Soaring Magic and Shaky Groundwork: Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

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Mask of Shadows

Linsey Miller
Sourcebooks Fire
August 29, 2017

When it comes to adding books to my already bloated reading list, especially in this economy, I err on the side of thorough scrutiny and cautious selection. However, there are a few things in a novel’s synopsis that I fall for faster than my wallet can keep up with: leading characters of color, explorations of gender and sexuality, and the promise of action and adventure. It is still the rare novel that pings all three categories, but with the literary push for greater representation of marginalized identities, I’m excited to find that my options are expanding with numerous great novels.

So, my curiosity was inevitably piqued when I first learned about Linsey Miller’s Mask of Shadows. Its marketing proudly boasts the thrilling adventures of Sallot “Sal” Leon, a genderfluid thief and sole survivor of a country brutalized by magic and war. An exciting highway robbery in the novel’s opening chapter introduces Sal to an audition being held by the Queen of their new land. The Queen is in search of a new member for her personal guard of gemstone-themed assassins. Still grieving the loss of their people, Sal is quick to jump at the opportunity. After all, should they actually succeed, they’ll be able to infiltrate the royal court and exact revenge against the nobles whose war ravaged their land. Now all Sal needs to do is survive.

In researching this novel, I have seen that it is frequently compared to Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. Of course, this is the unfortunate lot of young adult literature these days: everything is like Harry Potter, like Twilight, like The Hunger Games, like Divergent ad nauseum, forever, until I die of boredom. On a basic surface level, I can definitely see there are certain similarities in the referenced stories–assassins, deadly competitions, and the various political and socioeconomic problems that lead young protagonists such as these on their desperate journeys. But at the same time, Mask of Shadows, The Hunger Games and Throne of Glass could not be more dissimilar. Unfortunately, the reasons for these differences often do not work in Miller’s favor.

Mask of Shadows is at its strongest when dealing with the past, as the novel’s backstory is rich in conflict. A war breaks out between rival countries, Erland and Alona, and each side employs mages to try and turn the tide. Soon finding themselves outnumbered, Erland mages unnaturally manipulate their magic source so severely that some mages outright destroy their bodies, transforming their souls into entities known as shadows. While Erland tries to use the shadows in battle, these uncontrollable monsters soon begin to indiscriminately scour the land in search of flesh to devour. In their attempt to flee, Erland nobles sacrifice Sal’s homeland as fodder. Once Alona proves triumphant in the war and absorbs Erland into its empire, the new Queen finally destroys the shadows and subsequently banishes all magic from the land.

Not only are these events interesting in their own right, but they also offer an innovative twist to the somewhat common Magic Goes Away trope. In these kinds of banished magic stories, the people of the land (as reflected by the protagonist) are often angry about the banishment and long for the days of magic again. If the story wants to go full medieval, there may even be suggestions that the health of the land and kingdom are suffering under the weight of a corrupt ruler and their poor decision-making.

Mask of Shadows takes a new approach by having Sal grateful to the Queen for saving their life from the shadows and the land’s corruptible magic. At the same time, there are characters in the story that do miss the magic. Neither Sal in their hate nor other characters in their love of magic are seen as right or wrong for their opinions, for each group has a unique connection to magic that is understandable based on their life experiences. This nuance in perspective is refreshing to see, especially in its acknowledgement of the complications of history.

Once Sal qualifies for the assassin audition, the novel provides intricately described and well-plotted action sequences at a near consistent rate. As well as trying to avoid a surprise stab to the jugular or dying in one of the scheduled battles, auditioners must traverse a series of complex, seemingly random tests held by the Queen’s current assassins. The multiple obstacles help expand the competition beyond the typical “kill or be killed” routes that it could have devolved into, and the tasks allow Miller to showcase the cunning, abilities, and personalities of Sal and their competitors in dazzling detail. The battle scenes alone read as if they were pulled straight from the big screen.

But it is perhaps this blockbuster compatibility that ultimately undermines Miller’s novel. In many ways it feels like the skeleton framework of a first draft script, lacking significant details in nearly all aspects of its content. While the aforementioned backstory is fantastic, the present world is rather undeveloped. Sal often moves in blank space, appearing from one barely described environment to the next with little notice of their surroundings. When descriptions are finally provided in this regard, the setting does not exert itself beyond vaguely European flavored castles, towns, and political feudalism, as some of the more uninspired fantasies are unfortunately wont to do.

These cliches further tarnish the plot itself, which is overall very predictable. The official synopsis all but reveals the plot in its entirety, and any twists the novel offers can easily be seen several chapters in advance, even to the most casual fantasy fan. Because the novel is so formulaic in its pursuit of an obvious ending, nothing really matters over the course of the story. Beyond the threat of being killed–which we as readers know won’t happen since a sequel was announced almost immediately after Mask of Shadow’s release–there are no realistically serious stakes or insurmountable obstacles for Sal to overcome. Opportunities for actual suspense and emotionally compromising situations are lost before they’re given time to properly flourish.

I could almost forgive a cliched story if the protagonist is interesting enough to hold my attention, but that motivation never really emerges here. The unfortunate thing about Sal is that they had all the makings of a remarkable character. They are impulsive but skilled, able to circumvent whatever situation they find themself in thanks to their quick wits, and a childhood spent surviving on the streets with gangs of thieves. At the same time, Sal is pretty funny and confident, with a hidden sweet spot for the rare people and things they love. 

But Miller never really moves beyond these surface details to create a truly compelling character. Their backstory as a genocide survivor should make for powerful explorations of trauma and power, but Sal completely lacks an internal life that extends beyond their pursuit of revenge. Further, the way Miller portrays Sal’s trauma lacks realism or coherency in relation to the plot. Readers learn of Sal’s past through info dumps that permeate the narration at very random times, with little connection to what is happening in the outside world.

Sal feels too disconnected from their current situation, something of a bystander called upon to do some superficially difficult task and thus advance the plot. This again addresses the issue of no obstacles standing in Sal’s way to victory. The closest thing readers get to a real character struggle is Sal’s initial moral aversion and inexperience in killing someone, which is quickly taken care of by the third chapter when Sal successfully makes their first kill to qualify for the Queen’s audition. After that, Sal never dwells on their previous apprehension or lack of skill again, despite being involved in a competition where they could be killed for such an egregious misalignment of life experiences.

I also want to briefly discuss how Miller handles Sal’s gender fluidity, though I will tread lightly in this regard as I am a cisgender woman. Overall, I can appreciate the attempt that Miller has made to write a genderfluid protagonist where the focus of the story is on their adventures rather than their identity. Outside of Own Voices novels, “casual” representation that is reflective of people’s real life relationships with their identities is still surprisingly hard to find. There are very few explicit conversations where Sal must outright explain themself to an intrusive audience, and they mostly occur during the preliminary screening interviews for the audition:

“I dress how I like to be addressed—he, she or they. It’s simple enough…And you can call me a “she” when I dress like this. I dress how I am.” Which was fine by me. I wore a dress, and people treated me like a girl. I wore trousers and one of those floppy-collared men’s shirts and they treated me like a boy. No annoying questions or fights over it.

“And if you dress like neither?” Emerald asked.

“They,” I said…

Most everyone else wanted me to pick one, make addressing me easier on them by denying myself. I was already dressing so they could get it right. The least they could do was try. I didn’t see why had to choose.

“Address me however I look.” I was both. I was neither. I was everything.

These are clear and succulent answers, which I am sure encompasses some genderfluid experiences well. Yet, I am left with some stray thoughts. First, I do wonder about how Miller has Sal emphasize clothing coordination to signal their identity at any given time. It seems like a simplistic approach to gender fluidity that focuses heavily on a person’s external gender presentation for identity validation, rather than their identity simply influencing their chosen presentation.

I also wonder about the concept of gender and gender roles in the world of Mask of Shadows. Like other aspects of the overall world-building, it is strangely underdeveloped. How many non-cisgender people exist in this setting? I would wager zero besides Sal, as they are the only character explicitly stated to be non-cisgender and, for some reason, is misgendered multiple times throughout the novel either by accident or for malicious intent. Unless the kingdom is a particularly backwards place–and readers are given no indication that this may be the case–I find it odd that this fictional world is still beholden to the oppressive societal responses that we experience in real life.

This depiction of “gender in an oppressive society” somewhat feels like a failure of imagination. To truly envision a world that constructs gender in a novel way would have grounded Mask of Shadows in a concrete and original setting, and it would not force Sal to be the only voice of gender diversity in the novel. Further, it would also give Sal more people to befriend and interact with, which would have definitely contributed to the development of Sal’s character. As it stands now, things just feel a bit too unfinished and uncritically created for me to share this novel with others specifically in praise of its diversity.

However, if you’re looking for a quick and fun read this year? Mask of Shadows may be up your alley. It’s not a bad debut by any means, just a lacking one. With the sequel coming out sometime in 2018, I hope that Miller has the chance to lavish her entire novel with all the care and expressive writing that went into the great backstory and wonderfully detailed fight scenes. A more solid foundation for this story will certainly help it soar to the great heights it desires.

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Adult-in-training by day, queer geek of color by night.

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