With the release of Ruin Of Stars, the debut Mask Of Shadows duology by American author Linsey Miller is complete.
In her 2017 book, Miller introduced us to the magical realm of Igna, a country born from the ravages of war, and its ruler Marianna da Ignasi – also known as Lady of Lightning, Queen of the Eastern Spires – and her quartet of personal assassins. Just one year later and it’s all over.
Normally I’m one for shorter, succinct storytelling. But my only critique is that Miller and her publisher didn’t go for a trilogy instead, or at least find an editor to excise the overly long political statement of the second book.
As a result, the full tilt story of Shadows is slowed to an uneven sprint by the thrust of Stars. And the abrupt shift of tone between the novels goes to show the problem with shorter stories when there’s so much to get through.
In Shadows, Miller sets up the borders of a new country born out of a terrible war. Igna combines the former lands of Erlend in the north, Alona in the south, and Nacea in the south-west. But during the conflict, mages from Erlend created a devastating weapon called Shadows.
Shadows were souls of people ripped from their bodies and brought back to Earth in the form of shades that would chase after the living, flay them alive, and stitch the skin they obtained into semblances of a body.
Queen Marianna used her own arcane powers to banish all magic from the countries involved in the warfare, effectively ending Erlend aggression once its out-of-control army of Shadows was defeated by this absence of magic.
Protecting Queen Marianna and following her orders – be they legal or underhanded – is her Left Hand, a band of four masked assassins who go by the monikers Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst and Opal.
Shadows starts with the search for a new Opal after the last one dies at the hands of aggressors before the book even begins. It also serves to introduce Miller’s hero Sallot Leon, referred to as Sal.
Shadows, all bloodthirsty and fast-paced, drops you right into the action of a coach robbery by Sal and another young thief named Rath, both working for gang leader Grell da Sousa. Sal’s conscience lets the woman in the carriage keep a family heirloom, but Sal relieves her of jewellery and a coin purse.
In the purse is a notice through which Sal learns of a competition to find a new Opal for the Queen. The contest has deadly stakes – only one will be left standing, literally.
Sal, Nacean by birth, nurses a long-held hatred of those from Erlend and enters the audition in hopes of becoming an assassin, and execute those responsible for the destruction of Sal’s home.
In between sessions of hand-to-hand combat, poisoning and medicine, training with swords, bows, arrows and knives, the challengers have leave to kill each other – the caveat being they’re not to be caught doing it or leave evidence that leads back to them. Fair enough.
What separates this story from other YA life-or-death teen struggles is that Sal identifies as gender fluid. Nacea once recognised and honoured its gender fluid citizens, but after its destruction by the Shadows, Naceans fled to their neighbouring countries as refugees.
Unfortunately, the new Igna holds more values from Erlend than Nacea, which means there’s a strict binary structure to gender. And in this, Miller explores cultural assimilation in a way not normally seen in YA fiction.
Though by no means perfect in its execution, this duology provides many talking points for teen and adult readers. And while I admire and applaud the social justice aspect of the books, there are problems with pacing.
Mask Of Shadows is a thrilling, fast moving adventure, while Ruin Of Stars makes a jarring albeit necessary shift towards resolution. As entertaining as Stars is, the novel gets bogged down in politics and ruminations on the past actions of our hero.
A person who is never felt strictly female or male, Sal’s tale is an important story for younger folks grappling with the same feelings. Representation is important. When entertainment vehicles show that you’re not strange or awful or weird, especially in fiction, it is supremely powerful.
From a reader’s perspective, this is a tale worth reading, worth telling and worth understanding. As we as a society continue to evolve and learn from our past, knowing that previous cultures and civilisations understood and revered gender fluidity as a norm is important to be taught again.
Along with Sal, Miller has crafted appealing supporting characters. She also has a gift for quippy dialogue and making her characters feel realised. This duology might not be everyone’s cup of tea – the books are in parts humorous and gory – but they’re a blast to read.
Mask Of Shadows / Ruin Of Stars
Author: Linsey Miller
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire, young adult fantasy