Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

The Assassin of Adarlan.  The Queen of the Underworld.  A woman who killed her overseer and 23 sentries when she attempted to escape from the salt mines of Endovier.

And she's worried about how she looks?

Celaena Sardothier, the main character in Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas, is supposedly so badass that she has to be shackled and escorted by 6 of the king's personal guard when she is brought before the prince in the opening scene.  But by my count she does exactly three badass things in the whole book.  She spends more time putting on pretty dresses and playing with puppies than honing her combat skills, and she's constantly worrying about her appearance and trying to get the attention of men.

In the opening scene, the prince offers Calaena the chance to compete to be the King's Champion.  She'll have to defeat 23 of the realm's toughest battle-tested warriors, but if she does, she'll earn her freedom after four years of service.  What's on Calaena's mind?
She looked at her rags and stained skin, and she couldn't suppress the twinge of shame.  What a miserable state for a girl of former beauty!
Really?  You just spent a year wielding a pickaxe and getting whipped for your trouble, and you're worried about how you look?

::Show me the dead bodies

Although we're constantly told that Calaena is on the brink of ripping someone's throat out, she never even tries to escape from the prince.  The first time she practices swordplay with the captain of the king's guard, she falls on her ass.  The scariest thing she does is take a bite out of a billiards cue.  OK, she does kill a monster in the bowels of the castle and swing through the air to rescue a friend.  Wait, did I say she did three badass things?  I can't even remember what the third was.  
Mostly, what I remember about Calaena is that she plays the pianoforte beautifully, adopts a puppy, reads a lot of books, and gets saucy with both the prince and the captain of the guard.

Of course, Calaena is a character of many contradictions: she sometimes feels "lightheaded and immensely heavy;" at other times she feels "both cold and hot at once;" she walks "with feet both heavy and light;" and at particularly stressful moments she feels "both clumsy and thick, but also light and weak as a newborn."  I often felt like the author couldn't choose between two possible reactions in her characters, so she just picked both.

In fact, that's one of my main criticisms of the book: nobody ever has to make tough choices.  Calaena is attracted to both the prince and the captain of his guard.  She's friends with a rebel leader and an employee of the king.  These conflicts of interest should create tension, but she's never forced to choose between them.  She just flirts with everyone.

::As real as reality TV

Also, this doesn't have to do with choice, but just another example of things being way too easy for her: At one point, Caleana feels like she needs to freshen up, so she goes into her bathing chamber and comes out a few minutes later with her hair wet.  Now, this is set in a fantasy world, but the book does mention pianofortes and corsets, which puts me in mind of a time when there was not running water.  So what exactly happens in the bathing chamber?  Does a servant constantly tend a fire under a pot of clean water that can be poured over Caleana at a moment's notice?

At this point, you're probably thinking, OK, I get that you don't like this book, but what happens?  But, see, I have been telling you what happens.  The competition in which Calaena participates is secondary to her romantic interludes and reminds me of Top Chef.  There are a series of challenges, such as putting poisons in order of their potency or scaling a wall using one item of your choice from the arsenal.  One or more potential champions are eliminated at the end of each test.  Towards the end of the novel, the reader isn't even told what the tests are--just that they've happened and there's x number of days until the Yuletide ball.

:: Stop staring

Another thing that bothers me is the way the author switches to the male gaze.  Although most of the story is written from Caleana's perspective (third person), there are occasionally short passages from the perspective of another character.  These sometimes reveal information Caleana isn't privy to.  More often, they just show the men looking at her longingly: 
"A hand upon his sword, Dorian Havilliard watched the assassin from his spot on the other side of the sleeping company.  There was something sad about her."
"Chaol Westfall watched the assassin eat lunch, her eyes darting from one plate to the next.  She had immediately stripped from her gown upon entering her room, and now sat in a peach and blue dressing robe that suited her."  
"Leaning against the doorway, Dorian stood, utterly transfixed ... He had come here with the intention of embarrassing a snide assassin, and had instead found a young woman pouring her secrets into a pianoforte."
And so on and so on.  I hate books that switch to a man's perspective just to focus on the SFC's softer side, and I feel like these are a weak attempt to tell the reader what to think.  I already know what I think about Calaena.  I think she's vain and superficial. 

::Read it?

So obviously, I rolled my eyes a lot while reading this book, but I will say one positive thing: this book totally passes the Bechdel test.  Not only does Calaena have conversations with other women, but she befriends an impressive princess who is suspected to be aiding rebels in her home country.  At court for some kind of spying purpose, the princess Nehemia is by far the coolest character in the book--in fact, I would have much rather read a book about her--and it's Nehemia rather than either of the male characters who rescues Calaena on more than one occasion. 

However, the female-on-female rescue scenes weren't enough to change my mind about this book.  It constantly reinforces the idea that the most important thing is to be attractive at all times.  That is not the moral I expect from a story about an assassin.  However, it has inspired me to write my own story about an assassin who believes it is important to be attractive at all times.  The story goes like this: she's dead.

The Throne of Glass, on the other hand, sets us up for a sequel.  I will not be reading it.

Book Source: Netgalley

Throne of Glass will be published August 7, 2012.

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