‘Mask of Shadows’: An amazing YA fantasy with a genderfluid main character

Before there is any other discussion, about the book or about the LGBT community, I want to say this:

Representation matters. Representation matters whether you’re in the group represented or not. Literature is meant to broaden your horizons (that’s right — even fantasy). Yes, you can still read about a genderfluid main character if you’re cisgendered. You can still read about an Indian main character if you’re a white American. I could go on.

Anyway, onto my actual review:


★★★★★

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Linsey Miller.

I loved this book. I loved it for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I couldn’t stop reading it.

When I was at work, all I was thinking about was when I could get home to keep reading. I stayed up longer than I probably should have for a couple of nights to finish Sal’s story.

This story follows Sal, a lowly thief trapped under a slum lord’s (thief lord’s?) thumb. When Sal robs an Erland lady in a fancy gold-trimmed carriage — rich people. Sigh. — they find a flier. For auditions. For the Left Hand… AKA a group of highly-trained warriors that fight for Our Queen, no questions asked. Our Queen trusts the Left Hand completely, and they are named for her rings (guess what? They’re on her left hand) — Ruby, Emerald and Amethyst. There is also an Opal, but the previous Opal recently died. A rough audition process awaits young Sal, who is determined to audition for Opal after finding the flier.

Sal cuts off someone’s hand, heads on over to the castle (after wrapping the hand, obviously, they’re not an amateurand it wins them a place as an auditioner.

I can’t give too much away without giving up major plot points, but this book was a delight. Miller’s writing lets you sink into Sal’s mind and stay there until you stop reading, and the nature of the Opal auditions makes sure there’s always something happening. There’s even some sinister court politics involved, which I’m always game for because I’m a messy b*tch who lives for drama.

I also loved the training scenes, because they were at least mostly realistic. They were harrowing, and tiring, and even at the end of a week or so of training Sal didn’t have the hang of archery or sword fighting. They’re hard skills to master in years, let alone a few training sessions, and I appreciate that even by the end of the book Sal is told they’re “awful.”

Now, I personally love that Sal is genderfluid because we don’t see characters like that too often anywhere, let alone in YA. Representation is important for lots of reasons (you can even hear me rant about it in podcast form), and I’m glad there’s one more LGBT+ book available for young readers.

Some of you might be wondering, how “obvious” is Sal’s gender-fluidity? Or, how big of a part of Sal’s character is it?

It’s honestly not a part of the book’s plot, and Sal doesn’t focus on it too much — they’ve been like that as long as they remember, and they know who they are. Sal has to explain it to a couple of people — to them, their gender is based on how they’re feeling day-by-day, so what they’re wearing makes it pretty obvious (since in court life, women generally wear dresses and men generally wear pants/tunics). They’re only really misgendered in one part of the book (twice in a row by the same character), and another character corrects it immediately. I can only really recall Sal mentioning their gender-fluidity about five times, all very brief, throughout the whole 384-page book. It’s easy to forget, but somehow still a presence.

My point here is, if you want to read about a genderfluid main character, this is your book! And if you don’t care about, or even don’t really like, the idea of a genderfluid main character, you could easily still enjoy this book. It’s not all about Sal’s gender fluidity. Their character, in my opinion, is even more heavily based on where they were born and what they’ve been through.

I will admit, the promise of a genderfluid assassin originally drew me to this book. But outside of that: A combination of characters, plot, court intrigue and general badassery makes this an easy five stars from me. I want to read more. Like, now.


You can order Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller from wherever you buy books! Here’s a link to Book Depository, where worldwide shipping is free!

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