The Assassin’s Blade

I was really curious, after reading Throne of Glass, to learn the details of Celeana’s past that are alluded to so often. The stories in The Assassin’s Blade didn’t disappoint. You learn more about Celeana, her relationship with her master and with Sam, and even get to see a friendship between her and another teenage female that helps give some history to how Celeana is with Nehemia in Throne of Glass.

My favorite story in the collection was “The Assassin and the Desert”. Celeana travels to the Red Desert to be trained by the Mute Master of the Assassins. It has a feel to it similar to those mentor/mentee movies where you get a nice training montage of time passing.

Each story in this collection furthers your understanding of Celeana a little bit, all in ways that help you understand her actions and motivations in Throne of Glass. Maas is really good at action sequences, too, so to have her narrative broken up more often with action like it is in these stories is nice. I sometimes felt like I had to wait too long before the next action scene in Throne of Glass.

I still think it’s interesting how Celeana can be considered the best of the assassins, but still manages to make mistakes because of her pride and anger. And her mistakes cost her—big time. It doesn’t seem quite right, even though she is very young and therefore wouldn’t have all the experience/wisdom necessary to always see the misfortunes ahead. She seems to be betrayed a whole hell of a lot for a young kid. To Maas’ credit, none of the characters doing the betraying felt two-dimensional. They all had compelling reasons to act the way they did. It just felt like a pattern after a while, of people continually betraying her and Celeana being too trusting because she wanted to believe in people.

After finishing these stories I went to Crown of Midnight, hoping that my increased understanding of Celeana would help me enjoy the sequel to Throne of Glass even more. Unfortunately, the characters in the main series aren’t anywhere near as cool to me as the ones in The Assassin’s Blade, so I found myself disinterested. I’m still going to hit A Court of Thorns and Roses, though, because I like Maas’ writing and I think a Beauty & the Beast tale would be right up my alley. I guess I should have guessed that I wouldn’t be that into a story inspired by Cinderella themes.

Throne of Glass

I’m not particularly fond of the Cinderella fairy tale in any of its forms, so as a loose retelling of it there were bits of Throne of Glass that bugged me. I was drawn to this book because I’m always on the lookout for badass female protagonists. A female assassin MC sounds wonderful. Did this book deliver on my expectations? I’d say maybe 50/50.

As a capable, kickass chick, Celeana Sardothien doesn’t disappoint. She can totally hold her own, and she works really hard to be the best. A point of pride, with her. But then there’s the fact that she’s still very much a naive teenager. She’s got some major PTSD from being in a prisoner labor camp for a year, but above and beyond that she just makes stupid decisions sometimes, or acts really girly/silly, or is too blind to what’s going on around her for my tastes. To some extent I can believe that she wants to live in denial because of everything she’s been through prior to the events of this book—but I read Throne of Glass before the prequel stories in The Assassin’s Blade. I didn’t know the full details of her past and therefore didn’t know why exactly she was being so obstinately blind.

As far as the writing goes, my only real complaints were the girly silliness. Maas does an awesome job with battle scenes. She really captures the back and forth, the seesaw balancing act of a good power exchange that keeps us guessing who will win. Which is important, when your main character is fighting or performing daring acts of physical prowess pretty darn often.

I wasn’t crazy about the love triangle angle, but I think I’m a little burnt out on love triangles in YA right now. I haven’t seen anyone do it quite as well as Hunger Games in a long time, so it tends to underwhelm. Actually, the more intriguing bits were all the allusions to her past, and relationships that ended tragically. I might not have wanted to read more, not being crazy about Cinderella-esque stories, if it weren’t for all those teasers about what happened in her past. Pretty much directly after reading this book I checked out the prequel stories to read, and then from there was actually invested enough in the character to want to read the second book in the series.

I’m still way more eager to see what Maas does with her loose retelling of Beauty & the Beast, it being my favorite fairy tale, but while I wait for that to become available on OverDrive I’m enjoying the Throne of Glass series. Worth a read for anyone who likes kickass female protagonists in YA, though I would definitely encourage people to read The Assassin’s Blade collection first, or at least not to just read Throne of Glass. By itself the first book leaves a little to be desired, but the prequel collection is pretty excellent as far as breadth of setting and character development go.

Kushiel’s Dart

Whew. There’s definitely some steamy goodness in this book. I’ve seen some people on the internet getting all huffy about it—she’s so young! She’s a sex worker! It’s BDSM!

And sure, if there’s just no pleasure sensor in your body that lights up with a little bit of consensual violence, maybe you’ll find parts of the story too distasteful for you to enjoy the rest.

As for me, I very much enjoyed reading about Phedre no Delaunay. Sold to one of the Houses of the Night-Blooming Court at a young age, Phedre’s marque is bought at ten by Anafiel Delaunay. He trains her in the arts of subtly and spying, and at sixteen Phedre uses her courtesan skills to uncover many secrets for the good of the realm.

When I first started reading, for maybe the first page, I was put off by the narrative voice. I could tell I was in for denser reading than most other Young Adult, and I could tell that the author was our very own main character, older and wiser and telling us her story. That sometimes puts me off, knowing that we might have certain things spoiled for us, the delightful suspense taken away because our narrator already knows how the story ends.

The writing is careful, though, and clever. And rather than detract, the narrative style actually adds to the story, building up more suspense as Phedre marvels at her ignorance at times, and drops sly hints to say that things were different, back then.

The narrative voice reminded me partly of Wraeththu, by Storm Constantine, and partly of The Shadow of the Torturer, by Gene Wolfe. It wasn’t an unpleasant reminder—I greatly enjoyed those books, and reading Kushiel’s Dart brought me back to being a teenager, reading books off my high school sweetheart’s bookshelf.

The amount of political intrigue in this book might be off-putting to some, and to be quite honest, I expected to get bored of it myself. I’m not really one for those types of stories, with all their twists and turns and subtle implications. I think there is probably quite a bit that went over my head, actually, though I don’t feel like I’m missing any essential piece of the story. However, the pacing of this story was extraordinary. I always wanted to know more. Secrets were unveiled at just the right time, or another delicious sexual encounter would occur, or a romance would take wing just when I might otherwise be finding my attention straying. I haven’t been glued to a book like that in quite some time, actually, and it was satisfying and wonderful.

I’m currently reading the second book in the series, and loving it as well. Major props to my Mama Bear from my graduate program, for putting me on to this series (her favorite). I’m glad to finally be reading them, and happy to find that they are so damn enjoyable.

Fangirl

Thank the gods for everyone who ever recommended Rainbow Rowell to me. What a fabulous writer. What beautiful stories.

Fangirl is no exception. In some ways, it was better even than Eleanor & Park, which you know I loved. The thing is, Fangirl speaks specifically to my generation. We are the generation that made midnight book-launch parties cool. We waited in line, in costume, for hours upon hours. Did you know that JKR started writing Harry in 1990, the year I was born? And that she published the last one in 2007, when I was seventeen, when Harry was seventeen?

We are the generation that learned to stay until the end of the movie credits. We’ve seen so many different remakes and reboots of familiar stories that we would laugh at anyone who argued that author-as-context literary criticism is the best lens through which to analyze something. Intertextuality is our life.

We were raised to think feminism was “extremist,” and we became feminists anyway, because we grew up to see through the lies. And we were raised on princesses, and body image issues, and trying to figure out who and what we are and where we fit in the world because existential nihilism isn’t in our DNA.

It feels like Rowell gets it. She has this amazing character, a twin, a writer, someone mature enough to play parent to her mentally unstable dad but whose social anxiety keeps her from going to the campus cafeteria. And she writes fanfiction, based on a story that is essentially the equivalent of my generation’s Harry Potter.

I don’t care that this genre of New Adult has such a crappy name—if every story in it were written like this one, it would be my new favorite. Yes, better even than Young Adult. (Maybe. I guess. Sort of. Okay, it would be like choosing between a puppy and a kitten. They’re both so awesome! Can’t I have both??)

The point is, Fangirl speaks to my generation.

It is beautifully written, and suitable for anyone, of any generation, to read. It is sweet and yearning and honest and real. If you’re of my generation, though, you owe it to yourself to read this book. You SHOULD NOT MISS OUT ON THIS. Seriously. Do yourself a favor.

(It’s like one of my writer friends telling me today that he’s never read Jurassic Park. I just—I can’t even. Who in the hell reads and writes books and hasn’t read Jurassic Park? It’s a fucking classic.)

You should read Fangirl. You can thank me later. (And the audio book production quality is quite fantastic, too, if you’d prefer to do it that way.)

Eleanor & Park

I spent all of yesterday with the Eleanor & Park audiobook playing while I nursed my post-bachelorette party hangover. I rehydrated to the two different voices reading Eleanor and Park’s parts (genius idea, really, to increase the emotionally impact by having two distinct voices in actual sound as well as diction). When I knew I should be going to sleep because tomorrow was the first day at my brand new job—I let the audiobook play for another two hours instead.

Rainbow Rowell captures the teenage voice so beautifully. My heart ached, and even the pop culture references that usually make me feel woefully out-of-touch and un-cool didn’t matter in that swirling mass of nostalgic teenage emotion. For a while I was worried, knowing what I do about stories, because the conflict of whether or not there is a romance was settled far too soon. Which foretold a far darker conflict later on—which Rowell delivered.  The body issues were explored with such grace. No heavy-handed moralizing here, just speculation. What would happen if you took a normal teenager, self-conscious and facing body-shaming from all sides, and made them feel temporarily safe with someone who loved them exactly as they were? And how true to life, that both Eleanor and Park felt the same way, that they just couldn’t imagine what the other saw in them.

I first heard about this book when Robin Benway visited one of my graduate school residencies with UCR Palm Desert’s MFA program. Someone asked her what she’d read recently that she loved, and she mentioned Eleanor & Park. Then a young adult editor a couple residencies later seconded that. I’ve seen people name it as their recent favorite fairly often since then, in articles and Facebook posts. With the wedding coming up so soon, I wanted a reminder of romance in its most passionate form. No one knows how to love more passionately than teenagers. We might love in healthier ways when we get older, but you have to admire the tenacity and intensity of teenage love.

If I had to pick a favorite, between Eleanor and Park, I think I would be completely stuck. That’s how well Rowell writes both of them. They are real and beautiful and unique. So real that you can’t say you like one more than the other. They both have flaws, they are both amazing. I did find myself frustrated with Eleanor sometimes, when she would pull away, or not say things that I thought she should. And then I would remind myself what it felt like to be a teenager, knowing the percentage of the time things actually worked out in your favor when you were brave or stupid enough to speak up. Knowing how often adults just didn’t seem to listen, or care. And when Eleanor started to trust Park, even if she still struggled, even if she still pulled away, it was so real. I don’t know many people who escaped childhood without trust issues of one kind or another, and of course Eleanor would have a harder time trusting in their relationship. It’s like any time I notice someone making a mistake—if I can see why they’ve done it, I’m not angry or frustrated anymore.

I would recommend Eleanor & Park to anyone. It brings back wonderful nostalgia, if you had a high school sweetheart you cared intensely for, and it’s so real that it could convince people who didn’t experience teenage love that they really knew what it felt like, just by hearing Eleanor and Park’s story. And I imagine as a teenager, it would feel like the truest story, like it really got me in a way other literature seldom did.

I hope I can pick up a physical copy of this one, as I’d like to be able to go over some sections a few times, to really savor them in a way you can’t when the audiobook just keeps on playing. It’s more than worthy of a re-read, and I’m going to see if I can slip it onto my soon-to-be-husband’s playlist for one of his long drives. I think he’d love it.