Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller

This review was originally posted on Butler’s Pantry. My copy of Mask of Shadows was an advanced reader.

Miller, LinseyMask of Shadows. 352 p. Sourcebooks Fire, 2017. ISBN 9781492647492.

Mask of Shadows Book Cover

All the nobles of Igna fear the might of the Queen’s Left Hand, four elite assassins known only as Emerald, Ruby, Amethyst, and Opal. When Sal Leon, a thief and a street fighter, steals a poster advertising auditions for the new Opal, they seize the opportunity to seek revenge on the nobles who betrayed Sal’s homeland during the last war. Kill or be killed, the auditions require strength and subtlety. Participants must eliminate their competition without arousing suspicion. Any moment might be Sal’s last.

A fusion of fantasy and political intrigue, Mask of Shadows is a dark and suspenseful read. Miller delves into themes of gender identity, prejudice, and privilege. The positive exploration of Sal’s genderfluidity makes this book an important addition to Young Adult collections. Sal’s identity is never portrayed as a hardship. Although Sal dresses to show how they wish to be addressed, they are not focused on cisnormativity, but rather on being who they are. They explain, “I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always.” Throughout the book, Sal grows as a character and learns to trust someone they initially saw as an enemy. Miller develops a compelling romantic subplot. The cliffhanger ending of this debut novel will leave readers dying for the next installment in the duology.

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Looking for Group by Rory Harrison

This review was originally posted on Butler’s Pantry.

Harrison, RoryLooking for Group. 368 p. HarperTeen, 2017. ISBN 9780062453075.

Looking for Group Book Cover

Dylan might not be dying anymore, but he isn’t well either. His cancer is gone, but he doesn’t know how to start his life over again. It doesn’t help that he’ll never convince his mother, who works a late night shift, to come to his high school so he can re-register for the spring semester. Instead of starting classes, he steals his mother’s car and drives to Amaranth to find his only friend Arden, who he met online in World of Warcraft. Arden is perfect—“Everything dark burns away when she smiles”—but they come from different worlds. She has everything and has been everywhere, while he has nothing except the fifty dollars in his pocket and some Tic Tacs. Still, Arden wants to escape from her father who won’t accept her gender identity and she’s ready for adventure when Dylan invites her on an IRL quest. Together they embark for California to find a sunken pearl ship lost in the Salton Sea. Along the way they discover friendship, life, and love.

Funny, geeky, and hopeful all at once, Looking for Group explores what it means to love others and yourself. Dylan struggles with his feelings for Arden, because he has always been sure that he’s gay. He doesn’t want to love her for the wrong reasons. Overcoming self-doubt and rekindling his desire to live are central to his character development throughout the novel. Harrison’s portrayal of Arden, a transgender teen, is strong for its resistance of cisnormativity. The character’s identity and expression are never glossed over or depicted as a deficit. While over the last few years transgender teens have become more visible in mainstream young adult literature, books often focus on characters who “pass” as cisgender or who aspire to pass. What makes Harrison’s portrayal of Arden special and groundbreaking is that Arden does not pass, but she is unashamed and beautiful. Although the last chapter brings the book to a sudden ending, it doesn’t detract from the overall value and quality of the narrative. This 2017 Spring release deserves a place in every young adult collection.