I’ve been taking my sweet, beautiful time getting through two particular books: “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers and “Throne of Glass” by Sarah J. Maas. There are light spoilers ahead, but I promise I won’t reveal too much info. These are both books that have some core similarities:
- Young, beautiful, female protagonists
- Assassin main characters
- Awesome supporting characters
- Villains you love to hate
- The presence of supernatural/magical elements
- Ye olde world
That is about where the similarities end and the differences begin. For one, while they both have a “ye olde backdrop” type setting, Maas’ work takes place is a fictional, (low?) fantasy world. LaFever’s book is historical fiction which takes place in Brittany during the time when their independence was threatened by the French. The prose and dialogue differ extremely, as LaFever’s world is cohesive and makes sense. People speak in polite terms, even when they are making vague threats, whereas Maas’ world seems to have a hard time establishing anything outside of the central romance.
I think its a bit obvious which book I prefer by now… I really love Grave Mercy! So first, let’s talk about why Throne of Glass just didn’t do it for me.
In summation, Throne Of Glass is like a mix of Battle Royale-ish (minus the horror/wtf stuff) with romance elements and a dash of intrigue. The main character, Celaena Sardothien, is an 18 year old accomplished assassin. When we meet her, it is actually during the end of her imprisonment in a salt mine as harsh punishment for her crimes against the crown. The world as we know it is currently under siege by King of Adarlan as he, for whatever reason, decided he hates magic and also he wants to rule everything and stomp out magic. Celaena is taken from her confinement by Prince Dorian and his friend/captain of the guard, Chaol Westfall. She is offered a chance to enter a tournament to become the King’s champion (read: dog) or return to the salt mines where she will work until she dies. Obviously, she chooses to enter the tourney and the plot ensues. Kind of.
There are about three things I have a problem with in this book. First, I think the main character does a lot of talking, but her actions don’t match her words. Second, the entirety of the book takes place in basically Celaena’s room and a couple other places in the castle. We learn almost nothing about other places, really, other than Celaena’s ‘descriptions’ of the places. Third, the romance is forced, out of place, and overall seems rushed. Also its apparently a love triangle, but one of the participants wasn’t really informed of that.
Celaena is one of those people that likes to talk about how she is a big baddie, but does nothing to show for it. We don’t even really hear of her past exploits ever. We mostly just hear, primarily from Celaena’s own mouth, that she is world famous, world class, and super amazing and bad ass. Yet, in this novel, she just lies around reading, complaining about how someone (usually a man) isn’t noticing her, and flirting with the crown prince. While she does have a couple scenes where she trains with Chaol, her other romantic interestish, these are few despite that the main plot should be about the tournament and the mysterious murders. Also the murders aren’t very mysterious, but you will understand if you decide to read this.
The world in Throne of Glass seems like it should be full of life, but we are stuck with very few characters to truly express the stated vastness of culture, color, and people that populate this universe. There is even a character, whom we see the POV of, who is basically pointless and contributes almost nothing to the plot or narrative as a whole. While Princess Nehemia is a POC, she is basically one of the only people we meet from a different culture outside of Cain, who I refuse to comment on. Still, Princess Nehemia is an amazing, awesome, and inspiring character. I rather wish this story was told from her POV instead, since she has her priorities in line… instead of worrying about if the prince thinks she’s pretty or not.
Which reminds me, the ‘romance’ in this book is comparable to a little girl lifting her Barbies together and shouting “NOW KISS!” The author somehow conveyed really weird signals and feelings that completely clashed, in my opinion, with how Celaena should have thought of the situation. First, this is the son of a king who destroyed everything you loved. Even for love at first sight, you would think an assassin understands to play a game rather than outright trust everything such a person has to say. Their flirtations are the kind you see between people who know it will never happen and come off really awkward. I feel like slapping these people and lecturing them. I feel like much of the time that could have been spent developing the world is stuck documenting the boring courtship between Celaena and Dorian.
Now here is the part where it sounds like I am going to ship against the current, but the relationship between Celaena and Chaol comes off as very natural. They don’t even ‘realize’ their feelings for one another through most of the book. Chaol eyes Celaena with distrust and it isn’t until certain moments when he realizes he at least cares for her as a human being. He has seen her at her worst and seems to genuinely want her to succeed not for any kind of personal gain, but because he understands that Celaena is not just a criminal, but a person. All of this just makes the really needless, useless, and out of left field stuff between Celaena and Dorian more unbearable.
So here is why Grave Mercy was basically the opposite of all that.
Truth be told, I thought Grave Mercy would be the weaker of the two works. JUST LOOK AT THAT COVER. I tend to judge books by their covers, like a terrible person. Its just hard to think a cover with a wispy, beautiful girl holding a crossbow will really deliver.
But oh god, does it deliver the best pizza you ever ate.
First, let’s talk about this main character, Ismae. She is a child of death, Mortain’s daughter — literally. When she was in the womb, her mother and father(ish) tried to abort her with the help of an herb witch. It didn’t work and left a huge scar along her body. She was sired by death, and her childhood was spent as a leper of sorts for it. People, understandably I suppose, were afraid of her including her mother’s husband. One day, he sells her off to be the bride of some brutish man, but she is rescued by the herb witch that gave her mother the abortive poison. She spends the rest of her adolescence in the convent as a sister initiate. Basically, they trained her to become an assassin doing her god’s will. This all happens in the first couple chapters… a relief for those who understand the painful, slow pace most novels seem to take. The rest of the story follows, somewhat, the story of Anne of Brittany. Reading about what happens with her is kind of a spoiler for the book but at the same time Anne of Brittany was quite awesome.
The world is based on our’s. As a historical fiction, it uses its background quite nicely and it is great to see the central plot be about Anne and the game people play to try to take her duchy away from her. While the main character has some supernatural features to her, everything fits nicely into place and makes sense. For these reasons, the world is rich with history, full of life, and there is a real sense of danger as we read the story… because anyone who knows the history of Anne of Brittany already has an idea of how things will go.
The romance in this book is simply beautiful. The subtly, the pacing, the realness of it — it seriously blows my mind. Ismae does not spend all her time worrying about if he loves her, but moreso focuses on her mission for a majority of the story. Her mission is to protect the Duchess Anne and to learn more about Duval, her love interest. The best part about this book is that he is not simply her love interest. He is an independent character with motivations, a history, and we can empathize with Ismae as she slowly falls for Duval when she learns more about him.
Truly, this book has a lot more to it than what I can write here. I don’t dare say more, because it would be mostly spoilers. I think this is a book that most people would like to read, especially those itching to read about strong, female protagonists. While she does have a romance with Duval, it is not the only plot running. We worry about Anne, about Duval, we wonder about the mysterious god Mortain, and we learn more about Ismae as she becomes a strong person.
In the end, Throne of Glass is a first novel by Maas and it certainly shows. Grave Mercy is LaFever’s first YA novel, but she has many children’s titles under her belt. Throne of Glass was simply not for me, but I think people looking for pure romance with a medieval/fantasy backdrop will find what they are looking for. If you want more complex characters and narrative, however, you should definitely give Grave Mercy a try.