Mask of Shadows (book 1), from Linsey Milller, out Aug 29, 2017
I Needed to Win.
They Needed to Die.
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 steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.
But 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. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.
This time of year is generally a slog of doom in the day job for me. It’s the end of season and everything is due, which means there’s usually a significant amount of insanity as people try to get things in before deadlines, miss deadlines and beg, try to set things up for the next season and get it right this time, lick wounds and plan for the travel season that usually accompanies Sept/Oct/Nov before the holidays smack us all into a food coma. That means usually I grab the lighter bites in my TBR pile and try to carefully manage my commitments.
I had forgotten about this book until the pre-press materials started showing up in my email box. I went digging through my kindle to happily discover the galley and dove right in, causing a few late nights and late to camp drop offs as I read over breakfast. This slow start for me introduced a world of haves and have-nots, where individuals scrape to get by and figure out how to get their safe bed and food without destroying their personal ethics. It’s these personal ethics that lead Sal to an encounter with a noblewoman and changes their fate.
Heads up: this is told in the first person, which allows for an interesting bit of storytelling that Sal is gender-fluid. In the audition, they tell Ruby:
“And you can call me ‘she’ when I dress like this. I dress how I am.”
“And if you dress like neither?” Emerald asked.
“They,” I said. ….”I’m not always ‘they,’ though.”
This fluidity in gender probably served quite well in Sal’s personal history throughout early life and provided interesting color as different needs in the book created different costumes required for tasks throughout the Auditions.
The Auditions are how the Queen chooses her personal assassins. You have to be willing to do what the Queen (or her Left Hand) commands, without question, to the good of the kingdom. The Queen is working very hard, through careful assassination and politics, to knit together two kingdoms that have come out of magical-laden war worse for wear. Her commands are in effort to clean up the individuals she cannot neutralize via politics or are individuals who would have been tried for war crimes, if the evidence existed. To get there though, the would-be assassins have to out last each other, learn to blend in with courtiers and servants while putting aside their personal feelings.
The last proves to be the hardest for Sal. In trying to honor the deceased and in remembrance of personal heritage, Sal takes a personal mission. This ripples into not having an alibi, a few chess pieces moving in to play that had been dormant and a significant challenge for the final Audition to determine whether or not personal feelings could be put aside at the Queen’s command. Through careful work, Sal manages to keep the letter of the command while sliding in personal goals in an artistic fashion.
The book does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, making it a series beginning and not something that can stand alone. While things are mostly settled, there are many outstanding questions. It also makes you immediately go back and re-read, to see the underlying plot and the clues that were laced throughout that you missed on your first quick read. The layers are fairly amazing.
Depending on your personality, you may want to wait until the next book(s?) are out so you can read straight through. I can see rereading this when the next comes out so I can refresh all the layers before diving back in to see where winter leads us.