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By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Your someday-dream-job is not for wimps. You know it’ll be real work, and you’re prepared. You know it’ll take training, which will take time. You’ll have to learn to think differently, and that’s okay. You might get discouraged, and you’ll handle it. But—as in the new novel Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller—would you be ready to die for it?
At first, Sallot Leon thought the scrap of paper might be money.
The Erland nobles had been making money ever since the war, when Nacea was obliterated. But no, this bit of paper was worth more than money: it was an open call to find a replacement member for the Queen’s Left Hand, an elite group of assassin-guards. Come by invitation or by skill, the poster said.
Sal had the skill, for sure.
Since the age of eight, Sal worked as a street fighter and could climb anything. There was nothing Sal couldn’t steal, no lock that couldn’t be picked. Those were skills the Queen needed. And so, to get into the audition, Sal committed the first murder.
That, as it turned out, was the easy part: after passing the first interview, Sal was accepted and given a mask to wear at all times—the last mask awarded. Twenty-three people were in the competition, for which the rules were simple: kill your competitors without being seen or getting caught, but don’t hurt anyone who was not competing.
Nine competitors were killed the first night.
As the other wannabes fell almost hourly, Sal had to rely on past experience and new skills to stay alive. Core-strength training helped to dodge spears and arrows from other competitors. Tutoring eliminated illiteracy. Medical training kept Sal from death by poisoning. But there was no way to avoid falling in love with someone forbidden, or to escape the aftermath that was sure to come.
Though it starts out a little on the clunky side, and it may take a minute to get your bearings, Mask of Shadows quickly becomes a pretty good novel.
And a unique one, too: it’s rare to find a gender-fluid person cast as the lead character, but that’s where author Linsey Miller places Sal. And though it’s an unusual plot twist, gender fluidity isn’t the driving force behind this story. In fact, we don’t find out that Sal does not identify with only one gender until later in the novel. That’s uncommon, too.
As for character development, that’s where Miller shines. Sal starts out a bit feral—a street-wise petty thief, uncivilized but with hungry focus. There’s a lot of selfishness early on, but as Sal matures into a trained assassin, egotism is replaced by allegiance and a much finer character. Add in a cast that could be killed one-by-one at any minute and, well, you’ll be hooked.
For fans of Hunger Games-type fiction, Mask of Shadows is gonna be too appealing to pass up. So don’t deny yourself—for readers age 15 and up, this is gonna be a dream book.
Just like in the movies, you and your partner planned to grow old together. You’d be the couple everyone smiled at: two wrinkled beings, holding hands, fussing good-naturedly at one another. But then, as in Michael Ausiello’s new memoir, the plot thickens. When Ausiello spotted Christopher “Kit” Cowan at a New York event for gay athletes, it was lust at first sight. At six-foot-something tall, Kit was geeky-sexy—just Ausiello’s type. But their first date was near-disastrous. They were different in so many ways: Ausiello thought Kit had amazing style; Kit could barely get past Ausiello’s Smurf collection. As time passed, they adopted a cat along with endearing nicknames. They moved in together, conquered relationship crises, moved out together, and sought counseling. They wanted things to work. But then, just over a decade into their relationship, a doctor told Kit that he had a year to live. So how do you make every minute count? How do you watch someone you love suffer? How do you say goodbye? Ausiello jumps right in with humor on page one of his story, and that carries the sad tale throughout. Yes, you will cry—but no, you shouldn’t pass this one up. Atria Books (simonandschuster.com). —Terri Schlichenmeyer
This article appears in the November 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine.