stuff I’m reading

I started reading this kinda cool fantasy series written by a female author recently, Sarah Maas, I think. Throne of Glass or Thorns or something. I came across a mention of the 6th book in one of the reading or writing subreddits, and it sounded interesting, so I went and picked it up on Monday. I’ve read the first two so far.

It’s cool–kind of predictable in terms of a high/ classic fantasy, so far as it goes. Castles, assassins, elves, suppressed magic, evil tyrant, hidden ruler. Nonetheless, it’s fun. Well paced, interesting characters. The predictability of the plot is comforting, rather than being a drawback, and it’s not so predictable that it’s boring … think of it more as familiar rhythm, a recognizable pace. Something enjoyable and relaxing, but not rolling-your-eyes/ mouthing-along-with-the-dialogue levels of predictable.

There is one tiny issue which kinda bothers me. Heh. I dunno. It’s weird–I used to read a lot of fiction featuring female protags, and I’ve never noticed this before? So I wonder if I’m only noticing it now because there was this gap where I didn’t really read fiction for a while, or if it’s always been there but it’s just more explicit … I dunno. Anyway.

Basically, the thing bothering me is that Celaena Sardothien, the protagonist, kinda exhibits some internalized misogyny/ special snowflake traits. Early on in the first book, she’s explaining why she doesn’t have female friends, and references some sort of gendered betrayals–not in depth, just super vaguely. Something about learning from experience not to develop friendships with women who had their own agendas. There are also scenes where she:

  • Does the whole, “I’m not like other girls,” shtick (cause she’s an ass-kickin’, pants-wearin’, names-takin’ assassin, get it?),
  • Sneers at other women (women of the court) who ogle handsome men (even though she frequently does it)
  • Sneers at other women (women of the court) for prioritizing frivolous/ courtly pursuits, although she also enjoys shopping/ pretty clothes/ pampering herself in a nice bath/ giggling about cute boys
  • Rolls her eyes, makes barbed comments, and in general is judgey while claiming not to care/ be judgey about the women “her” boys flirt with/ spend time around.

Basically, she reealllyy looks down on women who prioritize their safety/ goals in a patriarchal system, especially if they prioritize their own well-being at the cost of other women. At one point, she even calls them something like, “traitors to their sex,” or “traitors to their gender,” –something like that.

Of course, there’s no similarly gendered insult for men who undermine other men–or betray the women in their lives–in order to obtain wealth and power. And at one point, Celaena even pulls out the classic line of, “guys are more straightforward/ honest than girls.” This is especially darkly, tragically hilarious because the backstory trickling out about her seems to be one where it has been the actions of men seeking wealth and power which has shaped the major tragedies in her life. (More below)

The one woman Celaena does inexplicably befriend, Nehemia Ytger, is explicitly written as a non-romantic threat. She’s apparently stunningly beautiful (and a fight/ rebel leader of her own people), but due to politics/ whatnot is off-limits in terms of courting. Plus, she doesn’t flirt, and she’s a woman of color in what is (apparently) a slightly racist court. There is a scene where the prince recognizes Nehemia’s attractiveness (specifically in response to his mom acting racist about her), but it’s in an almost academic way, like you’d recognize the beauty of a painting or a rose. Not in the way you’d acknowledge finding someone genuinely attractive.

Nehemia’s plotline … well. If you haven’t read the books, but if you think you might want to and want to avoid major plot spoilers, time to back out now. I’m going to try to stay vague, but what’s coming up is definitely

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SPOILERS

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SPOILERS

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Still here? Okay.

So, Nehemia doesn’t appear to have any romantic interests, or any friends outside of Celaena, and even bonds with Celaena by specifically declaring her mutual special snowflake status/ dislike of “other girls”. For a book and 2/3, she’s a blank slate who shows up to listen to Celaena talk about boy problems, offer the occasional wise piece of advice, provide timely and enigmatic assistance, and then disappears to her own mysterious errands.

Celaena, being somewhat self-absorbed, is utterly unaware of and uninterested in whatever Nehemia is up to (except when she’s suspecting Nehemia of betrayal and evil, which she’s really quick to do), but pretty much collapses in paroxysms of grief when Nehemia is fridged.

Yup. Nehemia is killed in a particularly gruesome manner, with her violated corpse left for Celaena to find, specifically to impel the character’s plot forward/ kick them into action. There are also some disturbing hints of self-sacrifice in this plotline, with several hints that Nehemia chose to sacrifice herself/ traumatize her friend in order to impel Celaena to action, which is just … fucked up,  dude. That’s just fucked up.

Plus, honestly? Celaena’s reaction is kind of unbelievable to me as a reader. Not because Nehemia is unlikeable–because Celaena doesn’t seem, while Nehemia is alive, to particularly care about or prioritize their friendship. The majority of their interactions revolve around Celaena and her problems and injuries. There are one or two incidents when Nehemia is dealing with hurtful or bad news, and the reader knows because Celaena either runs into Nehemia or Nehemia specifically seeks Celaena out immediately afterward … but then Celaena won’t see her for weeks, and she just shrugs it off with, “Huh, I guess she wants to be alone right now.”

Plus, I’m a little bothered by the dynamics of it all. It’s weird that the only other even slightly fleshed-out female character (and the only person of color) was unnecessarily fridged just to further a plotline. I feel like everything from the warehouse reveal on could have happened without the torture+death of Nehemia. For example, as written:

  1. Warehouse reveal causing Celaena to lose trust in Chaol
  2. Celaena runs to the castle, discovers brutal murder scene
  3. Flips out, is put in dungeon
  4. Goes catatonic for a bit
  5. Recovers, goes on vengeance/ murder spree
  6. Returns to her mystery/ plot solving
  7. Confronts Blahdeblah, resolves PLOT, reveals BETRAYAL.

So, that could have been written:

  1. Warehouse reveal causing Celaena to lose trust in Chaol
  2. Celaena runs to the castle, discovers Nehemia fighting off assailant
  3. Flips out, joins Nehemia in kicking ass. Dorian and Choal arrive and intervene bc fighting in castle is a bad idea. Assailant escapes, Celaena blames Chaol.
  4. Nehemia severely injured (poison wound?) Celaena terrified
  5. Can’t handle sickroom, goes hunting the assailant
  6. Returns to her mystery/ plot solving
  7. Confronts Blahdeblah, resolves PLOT, reveals BETRAYAL.

Or,

  1. Warehouse reveal causing Celaena to lose trust in Chaol
  2. Celaena runs to the castle, discovers Nehemia’s room empty, signs of altercation. Blood everywhere. Guards and Nehemia gone.
  3. Cannot find Nehemia. Assumes the worst, flips out at Chaol, is put in dungeon.
  4. Goes catatonic for a bit
  5. Recovers, goes on vengeance/ murder spree
  6. Returns to her mystery/ plot solving
  7. Confronts Blahdeblah, resolves PLOT, reveals BETRAYAL.

Celaena’s relationships with the Prince and Chaol, on the other hand, feel much more complex and deeply explored. If one of them had died, her reaction of attacking bystanders, going into a comatose/ silent state of grief, then going on a murderous vengeance rampage would have been waaaaay more believable. But with Nehemia? It just kind of felt … overplayed. Like attention-mongery?

It frustrates me because the character development/ call to action Nehemia’s death supposedly necessitated was just … not there. It didn’t require her death. There were so many other ways to write it without fridging a decent character. Gah. And yeah, there are a few other named female characters, in super minor roles. Specifically:

  • A dead queen whose ghost appears occasionally in an advisory capacity
  • A live queen who’s pretty bland. Most of her scenes are harping on her son to get married and have babies/ being an irritant who’s company her son wants to escape.
  • An evil witch who eats children
  • One of “those girls,” a young noblewoman attempting to marry up in order to secure wealth and political power in a world that does not readily afford such to women. She’s attempting to manipulate a grotesque man in order to get closer to the prince, and her machinations turn horribly on her. Also, she’s a junkie. Don’t know why that character trait was included.

I don’t know. Like I said … enjoying the plot, mostly, but I am kinda (seriously) disappointed at the male-dominated cast and lack of well-written female relationships. Like, can we get some platonic sisterhood up in here?

But the writing is good, and I am only on the second book of what is apparently (thus far) a 5 book series, with one book published every year. So while there’s definitely room for improvement, some of the plotlines have hinted at more complex female characters showing up in the future (like warring witch clans and long-lost faerie queens!), as well as the exploration/ development of some of the ones already introduced (the junkie noblewoman). So there’s time, and I’m hoping things balance out.

I do kind of hope Celaena realizes, at some point, that guys are not more “forthright and honest,” than the women in her world. Like, the actions of men within their various realms/ levels of power seem to have uniformly been the architects of her greatest life tragedies, at least those listed in the first two books:

  1. Death of her parents (King Adarlan)
  2. A brutal upbringing at the hands of a foster father figure who ultimately demanded repayment for the debt of training her as an assassin (Arobynn Hamel)
  3. Lover murdered, betrayed as Adarlan’s Assassin, and sentenced to slavery in the salt mines (Arobynn Hamel)
  4. Being pulled from the salt mines to compete in a deadly contest for the right to champion the very King who’d murdered her family (Prince Dorian)
  5. Losing Choal because of manipulative seeds of distrust sown in an attempt to gain her trust (Archer Finn)
  6. Nehemia’s murder (Archer Finn)
  7. Being sent from Erilea “for her own good” without being consulted (Choal)

I mean, whatever the women she’d interacted with in the past have done, I find it kind of hard to believe they can reach those heights … yet somehow she says men are more honest and forthright?

Mind you, Prince Dorian, Choal, Archer, and King Adarlan spend pretty much all of books 1 and 2 stomping around being enigmas. With Archer and Adarlan, that’s expected, because they’re the villains. But with Dorian and Choal–her allies–it is kind of amusing to see Celaena run around all, “boys more honest, girls not trustworthy!” and Choal and Dorian are just lying their asses off to her and each other and everyone else about a shit-ton of stuff “for their own protection,” but she never bats an eye. Never even seems to register that (dis)honesty is not some sort of gendered trait.

I’m trying to decide if this is the unconscious bias of the author seeping into how she wrote the character, or if she’s actually really masterfully weaving this trait into the character in order to unpack it in later books. I’m hoping it’s the second one.

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