2017 has been an incredible year for releases, especially because I’m starting to see more diverse books being talked about, being published, and being scheduled for future releases. As a fierce advocate of diversity in literature (and specifically children’s literature), I’ve made it a point to read mostly diverse books. Not all, but mostly. I’m extremely happy with how this decision has impacted my reading, because I’ve come across books that I wouldn’t have otherwise picked up. Today, I’m here to spotlight two fantastic diverse ARCs I read in June and July that I think have the potential to be the next big thing, if they’re given the exposure and love they deserve.
Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller // Assassins, tournaments and a protagonist with a vengeance
Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟
Synopsis: Mask of Shadows follows the story of Sal, a genderfluid thief who’s living and working for a hardened crime lord. When Sal hears about the tournament held by the Queen, where contenders will fight to earn a place in the Queen’s Left Hand, Sal sees a chance for a better life. Sal isn’t professionally trained – they don’t have any experience in archery, poisons and the art of high-elite living, but they’re a thief. Quick. Nimble. Cunning, with experience in the streets, and the quiet comfort of chaos. But more than that, Sal has a vengeance. They will wreak havoc on the people who destroyed Sal’s home all those years previously…
🌿 The diverse cast, spear-headed by a genderfluid main character in YA fantasy. Sal goes by “he,” “she,” or “they” depending on how they are dressed. Other than Sal, Miller understands what it means to have a diverse world in the way that there are several prominent characters of color, a bisexual/pansexual (unspecified as of yet) love interest of color, and several characters with disabilities.
🌿 Sal is an incredible main character, all-in-all. They’re complicated in the way that sometimes you doubt whether they have the best intentions at heart, but ultimately, you’re rooting for them. Sal is sarcastic, humorous, deeply compassionate for the people they care about, and has a swagger and air to them that you can’t help but fall in love with. Also, I do love me an underdog.
🌿 It was well-paced, with just the right amount of attention given to the slower-burn moments like the romance, Sal’s relationship with their helper, the introspection, as well as the faster moments like the action. The result was an exciting, tantalizing book that you couldn’t put down, but you also felt fully acquainted with the characters.
🌿 The assassin tournament itself was extremely well-developed, with proper detailing about how it works, who the competitors are, and what’s at stake. There are several “rounds” and classes in play, all of which are given a balanced amount of time. It’s also incredibly difficult for an author to give characters that usually go by numbers a distinct personality, but in Mask of Shadows, I was keenly aware of the different characters, their back-stories, and their personalities. That’s impressive.
🌿 The friendship between Sal and the helper they are assigned was moving; I often found myself looking forward to their scenes together. There was an immediate chemistry between the two, and they fell into easy banter. You’re always aware that they’re both benefiting from each other’s success, but you never doubt that they both care deeply for each other. I would’ve loved to see more of this dynamic, and I hope we get that in the next book.
🌿 Linsey Miller writes with such graceful ease. From developing tension between Sal and their love interest, the sharp sense of vengeance Sal always feels, the urgency of the action, as well as the descriptives of world-building, politics and history, Miller does it all extremely well. It’s hard to believe this is a debut. Although Mask of Shadows relies on tropes that many of us have definitely seen in other YA books, she brings a unique spin and flavor to them, which makes the book stand out among its peers.
What didn’t work?
🌿 My one major complaint was that there were several instances where I felt information was being dumped onto my head all at once. I like my fantasy books to be thick for this very reason; I don’t mind long paragraphs, and slow-burn development as long as the information is given to me naturally. But there wasn’t much of it in here, just inklings of it.
🌿 Everything comes a little too easily to Sal. They didn’t know much going into the tournament past having base instinctual skills, but they learn everything a bit too quickly. It seemed to be that everybody was on Sal’s side, which lowered the stakes of the story. And although I thought the tournament was imaginative, I found it difficult to believe that it ended as quickly as it did, with our contenders becoming experts in everything they’ve learned within just a few days.
🌿 I would’ve liked more focus on the political aspects of the world-building, but I’m pretty sure we’ll see more of that in the second book.
Mask of Shadows releases on August 29th, 2017.
Graphic depictions of violence; purposeful misgendering; some self-harm; PTSD.
Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert // Family, Love, and Finding Yourself
Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 1/2
Synopsis: When Suzette moves back to her home in Los Angeles after her boarding school in Massachusetts lets out for the summer, she has a lot going on in her life. For one, she was sent away against her will and now her relationship with her stepbrother, who has bipolar disorder, isn’t like it used to be. Suzette’s also figuring out her sexuality; at her school, she fell in love with Iris, her roommate and she made some mistakes that she hasn’t forgiven herself for quite yet. They left things on a bad note, and in LA, amidst everything, Suzette’s drawn to her childhood friend, Emil, as well as a girl that her brother might be into as well.
Let me begin by saying that Little & Lion was absolutely one of my favorite books of the year so far, and I fell in love with everything about it. It’s so incredibly moving, discussing things like what it means to be a family, discussing sexuality and the stigmas surrounding bisexuality. It discusses what it means to be human – flawed, but willing to accept your mistakes, and how you go about sticky situations without combusting or hurting the people around you. It’s beautifully written with fluid prose, complicated but well-fleshed out characters, and a pair of siblings that feel like your own. I finished this book at 5 AM, in just over a couple of sittings, with tears streaming down my face… just because it was that beautiful.
🌿 Again, this is a wonderfully diverse book. Our main character is a black, Jewish, bisexual girl who’s brother has bipolar disorder. Emil, Suzette’s childhood friend, is biracial – black/Korean – who has a hearing aid. Suzette’s best friend is lesbian- in fact, most of the secondary characters in this book are on the LGBQ+ spectrum.
🌿 This is also an #OwnVoices book for black representation, and Brandy Colbert discusses ‘casual’ racist micro-aggressions throughout the book, from Suzette being kept an eye on at an expensive store, her identity as a Jewish woman constantly under appraisal, as well as extremely ignorant remarks made by people that she’s surrounded with. Even people who have other marginalizations, illustrating that just because you are also a minority doesn’t give you a pass for saying ignorant things.
Colbert doesn’t shy away from having outward, frank discussions about stigmas surrounding bisexuality, mental health, and discussions about racism and privilege in this novel. But somehow, she integrates these vital conversations within the plot, giving dimension to the characters while doing so. It’s incredible.
🌿 The characters make this book soar. Each one of them, but especially Suzette and Lionel (her brother) are given distinct personalities and character arcs. They never feel like props to Suzette’s story- they are alive, in and of themselves, so you feel like you’re watching actual people interact within a story, rather than reading a fictional novel. Suzette stands out in that she’s deeply flawed. You know this, and she knows this too, and so her development from start-to-finish is self-aware, and interesting to see unfold. Lionel was a character easy to love; he’s smart, quiet, reserved, but strong-willed with such intense compassion for those around him.
🌿 Balance! Nothing screams a good contemporary quite like a wholesome one, which means that the author strikes the perfect balance between the multiple facets of our main character’s life. Scenes with family, her sibling, her friends, her love interest(s), as well as timely flashbacks that give you insight into Suzette’s past relationships. Each of these things is done beautifully, resulting in The Full Picture – something I crave so deeply in contemporaries.
🌿 The relationships are beautifully constructed – especially the familial ones – with the perfect amount of tension, the perfect amount of conflict. Yet you never doubt that Suzette loves her family, and they love her back. Suzette’s relationship with her brother, especially, was nothing short of intensely moving. Their fierce love and devotion to each other was permeated by several factors throughout the novel. It wasn’t an easy dynamic, but it was an authentic one. I loved it.
What didn’t work?
🌿 In a similar vein, the only thing I craved more for was Little & Lion’s dynamic. I wanted to see more flashbacks when their relationship was steady, and I wanted to see it deteriorate further. I grew to love them both so much that I couldn’t help but need more of them; if that meant the book was fifty pages longer, so be it. I just wanted more.
Little & Lion releases on August 8th, 2017.
Anxiety; bipolar disorder; some self-harm; lesbophobic slurs; racist microaggressions; some biphobia.