Thoughts on MASK OF SHADOWS by Linsey Miller (Let’s talk about assassins)

SUMMARY

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Disclaimer: this is not a review (I explain in this post why I have too much trouble writing book reviews), just a very long unedited ramble on assassins, representation, and storytelling.

I had a lot of fun with this book—partly owing to the fact that this is the one of my Pride Month reads that I consumed via Audible, which is always a better experience for me than traditional reading, but also because the story totally worked for me.

While Mask of Shadows doesn’t break any new ground in terms of storytelling, it ticked all the boxes that I personally need in order to enjoy a YA fantasy: the protagonist was likable, the emotional beats landed, the action was engaging, the side characters were genuine, and the love interest was cute.

For your convenience, I have broken this very long ramble into two parts.

Part 1: Fight Brain

For me, the standout element of this book was not exactly the action but rather the action-oriented nature of the protagonist’s brain. Let me explain: I’ve never assassinated anyone, but I did recently spend a few years working full-time at a martial arts school—teaching, training, driving, working the office, training more, and fighting tournaments. During the more intense and harrowing parts of this time, my brain chemistry seemed to shift into a mode I called ‘fight brain,’ in which I went into overdrive taking the lay of the land, sizing up every potential opponent, calculating the distance to exits, which way to run in case of conflict, what pieces of furniture could be used as weapons–basically running all potential self-defense scenarios.

This usually occurred at tournaments or in situations in which I suspected a physical threat (I was house-sitting a lot, so basically any time I was alone and heard a weird noise), however, there were times at the peak of my physical training when I got stuck in fight brain for up to a week at a time. For a writer, this is not good. You can’t exit reality to read or write with your brain hyper-focused on your physical surroundings (this will become relevant later).

I bring up this experience because I’ve always assumed that a career assassin would have to exist in a constant state of ‘fight brain’—or, you know… they would die. Mask of Shadows protagonist, Sal, satisfied this assumption in their continuous attention potential dangers. And since every other YA book I’ve read featuring a thief, mercenary, or assassin protagonist (including some I have otherwise liked) has rung false in this department, this was incredibly refreshing!

I also appreciated the time spent on Sal’s physical conditioning—another element that too many other action stories neglect (Fonda Lee wrote this absolutely spot-on article about the importance of physical training in martial arts fiction). I don’t have the quote bookmarked because I listened to this book on Audible, but there was a description of holding a bow drawn, with the pain burning and seeping through shoulder muscles, that was so accurate it hurt. Little things like that really helped to ground the action. And hey, isn’t action what was story like this is about?

This is where the discussion gets interesting.

Before listening to Mask of Shadows, I read a lot of the Goodreads reviews, many of which claimed that the action in this book as a problem—specifically that there was too much of it? That’s weird, right? That what I consider to be the book’s biggest strength is the reason others didn’t like it? How does that work? Well…

I really didn’t want to do this, but we have to talk about Throne of Glass

Because, in so many reviews, I’ve seen this book compared unfavorably to Throne of Glass, which initially mystified me almost as much as the fact that Throne of Glass is liked by anyone.

It’s hard to talk about the ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s of writing assassins without bringing up the queen of poorly written assassins, Celaena Sardothien (did I spell that right? I couldn’t care less). Throne of Glass was one of the first books I listened to on Audible when I was trying to get back into YA after college, and the one that put me off of YA for a year. The main reason I disliked it is one cited by every reviewer who disliked it (especially this guy on Youtube; he’s my favorite one): that Celinda Serotonin is not even slightly believable as an assassin.

Despite the story’s constant and grandiose claims about her skill, Celine Dion never assassinates anyone nor has an assassin-ish thought, like say ‘what is the best avenue for a quick escape from this room?’ ‘what if the food is poisoned?’ ‘how easily could I be sniped through my wide open window?’ Seemingly really basic stuff that an assassin might have on her mind. No, instead, most of her internal narration is dedicated to books, dresses, and boys. Remember when I said that even my lame minimum-wage, first-degree-black-belt brain was too alert for me to get lost in a book? Yeah, I could neither buy nor stomach this character and angrily stopped reading about halfway through.

Upon calmer reflection, I think there’s an understandable reason that Celery Sardinia resonates with so many readers. Most people would rather think about clothes, books, and dating. Those people want to imagine themselves as fantastically powerful and competent fighters as much as, say, gamers who write fantasies wherein the ability to press buttons makes them a super action hero. But physical fighting itself is an acquired taste – and a real fighter’s brain isn’t something the average YA reader can relate to the way they relate to thoughts about clothes. So, while Celestia Sandrover is a terribly-constructed character according to my personal criteria, she is perfectly constructed to provide wish fulfillment and escapism for those readers.

I’m not going to begrudge anyone the satisfaction of seeing a character like them as powerful; I just don’t appreciate my own passions (in this case, martial arts) being appropriated for the wish fulfillment of people with no appreciation for the discipline—but that’s just me being a grouch. The point here is that Caelena has a function, which she serves well.

Now, we come back to Sal, who is a realistic assassin first and a materialistic young adult second. These two character types are not mutually exclusive, something I think Sal succeeds in embodying where Celeena tries and fails. Sal does think about clothes, jewelry, and romance, but never to the exclusion more relevant concerns like threats to their life. Cuteness, romantic banter, and sparkly things aren’t absent from Mask of Shadows. They just don’t intrude in ways that make the main character seem like an idiot, instead occupying a reasonable amount of space in Sal’s fight brain—that is to say, a third at most.

For me, the focus on the grit, blood, and burning muscles of Sal’s life made the moments of softness more poignant. Realizing that our street-hardened protagonist always wanted to own something pretty tugged at my little heartstrings, which are not easily tugged. The grittiness being real made the softness softer.

However, in writing a more realistic thief-turned-assassin, Miller seems to have lost that segment of readership that can’t relate to fight brain, lock-picking, and broken bones. At least, that’s what Goodreads would have me believe.

So, what’s the lesson here?

Misaki (The Sword of Kaigen) by Merwild
Misaki by Coralie Jubenot (@merwild)

I don’t know how I would have gone about trying to solve this conundrum if I were writing a similar story. (The closest character I have to the cute assassin is Misaki of The Sword of Kaigen, but I was spared Maas and Miller’s problem in that her fraught situation did the heavy lifting in making her sympathetic, with the romance and assassin stuff being mostly backstory).

Maybe the lesson is to cool it with the assassins?

Years ago, I remember an anime reviewer (and darn it, I can’t remember his name, or I’d link him) detailing exactly this problem but with ninjas. He reflected on how we are irresistibly drawn to ninjas because of their skill, power, and mystery, hence the onslaught of ninja protagonists in 80’s manga and anime. But, of course, an unfeeling, all-powerful, incomprehensibly skilled shadow in the darkness doesn’t make for a very compelling main character. No matter how cool a ninja looks, there’s nothing there for a normal person to connect to. So, the thought was then, ‘Well, what if they’re baby ninjas, who still go to school, bicker with their classmates, pine after their crushes, and generally suck at everything? Then, they’ll be relatable!’ Except, the reviewer pointed out, in doing that, you rob them of everything that makes ninjas cool and… well… ninjas.

It seems like fantasy might be experiencing a similar problem with assassins.

The anime guy’s conclusion, if I remember right, was that there is no happy middle-ground. You either have a true ninja, with no audience appeal, or a stupid teenager in ninja cosplay. I don’t know if I agree with him there. For me, Linsey Miller’s Sal strikes a respectable balance between relatable kid and scary assassin. Maybe somewhere between Sal and Celaena, there’s a truly perfect YA assassin, who is both realistic and relatable to all types of readers? I hope so. Because, much like ninjas in anime, I don’t think the assassins are going anywhere.

Part 2: Gender Representation

The only part of this book that actively annoyed me was this solitary sentence late in the book. In a heated scene, mid-argument, an antagonist misgenders Sal. I immediately registered the backhanded language, not just because I’m personally familiar with gender fluid issues, but because I thought that Sal’s pronoun preferences had already been spelled out to both the audience and this character. Miller had made Sal’s gender identity, their preferred pronouns, the way others saw that identity, and the general social and political environment surrounding it very clear by this point in the story. So, even a casual reader, I thought, would understand that, in this context, someone misgendering Sal is the equivalent of getting their name wrong just to be rude (offense intended, Celaena. But I didn’t need to tell you that. See what I mean? It’s not that subtle).

Then the narration just says ‘he misgendered me!’

And that’s where I got annoyed.

I think that allowing your readers to notice the social norms of your world on their own is a critical part of engaging them in the story. This, to me, seemed like the perfect moment to reward readers for having paid attention to previous discussions of gender by letting them feel smart for registering the insult, and I was incredibly frustrated that Miller had squandered that opportunity by explaining it.

Now, I probably wouldn’t have gotten so angry if not for my special hatred media that explains what I’ve already figured out. My knee-jerk reaction is to take over-explanation as an affront to my intelligence. Case in point: when I was a little kid I had this deep, seething contempt for Barney, Blues Clues, and basically any show that talked to me like I was a little kid (which I was) and tried to explain things that I obviously already knew, like the alphabet. What do they think I am? Stupid?

But here’s the thing:

Gender identity is like the alphabet to me in that it’s an idea that I’ve returned to over and over again, since I was young. Not everyone has done that. For some people, gender fluidity is as new as the ABC’s, and those people might need it repeated a few more times before they can spell words. Just because I wanted to attack Big Bird with a baseball bat doesn’t mean that he wasn’t helping my little sister learn new things. And just because I didn’t want Gendery Fluidity 101, doesn’t mean that other readers didn’t need that.

Upon looking again at those Goodreads reviews, I found that a fair number of readers were confused by Sal’s gender fluidity and would have liked it spelled out more. What, to me, was an insulting lack of subtlety, was not clear enough for them. So, this leaves us with another difficult question:

How much explanation is too much explanation?

As far as the gender representation in Mask of Shadows, I frankly have no idea. Obviously, it depends on your audience, and It seems like I was way off base regarding general audiences’ experience of Sal’s gender identity. I am, however, going to keep this moment—my emotional reaction to the ‘he misgendered me’ line and the conflicting Goodreads reviews—in mind because I think it reflects one of my own shortcomings as a storyteller. In my books, I tend to expect my readers to pick up new concepts and terminology faster than is actually reasonable.

So, what’s the lesson here?

For me, it’s that I should probably repeat and reinforce foreign ideas more than I do before expecting my readers to be comfortable with them.

For you? The lesson is… don’t ever read one of my posts again? Because they go on forever and don’t end gracefully.

Go read Mask of Shadows instead.

Some notes:

  • If anyone knows who that anime reviewer was, please tell me. I seriously can’t remember. He was reviewing a bad sort of proto-Naruto 80’s anime where the ninja girls were all in skimpy clothes and the plot hinged on a lost princess?? I know that doesn’t do much to narrow it down, but it’s all I got.
  • Apologies to anyone who enjoyed Throne of Glass. I don’t hate you. I just hate that book.
  • Despite the over (or under?) explanation of Sal’s gender identity, it was awesome to see a gender fluid protagonist in a story like this one. I wish stuff like this had been on the market when I was a young fantasy fan.

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