Mask of Shadows | Thoughts
I am not overly impressed. I think the world, characters, and overall story have good potential, but I was confused for the majority of the book.
I think this is set in a land called Igna, though names like Nacea, Erlend, and Caracol flew around frequently. From what I pieced together (since there is barely any explanation or world-building), Erlend is a land (or people) that used Nacea (another land/people) as a shield when a great magical battle occurred. The Erlend mages who created shadow-monsters used Nacea to escape and save their own people, thus eradicating Nacea and then going on to live their happy lives. The Queen of these people, whom our main character adores for some odd reason (because, Sal hates the Erlends but this is the queen of the Erlends?), is looking for a replacement in her Left Hand - her royal guard - and is holding a tournament for assassins to find the new member. I didn't mind the similarities in plot to stories like The Hunger Games; I mean, really, are we saying that no one else can ever write a similar plot in a different setting? Plus, I didn't really think The Hunger Games was that great...*gasp!* Don't shun me.
Anyway, I didn't mind the plot line, and I thought the idea of the Left Hand all representing a different stone the Queen wears was interesting. We have a masked Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, and Opal...though I wondered the entire time why it was Opal and not Sapphire. Sapphire just seems like the obvious fourth stone.
I also think that every time Sal refers to the Lady, he/she is talking about the Queen...though Sal looks at the stars a lot when praying to the Lady Bless, so it could be a goddess instead. I just don't really know about a lot of things that happened in this story - it was all over the place with new names thrown around, gods invoked, evil shadows popping up, and magic possibly still existing. The politics were a mess, I barely followed what was going on and Sal jumped from one thing to the next too fast to make sense of what track we were supposed to be on.
The other main aspect I thought was poorly executed was how Sal is supposed to be a gender fluid character. While I respect (COMPLETELY) why we should have characters like this in books, I thought there was way too much effort put into Sal explaining/defending every few pages why he/she didn't want to be classified as either gender. My first issue - if your intent was to create a world in which gender fluidity is completely accepted, then why do you need to have your character explain themselves over and over? Better to just write as if it truly is accepted and not something to get hung up on or in need of explanation, and the reader will accept them and fall deeper into the world you are trying to create.
My second issue stems off the first - there were several instances where Sal grew angry when someone addressed her/him wrong. Sal says, "Address me how I dress; if I'm dressed like a girl, she; if I'm dressed like a boy; he." Right, so you're saying the way people dress define them, number one; and number two, it's a little unreasonable to expect people to just change how they refer to you every day. If you meet someone and learn their name, call them that name the next few times you see them, and then they say one day "today I am *new name* and I'd like you to call me this whenever I wear this color," sure I think we could adjust to that for you since it's what you've asked, but cut people some slack if it's a little jarring to bounce around and remember to change our way of speaking depending on what you're wearing that day. People can get touchy about this all they like; it is a very controversial topic in which there's always someone saying "it's not about you, but about me and what makes me comfortable." Yes, and that works both ways, so let's just not forget that empathy on BOTH sides will get us a lot further than defensive argument. The author never gave any anatomical details one way or the other, and I will say this did help to keep Sal a fluid character in my mind, even though my impression leaned towards female.
All in all I was intrigued to read about a gender fluid character because I wanted a better understanding, and the plot had potential, but a lot of things fell short for me. More world-building, less defensive writing about what the main character is classified as, and clearer execution would have set this book above.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for supplying me an advanced copy for review!