “Now, get out.”
He shut the door behind me.
“The Left Hand will grant you time to collect your thoughts.” The servant with the red collar smiled, the crook of his lips more consoling than happy.
I thought Ruby was talking but he just shut the door so then I thought he followed Sal out. I don’t know. It’s just badly placed.
And the last thing, the relationship with Elise was unnatural. I just wasn’t rooting for it. They didn’t really have a click. It was forced. And would you really want to be with someone that robbed you at knife point and is now training to be an assassin for the queen?
Mask of Shadows has a lot of potential, but it needs work.
PS. Sal literally fell out a window at the end of the book and by the next chapter it wasn’t even mentioned. Like I think I might’ve imagined it.
PPS. I’d like to thank NetGalley and the publisher for a copy of this book.