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Throne Of Glass by SJ Maas

Every now and then I like to challenge the laws of physics by testing the aerodynamic qualities of my reading materials. Today I decided to see if SJ Maas’ Throne Of Glass could fly.

Reader, I chucked it across the room, and it did not fly.

I don’t usually throw my books around. I’m a bookseller and a book lover; I hug books when they please me and lend books to friends to spread the joy and, guys, I like books. A lot. So the fact that this book caused me to throw it is no small thing. It might have been a blip, a momentary short circuit in my usually placid personality. It probably was. But for one moment I was so enraged and disappointed and annoyed by this book that I had to lash out. I’m not proud. I’m not a child. I should be above this sort of thing. But I threw it, because for a moment there I was five years old and tantruming because the book didn’t make me happy.

Before I go on, I’ll say this – a lot of people enjoyed this book and I don’t doubt there’s much in it to enjoy. Maas has a decent writing style that is readable and engaging, and she can write pacy scenes. She has a good imagination and is more than likely capable of writing some really cool stuff. I don’t want to diss her writing or abilities at all. Throne Of Glass just totally didn’t work for me and although I wasn’t a fan, people whose opinions I respect thought it was marvellous.

It’s got great cover art, I can say that for it

The summary:

Meet Celaena Sardothien.
Beautiful. Deadly. Destined for greatness.

In the dark, filthy salt mines of Endovier, an eighteen-year-old girl is serving a life sentence. She is a trained assassin, the best of her kind, but she made a fatal mistake: she got caught.

Young Captain Westfall offers her a deal: her freedom in return for one huge sacrifice. Celaena must represent the prince in a to-the-death tournament—fighting the most gifted thieves and assassins in the land. Live or die, Celaena will be free. Win or lose, she is about to discover her true destiny. But will her assassin’s heart be melted?

A couple of months back I read Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study which had much the same set up and didn’t impress me much either: girl on death row gets her life back in exchange for using her skills to put her life on the line for political purposes. Romance is involved. Whereas Snyder’s heroine was trained to detect poisons, developing character as she went along, Celaena appears already trained and able.

To do everything.

I don’t mean just that she can do things – she can do everything. Brilliantly. She’s good at everything from archery to playing the piano to swordfighting to climbing to detecting poison to speaking other languages. AND she loves books. This means she’s a good person, doesn’t it? NO. At the age of eighteen she’s better than everyone around her – it’s one thing to have a precocious talent but the likelihood of being more than passable at all of these skills by the age of eighteen (also taking into account a year surviving in salt mines) stretches credulity to breaking point. Older, more experienced people are nothing compared to her literally incredible skills. Celaena is SO AWESOME YOU GUYS. And Celaena KNOWS IT.

I gave the overly heroic Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name Of The Wind a chance even though he and his skillset are far too good to be true. He was a nice guy, just about flawed enough to keep you interested, but someone you cheered on because you could feel his decency. Celaena is nothing like that. Jessie over at Ageless Pages diagnosed Special Snowflake Syndrome which is entirely apt; I’ll go a stage further and diagnose Serious Mary Sueism. I didn’t even click all the boxes that apply and she still got a score of 113. She’s snide, rude, arrogant and so far up herself she’s become a Moebius Sue.

She glared. “I hate women like that. They’re so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it.”

I lied earlier. I threw the book twice, once before I finished it. I picked it up to continue reading. Why did I throw it? That line. That horrible, bitchy, illogical line.

Kvothe worked also because he did things that proved he was kick-ass and cool. Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s books proves he’s a canny conman practically every other page. Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones also kicks ass in practically every chapter. Phedre no Delaunay is awesome all the damn time without resorting to violence. Katniss proves she’s got heart and skills with every day surviving the Hunger Games. Stephanie in Skulduggery Pleasant is forever being witty and brilliant. These guys all prove that they’re ace at what they do. More than ace – fantastic. Kvothe magics, Locke tricks, Arya scraps, Phedre outwits, Katniss survives to fight back, Stephanie saves the world.

Celaena, in comparison, does sod all. This book’s supposed to be the girl’s Game of Thrones (WHICH IS THE WORST THING EVER OH GOD I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO TACKLE THAT STATEMENT WITHOUT CAPSLOCKING) and the fantasy Hunger Games. It isn’t. The Hunger Games had great scenes full of nerves and clever writing that dealt with death, murder, heroism and self-sacrifice. There’s none of that going on here. Celaena never really proves that she’s the amazing assassin she thinks she is beyond two pretty good fight scenes and one dangling, daring rescue – some of the few scenes where I felt like the book was doing what it was supposed to do. We have all this guff about how handsome Dorian is (OH GOD NOT THE SAPPHIRE EYES AGAIN PLEASE GOD NO) or how beautiful Celaena is (GOLDEN HAIR RIGHT) or what they’re wearing (in quite some detail) but the same almost forensic level of narration isn’t given to the test the would-be assassins are put through. We don’t see enough of it, or the tons of people who die through it. It’s basically a backdrop, an afterthought, a MacGuffin. It’s the most diluted concept of violence and barely seems to matter to anyone – even those taking part.

AND there’s only enough background to act as wallpaper. The world is formed entirely around Celaena and the characters in her orbit and there’s no depth to it whatsoever. Almost everything we learn affects Celaena  in some way. Nothing we’re told about the worldbuilding is about the world itself; it’s almost all about Celaena. I’m usually okay with thinner characters set against a strong world, or a lot of strong characters set against a thin backdrop, but not both weak characters and weak worldbuilding!

When it comes to those characters in Celaena’s orbit obviously both Dorian, spoilt but very noble attractive princeling and Chaol, determined but very noble attractive guard (he’s a captain and he seems to be about Celaena’s age and to be training her which is INSANE because these skill levels MAKE NO SENSE and she’s awesome and he’s better but how? What? I don’t get this) are completely head over heels for her because she’s beautiful and good at everything. I spent half the book hoping Chaol would cop off with Nehemia. There’s a scene where Dorian gives our darling star a present and she’s immediately the rudest child ever in response, making demands before she deigns to accept this gift, and then there’s the line that just broke off all sympathy for Celaena that I’d been clinging to for most of this book:

He was kind – unnaturally kind, for someone of his upbringing. He had a heart, she realized, and a conscience. He was different from the others.

Oh good god no. She’s thinking things like this even though her best friend is a princess. A PRINCESS. Who is on the side of good. It’s been proved several times over that, no, not all the aristocracy are heartless fiends. So obviously Celaena as an inverse snob is a tremendous judge of character. OH WAIT. She can do EVERYTHING. Why am I doubting her? MY BAD. Everyone adores her even though there’s not much about her to like.

Nehemia would have been a far more interesting main character – she’s layered, clever, with a sense of duty and courage that Celaena seems to be missing. Her people are under threat and she’s prepared to do so much to protect them. She and her people have a proper story to tell that would fit an epic fantasy framework better – check out NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as an example of just that.

In fact I’m trying to resist the urge to list a load of books I’d rather recommend reading than this. As I said, lots of people have enjoyed it, and though this feels young like it’s written for the lower end of the YA market, I’d rather recommend some Maureen Johnson, Garth Nix, Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy or Sarah Rees Brennan. They have worldbuilding and emotional connections and main characters who combine attitude with flaws and skills and wit.

I really don’t think SJ Maas is a bad author. From some of what I’ve seen about this book online this started out as a darker, more mature story and I’d give my eye teeth to see what could have been made of that. If it had been aged up a few years, if Celaena had been given some texture, if that sodding love triangle hadn’t been shoehorned in. If the worldbuilding had had just a bit more work. If there’d been more action. If, if, if.

This book should have been exactly – EXACTLY! – the sort of thing that appeals to me. Strong heroine, kickass action, a new fantasy world, political upheaval, a good son of an evil king, mysterious histories, secret pasages, ghosts, drama, murder, snark. The fact that it fell so far short of the mark is sad. Maas is going to write more, write better, and create good work – but this isn’t it.

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Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (4****/5)

CAN YOU TELL HE'S DEAD NO I DON'T THINK SO HE'S LOOKING GREAT FOR A CORPSE

This is a pacy, bloodthirsty, hugely entertaining teen zombie novel with an unconventional but tender love story at its heart. From the ruins of a cataclysmic ice-age a new society has emerged, based on Victorian customs. Nora Dearly, a feisty teenage girl and apparent orphan, leaves her exclusive boarding school for the holidays to return home – only to be dragged into the night by the living dead. Luckily for her, this particular crack unit of zombies are good guys – sent to protect her from the real nasties roaming the countryside and zeroing in on major cities to swell their ranks. Nora must find a way to defeat the evil undead with help from Bram, a noble, sweet and surprisingly hot zombie boy for whom she starts to fall…

For all it’s riddled with issues, Dearly, Departed is a really fun read that’s so over the top it’s actually mesmerising – given half a chance it carries you with it all the way through a crazy mess of plot, rotting corpses, zombie street battles and undead romance. It’s like this book was written with a checklist in mind – what’s hot right now in SFF/YA lit? Let’s see!

  • Zombies – CHECK! with a whole new spin on this which was REALLY appreciated
  • Forbidden romance – CHECK! with bits falling off (I loved Bram, I couldn’t even hate him for the blatant name thing, he’s such a sweetheart)
  • Dystopia – CHECK! only it was literally overkill to have so much apocalypse infodumped on us. Utterly crazy.
  • Steampunk – CHECK! except not the steampunk of the Soulless books or anything, it’s more faux-Victoriana, which was really awkward in most places because it’s been shoe-horned in and doesn’t feel right at all. Except I didn’t mind it past the first few chapters. It stops grating once you just assume it’s a technologically advanced Victorian age. There’s a wonderful idea about the Punks and their tech however, which I’d love to read more of in any future books.
So, yes, it’s an attention-grabbing conglomeration of ideas, you know?

Fans of dystopias and zombies will get more of a kick out of this than romance fans – and people who enjoy well-rendered characters who are willing to get stuck in and be pro-active will enjoy this too. It’s all lampshaded of course, with every time a girl-character acts in a way which does not suit her upbringing everyone notices it and points it out. The romance feels a bit unconvincing but I loved Bram and Nora was far from annoying so, again, I didn’t mind. Once things had clicked it felt much more believable.

It’s not structured very well, however; the viewpoints are a mess and only partially feel like they’re distinct voices, but I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t really care – I can totally understand why people didn’t get into or didn’t like this book, because you need to suspend disbelief from a very high place to even get into the setting of Dearly, Departed, let alone the basic premise. It was such tremendous fun and completely different in tone and style and painted in such vivid colours that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Seriously. Against my better judgement and everything.

It’s the most emphatically emphatic dystopian teen zombie romance you’ll ever see, and worth reading if you feel like going for an enjoyably deranged but hugely entertaining book. And yes, the horror elements were fun too. Strongly recommended if you like your YA to have a bit of backbone, decaying romance and a strong edge of dark humour to it. Anyone who liked it and wants MOAR! zombie love – Warm Bodies is your next port of call. Doesn’t have anywhere near the structural problems or the odd dialogue that DD does, and as a horror it’s a much stronger piece of work.

It isn’t, however, as much of a weird-ass dystopian teen zombie romance. With airships. Dearly, Departed has that down.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Not too hot on the cover, but great eye make-up!

All These Things I’ve Done starts off so strong I’m almost surprised, having finished it, that it’s the same book as the one I’ve put down. Somewhere along the line it veers off course of being a grim, guilty-until-proven-innocent tale of Anya and her family in a chocolate-less and coffee-banning dystopian future New York and becomes something soft-focused and audience-pleasing without being actually satisfying, given the opening.

Here’s the write-up:

Sixteen year-old Anya’s parents have been murdered because her father was the head of a notorious underworld gang. Now she is determined to keep herself and her siblings away from that world. But her father’s relatives aren’t so keen to let them go. When Anya’s violent ex-boyfriend is poisoned with contaminated chocolate – chocolate that is produced illegally by Anya’s criminal family – she is arrested for attempted murder. Disconcertingly, it is the new D.A. in town who releases her from jail, but her freedom comes with conditions. The D.A. is the father of Win, a boy at school to whom Anya feels irresistibly drawn. Win’s father won’t risk having his political ambitions jeopardised by his son seeing a member of a crime family. She is to stay away with him. Anya knows she risks her freedom and the safety of her brother and sister by seeing Win again. Neither the D.A. nor the underworld will allow it. But the feeling between them is so strong that she may be unable to resist him…

For all I want to complain about the course Zevin takes with the narrative, having it wander off into a teeny No Man’s Land where major plot points feel like they’ve been put on hiatus for no clear reason, I want to be clear – I loved the premise for this book, and still do. Anya is a pretty solid, somewhat noble character who demonstrates strength and intelligence and great affection and love for those close to her while still being clear-eyed and a great viewpoint to read from. The concept of a world where chocolate and coffee are banned, water’s pretty much as valuable as oil and paper’s rare is such a great concept it had me reeling with mental images of a dystopian Prohibition. If anything, it’s worth reading just for that.

It’s not without problems. There really could be more colouring in of the outlines Zevin sketches of the society Anya and her family are living in as the bare bones of what we’re given are tantalizing and she’s clearly a skilled enough writer to make something really bright and original with it. There’s no explanation for most of it other than the understanding the reader brings to the book about energy and water crises, and it’s really crazy trying to make sense of alcohol being around but coffee being a no-no. And why is chocolate okay in Europe but not in the US? I have so many questions, which on one hand is really frustrating as there could have been more background to this to make the setting stronger, but also it’s probably a good sign that I was engaged enough with it to want to know more.

But there’s a point where everything important about the plot just seems to go on holiday and then it flounders. It’s frustrating, so frustrating, because the plot begins to pull itself back together before the end but the momentum is such it just doesn’t correct itself in time. In fact, I thought it was a bit transparent what’s been going on, but even that didn’t annoy me because I was just so relieved we were back to what the beginning of the book had been about. The romance angle felt thin, bookended as it was between the real movements of plot as it were. It felt rushed and crammed in a bit, and Win is just not convincing at all. Anya falters here a bit too – a bit of omg boy! overcomes those familial instincts of hers, which goes against what we’ve come to expect of her.

All told, All These Things I’ve Done is a book I would definitely recommend, though it does feel like a good concept washed out. It’s more about the characters than the dystopia. I’ll definitely read the next in the series in the hope that it’ll answer some of those pesky questions, and now Zevin’s certainly on my list of authors to investigate further! I just wish it hadn’t meandered so totally from the plot and felt so detached from the setting – otherwise it’d be a great read.

Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I have a natural antipathy to Romeo & Juliet type narratives. There’s something unbearably angsty and teeny and undercooked about a lot of them, something immature about the approach and the build-up and the type of characters involved. When I studied the play at school it made so much sense when the teacher told us Juliet was supposed to be a young teenager – as a fourteen-year-old studying it, I just sat there and thought, “Yes, this is exactly the kind of stupid angsty romance people my age would think is twoo wuv”. Oh hormones, you have so much to answer for!

Twilight obviously didn’t help matters much. In fact I dislike Romeo & Juliet enough to avoid any such stories on the basis that the concept just doesn’t work for me – Twilight failed catastrophically on such a number of levels that the R&J similarities passed me by until yesterday when I picked up Laini Taylor’s new book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and suddenly everything was cast in a new light.

Karou is an art student living in Prague. She has blue hair and a beautiful, annoying ex-boyfriend and a best friend with a sense of humour and a love for puppetry. Karou has a feeling that she is somehow incomplete, but no matter; she’s a busy girl. She studies her art, charming her friends with graphic stories of animal hybrid monsters in her art books. And then she runs errands for Brimstone, one of those very animal hybrid monsters her friends think she’s made up, collecting teeth for him; why does he want teeth? She doesn’t know. His shop is accessed by doors all over the world, and she travels everywhere for him – Morocco, Paris, St Petersburg, everywhere. And then the black handprints start appearing on the doors, left by devastatingly beautiful golden strangers. And, you know, THINGS OCCUR.

I have a new daydream: I imagine a world wherein this book came first, before Twilight. Where this book got the attention of the world’s teenage girls before vampiric stalker-boys became the Big Thing. Where beautiful writing lightly spun with dramatic, heavy moments, so rich in description I’m sitting here flicking through it just slightly dizzy with delight at the prospect of picking just one quotation to show you to back this up (I can’t, there’s too much!). It’s gorgeous all the way through, you guys. Gorgeous! It’s incredibly vivid, tactile writing, something that latches on to you from the very first chapter in which Karou is walking through Prague and encounters her ex-boyfriend and instead of just recounting this in prose, Taylor throws all these subtle yet jolting descriptions at us, wrapping us up in Karou’s physical senses like you’d wrap a child up in a scarf. It’s ridiculous how tangible she makes these angelic and demonic entities sound, describing fur and horns and lips and hair with such sensuousness that it’s almost like this book’s trying to seduce us. Trying? Not trying. Did. It’s seductive. It seduced me, and I’m delighted to say so.

The last time I felt like this about writing it was either Guy Gavriel Kay or Jacqueline Carey‘s Kushiel’s Dart sequence. I can’t remember. But oh, Taylor made me fancy a man who doesn’t smile or joke, and that takes extremely good writing. It even made me like a girl with blue hair who spent the first third of the book looking like an unfortunate Mary Sue type character – but somewhere along the way I began to care, and quite liked her. She does little things that make her mean (the eyebrows) but manages not to be unlikable, nor too perfect to believe in. The vital issue with Twilight, to my mind, was the absence of humour and banter. Well, Karou and Zuzana had a lovely friendship, and even the unsmiling man tries a few jokes. There’s a levity to it which makes the central story that much more affecting – you can’t have a plot built on tragedy and not have it celebrate life and indulge in humour and humanity.

Oh guys I’m not even going to say anything more. I just loved it. It was like the best European folk tales wrapped up in angels and demons and TEETH oh god the teeth.

Apparently the next one is due out next year. You have a year to read this before I start getting shouty. You won’t like me when I’m shouty.