Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

Sal is stuck being a thief for a crime boss who takes most of what is stolen.  When Sal robs a carriage there is a flyer that offers the chance to become a member of The Left Hand, a group of four who work as assassins for the Queen.  Sal admires the queen who ended a war and banished the bloodthirsty Shadows out of the land, but not before the Shadows attacked Sal's home and killed everyone by skinning them alive.  If Sal can win the role of Opal and join The Left Hand, they can get away from the life of being a thief while also having access to the very people against whom Sal has vowed revenge.   

I spent much more time reading this book than I usually do for a book of 350 pages because I had to re-read so many passages that just didn't make sense to me.  At first I thought I was skimming too much and missing something, but eventually I decided that the writing really was that unclear.  And when I finished the book - finally! - and read reviews by others, I was heartened to see that I'm not wrong in my assessment as many other people also struggled.  Close to the end of the book I started a conversation with my husband with "So this book I'm reading.." and he broke in to say "Yeah!  What is that about?!  All I saw were the words 'mask', 'left hand', and 'five'."  He had been looking on while I read on the train and said that he had managed to finish reading a page before me which never happens so he knew I was moving slowly.  So what was so unclear about this book?
  • I was very often unsure which character was speaking during dialogue.  I would assume it was the person who had just been described - like "Ruby smirked" - but then the statement didn't seem to make sense coming from Ruby so I'd have to re-read to see what I had missed.  
  • There were classes? or races? or people and Sal had vowed revenge against some of them but I wasn't sure who they were.  Were the Erlands the nobility?  What is their place in society now?  By the end of the book I think I had it down, but there wasn't a complete explanation of how things went down during the war until pretty close to the end.
  • Who had magic?  How did the Queen banish it?  When we meet her there is some description of the scars she bears from getting rid of it but I don't know how that happened.  I think maybe she was a mage, but I don't know that for sure.  Again, just general confusion for me in the world-building.  
  • For that matter, I wasn't even sure if The Left Hand was one of the four assassins specifically or if that referred to the entire bunch of them until about halfway through the book.  I'm not a fan of didactic explanation of things, but I need more to go on.
  • All of the people auditioning for the job of Opal are given numbers, one through twenty-three, and they all wear masks so it's difficult to separate them while reading as there is very little characterization.
  • And more...
I also figure I need to address the fact that Sal is gender fluid because it is the first thing written about this book in many reviews, although I don't feel like it's that big of a thing because it really doesn't factor into the story in any meaningful way.  Yeah, it's cool that there's a non-binary character in a book and yeah, I wouldn't be happy if that was THE point of a book, but much ado has been made of Sal's gender and as a storyline, that fizzles.  I think my biggest problem with the writing about Sal's identity is their description of it to someone who asks what pronoun to use.  Sal says that if they're wearing a dress, use "she", if dressed like a man, use "he", otherwise use "they".  That's not so hard, right?  (They say something like that after the explanation).  Well, that does sound clear cut but then I got to thinking about it - do women ONLY wear dresses/skirts in this world?  Because in our world, women wear all kinds of things including pants lots of the time.  So I don't think we can identify a gender just based on clothing choice in the real world and that could be fairly misleading to readers who need some guidance on navigating gender identities in real life.  But mostly, I just didn't find that Sal's identity mattered to the story at all.  Since the book is fantasy it seems like the author could have gone almost anywhere with this as a storyline and not been held back by expectations from our world.

And while talking in the realm of gender and sexuality, the romance in the story left me unmoved as well.  Elise says that her only options have been to be with a man but she doesn't always feel that way and if Sal makes it to Opal, the world will be forgiving so I'm guessing that means Sal is a female biologically even though that is never explicitly revealed.  I think that having a lesbian relationship is great but I was never feeling the growth of the romance nor the reason why Elise was interested.  Like much of the rest of the characterization, it felt flat to me.

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