DNF: Mask of Shadows

I had a great-aunt by marriage named Opal. She was the quintessential German Wisconsin lady. Snow white hair permed into a cottonball cloud, she was a bundle of energy swathed in at least one animal print. Her bright pink lipstick--at least five coats--formed a halo around her lips and somehow always smudged on the faces of any child who crossed her path. In short, she was pretty fabulous. And because of the associative nature of memory, I kept picturing my loud, brassy Aunt Opal whenever characters discussed the fearsome assassin of Our Queen's Left Hand in Mask of Shadows.

That is not the book's failing; it is my own. However, I believe that is the one problem I had with this book that I cannot pin down to murky prose, a generic plot, or weak worldbuilding.

I very much wanted to like Mask of Shadows--it promised a genderfluid main character in a YA fantasy! Cool! It also promised intrigue and derring-do! Ah, okay, about that ... no. If I can't figure out who someone is, why they do what they do, what the general history of the land is, or heck, what the main character looks like, it's very difficult to connect in any meaningful way with the story. I made it through 40% of my eARC before skipping to the end and judging that I had made the right decision in breaking it off.

Shockingly, I find myself agreeing with the majority of reviewers on Goodreads about this book, something that rarely happens. If my points sound repetitive, it might be because everybody else is saying the same thing.

Let me be clear: my issues with Mask of Shadows have nothing to do with representation (and to be quite honest, I don't know if that representation is good or not. I am waiting for others with more experience to read this so that I can learn, too). Sal, our main character, is really the only quasi-developed character in the book; alas, their characterization depends mostly on a) being a thief and b) cleverly overcoming all obstacles, no matter how unbelievable, in order to get what they want: VENGEANCE.

*cue dramatic closeup, wild eyes, and maybe a dash of spittle just to make things interesting*

Sallot Leon has lived on the streets ever since their home country was destroyed by magic over a decade ago. After a botched robbery involving a super-cute noble girl, Sal decides that the thieving life isn't all there is. Thankfully (???), the kingdom just so happens to be looking for an elite royal guard, and in order to get the job, one has to compete. Sal joins up.

The land has been united after war under the rule of a queen, always referred to as Our Queen. Our Queen rules the common people and the Erlend nobles, who were the magic-wielding invaders of the war. Our Queen has a specialized team of spies, guards, and assassins that serve her; they are called The Left Hand (my, even the "The" is capitalized!), and each 'finger' is a masked figure with the name of a gem. So, there are Ruby, Emerald, Opal, and Amythyst. It is unclear whether the queen does not consider the thumb a finger, is missing a finger, or just can't come up with more than four precious stones. Opal recently died, so Our Queen is holding auditions for a new one, and Sal thinks they have what it takes to make it as an elite assassin. They kill their thief boss (kind of like a Fagan to their Artful Dodger) and cut off his hand. See, the only way you get to audition as a member of The Left Hand is to have a personal invitation or show appropriate determination. Sal brings Grell da Sousa's hand as a token of their "appropriate skill or determination." Ew.

So now Sal is an illiterate career thief auditioning alongside some of the most talented scoundrels in the land to work in Our Queen's court. Each auditioner is given a number. The rules are pretty simple: last one left alive gets the post. For extra fun, contestants are allowed to kill each other as long as they don't get caught. If you get caught, you're done.

Unfortunately, the numbers-as-nomenclature idea results in flat characters that I couldn't tell apart. All I knew was that Sal was 23 and that they felt this was unlucky. What little grasp I had on the story was broken as soon as everyone started fighting one another. To add insult to injury, Sal's arc is the classic underdog/weirdly lucky/strangely powerful one. Don't worry--even though there are professional assassin-types who have been invited to compete (i.e. the Career Tributes), Sal sees right through their strategies and is able to survive their attacks. There is fighting, et cetera.

What really cemented this as a DNF for me was the completely scattered world-building. So the invading Erlenders released magic, which attacked the Lady (goddess) of Nacea. In turn, the Lady transformed the Erlend soldiers into flesh-eating shadows that attacked the people of the land and the invaders. Why would the patroness of a land use her power only for all her people to die? How did the Erlend mages stop the shadows? If the war was so recent, why does everyone talk about it as if it were myth? Where did Our Queen come from, anyway? Why are you making me ask all these questions and fumble about at the beginning of the book without so much as a how-de-do of world building?

Presumably, some of these questions are answered as the book goes on, but to be dropped in the middle of a world that has such a complex history and theology without any help at all is distracting. It wasn't a fun "Oooh, I have no idea what's going on!" sort of confusion, but a frustrating, angering one. 

This book makes me very sad. I was willing to go with a fun take on the whole protagonist-passes-series-of-trials trope. I wanted to read a fantasy with a genderfluid protagonist. But I also wanted a story that made sense. I wanted a story with characters that felt like people, not placeholders for a number or a color. 

Make of this book what you will. I have been seeing a lot of critique lately of white reviewers (like me) not finishing or one-starring books that have diverse protagonists because of a complaint with the writing or plot. If you feel that's what I've done, okay. But I cannot, in good faith, give a book with this many issues a pass because the protagonist is underrepresented in literature. 

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


  1. If the book works, fine, if it doesn't it just doesn't and no amount of "but hey, it's got diversity!" is going to fix poor worldbuilding.

    The competition sounds a bit like the one in Throne Of Glass, which wasn't quite as bad as everyone killing everyone else, but had a lot of stuff that didn't make sense to me, and the job concerned was labelled King's Champion but was more like King's Assassin, and the competitors were all taken from prisons - again, huh?

    1. The worldbuilding was sooooo bad. I felt angry because I shouldn't be that confused when I'm reading a book.


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