I'd probably place my rating for this book at a 3.5, really? Although I feel a little mean because I did like and enjoy it. So maybe four would be faiI'd probably place my rating for this book at a 3.5, really? Although I feel a little mean because I did like and enjoy it. So maybe four would be fairer. I have mixed feelings! There were a handful of niggling flaws (repeated throughout) which kept me from engaging as fully with the main character's journey as I'd have liked. But I'm left with positive emotions overall.
First up - despite having seen several reviews which called the setting of MoS 'generic Medieval European fantasy' in fact this book goes above and beyond in terms of complex, coherent NON-EUROPEAN world-building. Multiple acknowledged religions with no persecution! A complex magical/religious component! Multiple races and ethnicities and cultures, many of which were PoC - including the Queen - all of whom were treated as equal under the law! An implied asexual character, others who are bi or pansexual with no judgement from the narrative! A tropical climate and a 'castle' compound made up of forested woodlands and rivers with individual cabins and lush roof gardens!
The only way in which Sal's world resembles 'Medieval Europe' is that there's a Queen (not a monarchy, note - there's no talk of dynasty or succession and the Queen herself is an ex-Priestess who seized power following a civil war between two nations, at least one one of which was run by a Council of elected officials) and a court. That's it. If you think that is *anything like* Medieval Europe you should educate yourself on history a bit more.
I really hate it when a writer has put a lot of effort into creating something non-standard for their setting and then readers label it 'generic' because of what I call 'fantasy blinders'. They hear 'castle/Queen' and they think 'Tolkien/Game of Thrones' and just ignore anything in the story that doesn't fit the generic picture in their own head. I read a lot (a lot a lot) of fantasy and I found this set-up really refreshing, especially the way that the whole system of governance is brand new and kind of an attempt at Utopia. The Queen and her High Court (including her Left Hand of assassins) truly are well-meaning and want their country to be a place of acceptance, peace, justice and love. Granted, they've a ruthless way of going about it, but it was interesting and new and I liked it a lot.
Having said that, I definitely struggled at times to map out Sal's world in my head. We got a lot of sensory descriptions of food (yum! more please) but when it came to anything else, there was a lack of the kind of concrete detail or narrative flow that would have brought this world more fully to life. I couldn't quite picture the sizes or shapes of buildings or rooms, see where Sal was in relation to others or to objects within scenes, and often lost track of whether it was supposed to be morning, noon or night. Transitions between scenes left me struggling to work out how time was passing. After only two reading lessons Sal's literacy is amazingly improved. Natural ability or because other lessons have been omitted from the narrative and time has passed? I have no idea. Sal mentions 'That was ages ago!' and I thought 'No, it was yesterday... wasn't it? We're told that Sal thinks they're getting stronger because of training - after only a day or two? Or was it longer? How can they be climbing walls now when they literally just got a massive gash in their side? I felt unanchored within the story's reality (both in time and physicality) and this bothered me a lot.
I liked Sal enough to stick with the story regardless. I see a lot of reviews are focussing on their genderfluidity as a point to either praise or criticise, but I feel that misses the point. This book is not about Sal's genderfluidity. That's simply a fact of who they are. The story deals with it as efficiently as possible and then dwells on it only as necessary during the rest of the events (mainly when Sal is misgendered by others either by accident or through deliberate spite).
No one portrayal of genderfluidity can possibly be expected to represent the nuances of the multitudes of different gender expressions beneath that umbrella in the real world, and no book which is about revenge, romance and assassins can possibly be expected to explore fully all the nuances of its main character's specific gender expression without becoming ABOUT that, which is clearly something the author wanted to avoid. We wouldn't expect that of a cis-het character's portrayal, and it's too much weight to place on a fun YA fantasy novel. The author should neither be praised nor censored for including genderfluidity in her work. Diversity is reality.
My main takeaways about Sal are that they're intriguing but ultimately feel slightly underdeveloped as a character. Their internal monologue is very repetitive - 'gotta avenge Nacea, ARRGH SHADOWS, ick Erlendian nobles are AWFUL, can't trust anyone - but I want to trust people - but gotta avenge Nacea...' Which could have worked if, when Sal was forced out of that repetitive mental loop, it had been used as a chance to develop the character more. But instead each time Sal's mind jumped the track to something new it seemed 'out of character' rather than growing naturally from their established traits/obsessions, especially because their thoughts always immediately jumped back to the original track without any sign of change. I felt as if the writer was attempting *something* interesting, but it didn't work for me, to the point where I can't really figure our what it was. Other people's mileage may vary there.
I did enjoy Sal's ruthlessness and the fact that they're constantly teetering on that razor-thin edge between likeable rogue and unlikeable anti-hero. It's nice to see a YA protagonist who isn't always agonising about the right thing to do and other people's feelings. And this was something that definitely *did* work in terms of characterisation for Sal. Because of the hard-scrabble life they've lived and the trauma of losing their family to supernatural 'shadows' as a kid, they've developed an ability to flip backward and forward between a borderline sociopathic mindset where the character can take life, opportunistically and without hesitation- but they still retain enough capacity for human empathy to apologise to their victims if their death at Sal's hands hurts, and to feel the weight of those deaths in the aftermath. This was good stuff and I would have liked it if it was explored even more.
The novel's main flaw was the choice to put all the other assassin 'auditioners' in masks and refer to them by numbers. It would have been OK if we weren't supposed to like, learn about or care for those people - if they were just obstacles for Sal and we were intentionally distanced from them. But I felt the author did want us to care - to like Four and Three and Two, and despise Fifteen and Five and Eleven. The narrative kept referring to them as if we *knew* them. But we didn't. In real life people's physicality means that you can feel an attachment to them even if you can't see their face or know their name, but in a book? They were like walking, talking voids on the page. I could barely tell them apart. It would have taken some amazing, subtle characterisation to pull this off, and I'd have been in awe if it had worked, but it didn't. That left large chunks of the action feeling empty, as if Sal was getting angry/upset/worried about the antics of complete strangers. Five did what? Oh - no, was that fifteen - hang on which one was he? Which number died now? Should I be happy or sad? Ack.
But now to the main point of my review. The thing about Mask of Shadows is that the author tried to do something really original, fresh, interesting and cool. And in some places she fell short. And that's frustrating to read. However, I'd rather read something truly ambitious that aimed for the moon and landed among the stars than another generic YA fantasy blockbuster that's so clearly riding on the coat-tails of other blockbusters that it might as well have been written as a screenplay for the inevitable TV or film adaption.
That's why, despite writing this long review picking faults in the book, I DID enjoy it, and would read the next one, too. That's why I cared enough to review it at all: because a book that came close to greatness but failed is worth analysing in a way that a merely competent or adequate one isn't. We need more debuts like this, and more writers like Linsey Miller, who are willing to write something DIFFERENT even if that means they don't get everything perfectly polished and right the first time around. Ultimately, I'm glad I bought this, and that it exists.
I loved the pacing and the dreamy atmosphere of this novel. The characterisation, in particular, was breathtaking. Seeing Vasya from within as a wild,I loved the pacing and the dreamy atmosphere of this novel. The characterisation, in particular, was breathtaking. Seeing Vasya from within as a wild, frightened child and then from the PoV of others as this terrifying, all-seeing seductress was such a brilliant conceit. Feminism!
I don't know as much as I would wish to about Russian folklore or culture, but I felt that the fairytale version of the world created by Katherine Arden was internally consistent, compelling and unique. The focus on Vasya's childhood meant that this felt more like a YA novel to me (I suppose some of the sexual descriptions were a little more frank than in the average YA novel) which once again brings home to me that the YA/Adult divide these days is about marketing more than any kind of judgement about the qualities inherent in a work.
The main reason this received four instead of five stars was the ending section, including the battle with the bear. Despite the ultimate bittersweetness of the climax, it felt rushed and convenient. The whole book up until this point has a great sensation of depth, of nuance and gradually deepening tragedy. Then suddenly it's a headlong rush toward the finish, and that sense of depth and nuance was replaced with spurts of scrambling action which just didn't resonate in the same way. It was as if the rest of the book had been revised and polished many times, and the climactic scenes were a first draft (although, of course, for all I know the opposite may be true). I was shocked to find that the story ended there.
In any case I did very much enjoy this and I will be extremely keen to get my hands on the next book in the sequence....more
**spoiler alert** I liked this - I really did - but it felt very slight, especially for an adult novel. The touches of alternate history whimsy and th**spoiler alert** I liked this - I really did - but it felt very slight, especially for an adult novel. The touches of alternate history whimsy and the historical background, both Victorian-English and Post-Shogunate Japanese, were great, and I thought both Thaniel and Mori were interesting characters. The writing was occasionally clunky but also occasionally lovely. I just feel as if everything was very underdeveloped.
The depths of the characters were never really explored - we saw all of them a *bit* upset or a *bit* scared, or a *bit* angry, but never at their absolute best or worst, except perhaps Grace - and all of the relationships felt rushed and shallow. The whole plot is essentially powered by what the author clearly intended us to take as love between Mori and Thaniel, but we were never given any substantial insight into how they feel. How they are, or would be, with each other as a couple.
I'm not saying I expected a romance novel complete with love scenes, but this felt as platonic (and about as passionate) as Wallace and Gromit. If your big twist is that one person has literally been 'remembering' the other person their entire life, and has spent that entire life arranging events to ensure that they would one day meet and be together - including leaving their country, sailing halfway across the world, and allowing a massive bomb to blow up, killing dozens - then I think that relationship should be a bit more thoroughly explored. I was left feeling that Mori liked Thaniel because he remembered liking him, and Thaniel liked Mori because he baked for him and made him tea.
In short: everything just wanted a bit more oomph and committment from the author. It was as if she chickened out from the really intense emotional moments that would have brought the story to life. But this only took me a couple of days to plough through, and I would definitely pick up the author's next book....more