Review- Crown of Midnight

DSC01749Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass #2)
by Sarah J. Maas
418 pages
Published 2013

From Goodreads:  “A line that should never be crossed is about to be breached.

It puts this entire castle in jeopardy—and the life of your friend.”

From the throne of glass rules a king with a fist of iron and a soul as black as pitch. Assassin Celaena Sardothien won a brutal contest to become his Champion. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown. She hides her secret vigilantly; she knows that the man she serves is bent on evil.

Keeping up the deadly charade becomes increasingly difficult when Celaena realizes she is not the only one seeking justice. As she tries to untangle the mysteries buried deep within the glass castle, her closest relationships suffer. It seems no one is above questioning her allegiances—not the Crown Prince Dorian; not Chaol, the Captain of the Guard; not even her best friend, Nehemia, a foreign princess with a rebel heart.

Then one terrible night, the secrets they have all been keeping lead to an unspeakable tragedy. As Celaena’s world shatters, she will be forced to give up the very thing most precious to her and decide once and for all where her true loyalties lie… and whom she is ultimately willing to fight for.


My Thoughts

I read Crown of Midnight as a buddy read with Danielle over at Books, Vertigo & Tea. I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. I found the first book, Throne of Glassdisappointing, as Celaena read like a wish-fulfilling Mary Sue instead of a fully fleshed, dynamic character, and Maas’s writing was clunky and uninspired.

Crown of Midnight… is marginally better. Celaena has more depth this time around, and because the story is not lurching toward the end of a protracted contest there is more time to explore her growth as a person and develop her relationships, both romantic and platonic. She’s an assassin with a heart of gold, and it’s made clear early on that she’s only pretending to carry out the king’s orders. Celaena’s ruses go off without a hitch, so that even her closest friends believe that she’s killed all those people.

And, of course, her friends- Chaol, Dorian, and Nehemia- look at her sidewards because Celaena is an awful person for killing them (even though she hasn’t). Despite the fact that they already knew she was an assassin.

What did they think she did before they met her? Skip through meadows and pick flowers while singing to the animals?

*sighs*

Odd expectations of an assassin’s morality aside, the other characters did a little growing up, too. Dorian rose in my regard after he made a particular discovery, though he’s still content to sit back and watch his evil father continue to plan evil things. It seems his idea of ‘making a difference’ is to object to some of dad’s plans in the council chamber, but his objections hardly seem to make much of a difference. I’m sorry, Dorian, but you can’t just thumb your nose at authority and expect things to change on a fundamental level.

Nehemia continues to be one of the most interesting characters in the story, but alas, we hear more from a doorknob than we do the princess of Eyllwe.

Maas’s writing has improved since the first book though the prose is still workaday, walking from one event to the next and doing its job without much flair, like it just wants to get through the day so it can go home and take a nap. Plot twists are telegraphed so far in advance that you could use binoculars to see them coming. There’s no surprise to them, just the satisfaction of knowing you were right.

I have had an issue with the lack of specificity in the two books. We’re accustomed to fantasy novels having foundations in historical lands, whether it’s the Anglo-Saxon-based setting of Tolkien’s Rohan, the medieval Russia of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, or the late-Renaissance Amsterdam-like atmosphere of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. The world of Throne of Glass is harder to pin down and so it’s harder to get a sense of the place, as Maas pulls from a variety of sources to inhabit her world. The character of Baba Yellowlegs, for example, is analogous to the crone Baba Yaga from Russian tales, while the fae spoken of in other parts of the books resemble those of Welsh and Irish stories. In the first book Celaena listens to minuets, a type of dance popular in eighteenth century France. While I realize that Celaena’s world has a variety of cultures, the lack of specificity about any of them makes it difficult to get a concrete sense of the place and thereby get lost in the world. I kept coming across vague terminology (or things that were just used incorrectly) which would make me stop and ask, “What kind of weapon is Celaena using? It just says ‘sword’. There are a lot of different kinds of swords”.

And so, while the characters have grown more likeable in Crown of Midnight, and there is some political intrigue going on, I just don’t have enough interest in the story to want to go out and read the rest of them. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a snobby reader, but when there are so many amazing fantasy novels with more engaging stories than those of the Throne of Glass books, I just can’t see myself taking the time away from them to read about characters I only sort of like.

Review- Red Sister

25895524Red Sister
by Mark Lawrence
469 pages
Published April 4, 2017

From Goodreads: I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin.

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive


The teenage-girl-assassin theme feels likes it’s all over the place these days. Or it might just be because a few books get all the press, making it feel like it’s all over. I don’t know. I haven’t read All The Books, so maybe it’s a new trope that I’m only brushing the edges of.

I had much higher hopes for Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister than I had for Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass since I’ve heard nothing but good things about Lawrence’s books.

“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.”

– Mark Lawrence, Red Sister

An opening line like that carries with it a promise of a strange story. Who would want to kill a nun, and why would you need an army to do so? The nuns of this story, of course, are not the sort we would think of today, in crisp black and white habits. The sisters of the Sweet Mercy Convent are trained as warriors, whether with weapons or with magic, and it truly takes an army to bring one of them down.

The nuns’ training takes ten years to complete, and it is at the beginning of this process that we meet Nona Grey, one of the newest and certainly the bloodiest novice at this peculiar convent. Nona has secrets. A lot of them. They’re what took her from her home, nearly to the gallows, and finally to the relative safety of the Sweet Mercy Convent.

I say ‘relative safety’, because, in spite of the Sisters’ abilities, danger swirls around the nuns and their students. From day one, the girls’ lives are in danger while the abbess plays a risky political game. Through all this, Nona must learn who to trust– and when.

It should be disturbing to read about girls as young as ten learning how to kill people. They’re children, after all, and should be taking lessons about reading and writing, but the world of Abeth and the Corridor in the ice is a brutal one. Their sun is dying, the ice is encroaching, and powerful men don’t care if the target of their vengeance is a skinny little girl. To keep themselves alive, these girls must learn the tricks of their deadly trade. Sending a young girl off to learn the assassin’s trade is obviously not a new thing. In both Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass  and Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, the worlds those heroines face are also dark and dangerous. But Mark Lawrence succeeds with Nona where Maas and LaFevers failed with Calaena and Ismae because Nona is a flawed character. She is young and naive, though she thinks she understands the world because her life has been hard. She has trouble making friends, and she has trouble with her lessons. She assumes things about other people that  aren’t true, and then she acts on those assumptions- often with terrible consequences. In other words, Nona acts like you would expect a girl to act in her shoes. Lawrence lets his main character act like an idiot and be beaten (and take a beating), then lets her pull herself together and learn from her mistakes. Just like a normal person would.

I think that letting your characters fail is one of the marks of a great writer. It’s easy to fall in love with one of your characters. They start to feel real after a while, and it’s hard to let them be humiliated. Who wants that to happen to their precious creation? But if humiliation (or injury or even death) are what the story demands, then that should happen. I didn’t think Nona was going to die, but there were times where I wasn’t sure she would come out the other side of whatever trouble she found herself in. Or something could have happened to one of the other girls, like Hessa, Ara, or Clera. There was a constant tension– whether it was a childish rivalry for another girl’s attention or a fight to the death– that kept me fully engaged in the story. I hated to put it down and came back to it as soon as I could.

The rest of the elements are expertly handled, as well. The worldbuilding is completed in multiple ways, and the way it is presented feels perfectly natural. Nona, being an uneducated child, must learn about the world she inhabits and so the reader learns along with her. There is the sense that this is a very old world with a complex history, but Lawrence never delves into a hundred generations of begats, nor does he have his teachers drone on about this king or that. The politics are introduced as Nona sees them and while they’re important to the story, they’re often secondary to it. The relationships between the girls drive the events, not some far away Emperor’s pronouncements.

And while I’m mentioning relationships, I’m going to turn back to the characters because the relationships the girls in the Sweet Mercy Convent have are wonderfully realistic. They’re a disparate group of girls with differing skills and strengths, flung together almost at random. They share sleeping quarters, meals, and sometimes clothes, and while this draws many of them into lifelong friendships, it pushes others apart. There are rivalries to match just about anything in Game of Thrones, and hard lessons about friendship and trust.

Another important thing? There is no love interest. There are no love triangles. Nona isn’t some great beauty from the wilderness, just waiting for someone to wash off the dirt and give her a pretty frock to turn her into the pretty, pretty princess of the prince’s dreams. That falls to one of the other girls before the issue of beauty is dropped on the wayside behind their training. The girls don’t have time to stress out over tangled hair and make-up. Nor do they have the energy or inclination to worry about boys. Not that they would have boys to pine over in an all-female convent, but they’re aware of boys, of marriage, and of the things that men and women do together. But there’s no romantic love in this book, only the love between friends, a relationship that is all too often cast aside when a hint of romance enters the picture.

As dark as it can be, Red Sister is an incredible book. It’s plot structure, world-building, characterizations, and writing are hard to beat in the dark fantasy genre. I started reading it a little after midnight on Monday and finished it on Tuesday afternoon. It’s a rare book that is so enthralling that I will spend all my spare time reading it, and Red Sister is one of the few.

Review- Throne of Glass

514nd2R1-rL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Throne of Glass
by Sarah J. Maas
404 pages
Published 2012

From Goodreads: After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.

Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her … but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.

Then one of the other contestants turns up dead … quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.


 

My Thoughts:

I don’t like to dismiss things out of hand just because they’re popular. That’s lame, and I don’t like to be That Guy over in the corner, whingeing about how Such-And-Such thing was great before it was popular, but now it’s been ruined by fame. No one likes That Guy.

So after seeing Sarah J Mass’s books pretty much everywhere online and in bookstores, I decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t be worse than Grave Mercy, after all, and I thought I might be pleasantly surprised, though the synopsis didn’t give me much confidence- a royal competition involving assassins and thieves, after all, doesn’t sound terribly likely as a premise, and I tend to despise love triangles.

Still, I carried on. Perhaps the characters were super interesting, or the world building allowed for a competition between assassins to make perfect sense. And the love triangle, people said, was not a major part of the story. So off I went into the world of Adarlan.

And I have  to say, I was not impressed with the place or its people.

Let’s start with the main character, Celaena Sardothien. At seventeen, she was the most feared assassin in Erilea until she was betrayed and sent to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year in a place where most people die within a month or two, she’s dragged out of it in order to compete against a bunch of assassins and thieves so Adarlan’s king can find himself an assassin to do his dirty work. Celaena emerges from a year in a salt mine bony and dirty, but otherwise healthy. And perfectly capable of drawing a bow, wielding a sword, throwing knives, and climbing sheer walls after resting up a little. The part of my brain that cries out for reality went off a hundred times, but I ignored it and carried on only to discover that, not only is Celaena young, feared, the very best at what she does, and able to recover from deadly situations in record time, she is also exquisitely beautiful, loved by animals, can pick up pretty much any weapon and use it expertly, and, oh yeah, the Crown Prince and his Captain of the Guard are both in love with her.

Of course.

Now, the big problem I have with flawless characters like this is that they’re boring. If they’re accomplished at everything, then what can they learn? How can they grow? What is it about them that’s going to change by the end of the book? If they’re already flawless, then where’s the tension? I knew going into Throne of Glass that Celaena was going to win the competition. How could she not? No one else could hold a candle to her abilities, and no one had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating her, because she was the novel’s wish-fulfilling Mary Sue.

So I looked to the other characters for interest. Crown Prince Dorian, for example, for Captain Chaol Westfall. Neither of them were the male equivalent of the Mary Sue character (a Marty Stu, if you will), but their interesting qualities waned at exactly the same time that they fell for Celaena. Suddenly they were no longer players in a larger game. They served only to be Characters Who Adored Celaena.

The one who proved to be the most interesting was Princess Nehemia, a resident ex-royal from a kingdom recently conquered by Adarlan. She is smart and beautiful, too (because everyone in Adarlan is, apparently, smart and beautiful, except for the thieves and assassins Celaena competes against), but she has a head for politics and it is difficult to tell how, exactly, she is serving her people. Is she merely a political representative/hostage from her homeland of Eyllwe? Or is she quietly aiding a rebellion against Adarlan? It’s hard to tell, and while Maas devotes some ink to the subject, she only touches on it now and then. Perhaps it’s fleshed out in the next book. I don’t know. I haven’t read that one.

The characters aren’t the only disappointing element of Throne of Glass. The prose is clumsy and often awkward, with many words and phrases used in such as way that I would stop reading mid-sentence and think, ‘is that how that phrase is supposed to go?’ or ‘I wonder if Maas knew the meaning of that word, because that’s not how it’s normally used’.  I don’t demand that every sentence be graceful and perfect in every grammatical way, but if the prose itself knocks me out of the story, then that’s a problem.

I can understand the appeal of Throne of Glass. Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves in Celaena’s shoes and be fearless, young and accomplished, as well as beautiful and beloved by two handsome and accomplished men? But ultimately, I found the characters to be uninteresting, the story predictable, and the world building to be lackluster at best. Maas’s writing did improve as the book went on, but in the acknowledgements at the end she says she spent ten years working on this book. For all that time spent on the writing, I would expect Throne of Glass to be far better than it is.

If you’re looking for a fantasy trilogy about a teenaged assassin, I would recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, by now a classic fantasy story about a prince’s bastard son taken into the palace and given to the royal assassin and spymaster. Hobb’s writing is excellent, the story is tightly knit and believable within its well-crafted world, and for all his flaws and mistakes FitzChivalry Farseer is a far more interesting and sympathetic young assassin than Celaena Sardothien.