Monday, September 15, 2014

Throne of Glass (Sarah J. Maas)

Throne of Glass
(The Throne of Glass series, Book 1)
Sarah J. Maas
Bloomsbury USA
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: She was known as Ardalan's Assassin, the most notorious killer in a tyrannical kingdom... yet Celaena was only seventeen when she was betrayed, captured, and condemned to the prison mines of Endovier. Now, the Crown Prince himself summons her with an offer: come to the castle of Rifthold, become the King's Champion, and earn her freedom in four years. Serve the man whose forces slaughtered her nation and burned their sacred libraries, or die in the frozen mountains of Endovier? At least, if she lives, she might eventually strike back at the king, so she agrees.
At the glass castle in Rifthold, Celaena quickly learns that she's in for more than she anticipated. The other candidates for the role of King's Champion are cutthroats and monsters. Courtly rivalries between sponsors complicate things further. A foreign princess from a newly-conquered land might be an ally or an enemy. And, despite magic having disappeared from the kingdom when Celaena was a young girl, something very unnatural walks the halls of Rifthold... something deadly. But the worst danger might come not from her many enemies, but from within, as both the Crown Prince and his loyal Captain of the Guard find themselves drawn to the battered, wounded soul within the notorious assassin.

REVIEW: This story starts with plenty of promise, in a decently-drawn fantasy world. Initially, Celaena makes a strong, if jaded, heroine, torn between loyalty to her vanished nation and her need to survive, not to mention her growing attraction to the son of the man whose forces butchered her own parents in bed. Crown Prince Dorian, despite being (presumably) sired by an evil warrior king, is almost impossibly good, not to mention naive about his station in life. At first, his friend, Captain Chaol, had a more level head on his shoulders, but he, too, becomes distinctly less believable as the tale goes on and his attraction to Celaena becomes stronger. When he first meets the girl in a prison whose population rarely survives a few months, let alone the year she managed, he fully believes she deserved everything she got simply for being a filthy assassin - yet, not much later, he is horrified to learn that she was brutally whipped and permanently scarred by the guards without provocation. (He is actually more aghast about that than when he hears that those same guards raped and killed a woman who helped Celaena survive her wounds. So... what, being a woman is sufficient provocation to be raped and murdered, but lay a whip across the back of Ardalan's Assassin and suddenly a line of decency's been crossed? I knew love was blind; I didn't know it caused amnesia.)
This kind of loss of brain cells lies at the heart of much of my dissatisfaction with this title. Two men are found murdered, their insides and their brains sucked out, and people are honestly expected to believe it was just drunken brawling; even more amazingly, they seem fine with that explanation. Celaena spent years under the tutelage of the most notorious master assassin in the kingdom, yet she's perpetually snuck up on, and at one point she gleefully devours a bag of candy with unknown origins... knowing that someone's picking off the King's Champion competitors and having just narrowly passed a test about identifying poisons. She's also incredibly oblivious to two men lusting over her. All of this largely exists to complicate matters between the characters, and to shoehorn in a secondary antagonist, an ambitious court lady with her eyes on the Crown Prince. The often-eye-rolling cutesy antics and misunderstandings surrounding the love polygon eat far too much page count and far too many IQ points of the characters.
Then there's the matter of magic in this kingdom. We readers are told at the outset that there is no more magic in Ardalan. It vanished years ago, and has never returned. All magic books are burned, and anyone - even a rank charlatan - who so much as whispers of magic is executed by king's orders. Yet, without spoilers, forces that are essentially magic are very much in play at Rifthold. I'm reminded of the fight between Merlin and Madame Mim in Disney's The Sword in the Stone, where the two agree to no imaginary monsters like pink dragons... only to have Mim turn into a purple beast, pointing out that she never said anything about purple dragons. No, there's no pink magic in Ardalan - but there's plenty of purple magic, and maybe a dollop of gold and green and royal blue. This, too, eats many pages. And then there's some stuff about Celaena's possibly-magical past (which Maas deliberately, and annoyingly, refuses to let the reader in on), a foreign princess from a conquered land who knows far more than she lets on, ghostly visitations from one of Ardalan's forgotten heroines, and more, even a mix-breed mutt, piling onto the back of an already-overburdened plot.
But what, you may ask, of the King's Champion challenge, the competition through which the main character means to earn her freedom? What, indeed. The contest that, I had thought, would form a good chunk of the story gets shunted mostly to the side, save for one evil competitor and his leash-holder. It mostly serves an an excuse for an epic fight at the climax... a fight that goes on far too long, as too many subplots collide in the battle ring. Afterwards, the story lingers, painstakingly setting up sequels for several chapters. At the very end, the author mentions prequel novellas online - which may explain why she was so cagy about Celaena's origins and so free with the often-confusing tangle of names, as she likely assumed that any reader had already read the prerequisite introductions. Unfortunately, no, I hadn't.
As I find myself saying far too often, I have read worse books. Far worse. But this story started out with so much promise - enough promise to convince me to pay good money for it - only to collapse under its own weight, not to mention a writing style that tended to drift between perspectives and from omniscient to close points of view. That disappointment dropped it a half-star in the ratings.

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Graceling (Kristin Cashore) - My Review
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Assassin's Apprentice (Robin Hobb) - My Review

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