ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is a hard one to review. Linsey Miller’s debut novel truly did have a lot of potential, and I do believe that the following installments will be much better than this first book that was laying the groundwork for this world. Unfortunately, this book read very slow and it makes the story in general feel very underwhelming.
Trigger Warnings for: misgendering, violence, and gore.
In this world, Queen Ignasi ended the civil war between Erlend and Alona and combined them into Igna. The Queen also banished the land of magic, and the shadows that very painfully and cruelly kill people. And the Queen has four personal guards at all times, that match the gemmed rings she wears on her fingers: Ruby, Emerald, Opal, and Amethyst. But one of the positions just opened up.
This book starts with a very unconventional robbery, where the thief’s life is changed forever. After the robbery, the thief finds a letter that gives all the information about the Queen’s position that just opened up.
The three other personal guards are holding an audition to join their ranks, and you have to be personally invited to audition or to bring something worthy enough to grant you an invitation. And our main character, Sal, brings something worthy enough.
Sal is then thrown into this tournament like audition, which is very reminiscent of Hunger Games and Red Rising, where it is basically a fight to the death and everyone is trying to kill and backstab everyone else. All the participants wear mask to hide their identity and they all go by the number on their masks. Our dear Sal becomes Twenty-Three, where I had to force myself to stop picturing Michael Jordan constantly.
And even though Sal states at the start of the book how difficult they find killing, they get over it extremely unrealistically fast, yet the tournament narrows down extremely long-windedly. Basically, I really enjoyed the start and the end of this book, but the middle section that stars the auditions themselves was too slow.
Sal also has a very tragic backstory, that explains why they was never able to learn how to read and write, but the information does come across as info-dumping. It’s hard to sympathize and grow attachments to them, when we learn about Sal being forced to grow up an orphan just randomly distributed throughout the book once every 100 pages.
We also have a few good side characters. One becomes a romance interest, and teaches Sal how to read and write. You guys know I love when books have a relationship that blossoms over one of the love interests teaching the other how to read. So, I actually really shipped and enjoyed their romance, and their study sessions just enhanced their relationship in my eyes.
My favorite character in the whole book was probably Sal’s personal servant, Maud. During the auditions, all of the contestants are given a personal servant, and Sal lucked out getting Maud. I loved her back story, I loved how she helped Sal constantly, and I love that she never lost sight of her selfless end goal. She was a really great character.
The reason I requested this ARC was because of the gender fluid main character. Now, it is very important to note that I am a cis-woman and this review is not coming at you from an own voices perspective, so I feel uncomfortable and not educated enough to discuss the representation in this novel. But here is my favorite voice on Booktube, who also happens to be non-cis, and is one of the voices that should be heard while talking about the representation of this gender fluid main character: Adriana, from perpetualpages
(If you guys are, or know anyone who is, an own voices reviewer of this book, please do not hesitate to link your reviews down below. I would love to add them to my review.)
For me, Mask of Shadows just read like generic YA fantasy. I didn’t hate this, I just didn’t really enjoy it either. I for sure did enjoy some parts, and a few of the side characters, but I felt the story was too tedious for me to ever fully immerse myself and to simply let myself just enjoy it. Again, I do think the next installment in this series will be much better, and I do want to cut the author some slack for this being their debut novel. Plus, as Adriana states in her book talk, we need more stories that focus on queer characters’ storylines, instead of just focusing on queer characters being queer.