book review: ace of shades

Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody
Harlequin Teen, 400 pp.
Published April 10, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this book from Harlequin Teen via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Welcome to the City of Sin, where casino families reign, gangs infest the streets…
and secrets hide in every shadow.

Enne Salta was raised as a proper young lady, and no lady would willingly visit New Reynes, the so-called City of Sin. But when her mother goes missing, Enne must leave her finishing school—and her reputation—behind to follow her mother’s trail to the city where no one survives uncorrupted.

Frightened and alone, her only lead is a name: Levi Glaisyer. Unfortunately, Levi is not the gentleman she expected—he’s a street lord and a con man. Levi is also only one payment away from cleaning up a rapidly unraveling investment scam, so he doesn't have time to investigate a woman leading a dangerous double life. Enne's offer of compensation, however, could be the solution to all his problems.

Their search for clues leads them through glamorous casinos, illicit cabarets and into the clutches of a ruthless mafia donna. As Enne unearths an impossible secret about her past, Levi's enemies catch up to them, ensnaring him in a vicious execution game where the players always lose. To save him, Enne will need to surrender herself to the city…

And she’ll need to play.
Ace of Shades succeeds on every level. What few criticisms it might garner reflect more of my own personal preferences for a perfect five-star read, rather than shortcomings I think many other readers would share. Usually when I enjoy a book to such an extent I struggle to pick out parts to highlight in a review. This time, however, several aspects stood out as exceptional and reminded me what a difference it makes when even the most common genre conventions are handled with grace.

So far 2018 has been a banner year for strong female protagonists in YA. That trend continues with Enne, the young woman central to Ace of Shades. From the very beginning she brought to mind another favorite fantasy character: Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire. Like Sansa, Enne possesses a superior sense of poise and grace that serves as a defense against those who seek to take advantage of her naivete. Beneath those proper manners, though, hides a steely determination that grows as her time in New Reynes stretches on. Enne doesn't grow a backbone: she grows into the confidence she always had. To some that might sound like a subtle distinction but it's an important one, especially considering some of the trials she endures. That suffering doesn't "create" a strong young woman; she already existed. But the environment of New Reynes is ripe for an assertiveness unwelcome in her sheltered, cultured upbringing.

As I've expressed in past reviews, insta-love rarely works for me. Thankfully, Ace of Shades features some great slow-burn chemistry between Enne and the leader of the Irons, Levi. While they're never exactly enemies, the pair do make a gradual and believable progression from wary, selfish allies to friends with a clear attraction to one another. Foody leaves ample room for further development (or twists!) in future novels without playing a coy, will-they-or-won't-they game.

I also adored the general idea of the Shadow Game. To avoid spoilers I won't go into too much detail, but it seemed to draw a little inspiration from gladiator games...just with a magical twist. It also promises to function as the central problem for future books in the series; certain mysteries are solved in Ace of Shades, but their answers spawn further questions and complications that draw you deeper into the story. Beyond the (quite honestly terrifying) concept of the Shadow Game, I enjoyed how its introduction actually answered some of Enne's questions about her mother and satisfied the reader's curiosity while opening the door to larger conspiracies.

Lastly, Foody evokes a gilded decay in New Reynes, split into the prosperous South Side and dingy, crime-riddled North Side. Her writing captures the unique blend of excess and corruption that shapes many of the conflicts in Ace of Shades. Most important for a continuing series, she's crafted a vibrant world that I look forward to returning to with plenty of unexplored corners to reveal in future books. Despite opening with a foot chase, I did think that Ace of Shades was a little slow to start and I would have liked to see some of the supporting characters fleshed out more thoroughly. However, overall I was deeply impressed with the start of this new series and I can't wait to read what happens to Enne, Levi, and their friends next!


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