Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Throne of Glass

In an attempt to enter into and better understand the storiesworldviews, and messages shaping my kids and the rest of today's youth, I submit my latest review of trending books, films, and TV shows effecting a primarily YA audience. My goal is not to critique the art form as much as look at how the story reflects and shapes  the readers' worldview.

There will be spoilers.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Mass, was named Amazon.com's "Best Book of the Month for Kids & Teens" in August 2012.  Publishers Weekly called it a "strong debut novel," and many other reviewers (though not all) have agreed. As with many popular books, a film is in the works.

I'll be honest: I didn't really care for this book. After reading my initial thoughts, I decided I should rewrite it and spend a little more time on the positive aspects.  However, if you read between (or behind) the lines, you may be able to get a sense of where this review began.

Celaena is a teenage girl who is also the World’s Greatest Assassin. After her parents died, she was raised by a whole bunch of assassins. When the country's king finally manages to capture her, he sends her to the mines to die. 

While imprisoned, she kills 24 guards. Years later, she still remembers one of the guards fondly, specifically“the feeling of embedding the pickax into his gut, and the stickiness of his blood on her hands and face.” Some of those guards had raped a friend; they “died too quickly.” These memories haunt her sleep do not seem to bother her too much.

One day the king’s son, Dorian, unexpectedly pulls her from the mines to enter a contest which will decide the king’s next Champion. If she wins, she gets her freedom after four years of service. Dorian is a blatant womanizer handsome rogue, a man whose renowned prowess in the bedroom on the battlefield is surpassed only by his ability to use people look good. Celaena observes that when he stands up straight, he“looks like a king.” Never has good posture played such a pivotal role in a romance.

Celaena vacilates between blood-thirsty assassin, girly potential princess, and cynical, world-weary girl. Men think she is beautiful when she dresses up, and she giggles. Men mock her in the tournament, and she destroys them.  She dreams of cutting out the king’s heart and smashing in the teeth of her bodyguard, Chaol, then plays piano like a virtuoso, “playing and playing as the sounds forgave and saved her.” She is a hot mess a little bit of everything a woman wants to be.

Celaena shows that women can be strong in other ways, too. She is undeterred by immodesty; she strips to her underwear in public, “enjoying it far too much when Chaol’s cheeks reddened before he turned away.” Yet another teenage heroine who shows a remarkable lack of discretion great confidence with her body. At least Chaol’s allowed to mock her: “Take them off at the barracks. I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to see you.”

Well, not everyone. The contest is still going on. Her main adversary is Cain, a maniac who gains power and size from the death of others by trafficking with demons.  Only Celaena seems to notice that his hat size is expanding faster than an MLB power hitter. When she finally asks a friend about this, she is told, “Perhaps the evil he kept summoning seeped into his soul and twisted him into something he was not.” The king shares the mark of Cain. He has “an air of death…the stench of another world, a dead world.” 

Celaena’s no stranger to magic, either. When she survives a poisoning, the explanation is that “magic calls to magic.”  Like the Force, this magic can be used for good or evil. Celaena is recruited by the Jedi the good users of magic, which might be a bad call on their part. Even Dorian stops trying to bed her long enough to realize it might be a bad idea to get too close.
“Where was the writhing darkness? Why didn't it show itself so he could just throw her into the dungeon and call off this ridiculous competition? There was something great and deadly concealed with her, and he didn’t like it.”
Actually, he secretly does. Dorian can’t seem to stay away from Celaena’s irresistible personality.  When Dorian hears her play the piano, he notes,“It seems like you have a soul.” Based on what he knows of her, that’s a pretty generous analysis.

She can’t stop fantasizing about killing him thinking about being with him – or being with Chaol, for that matter. It’s the classic “Teenage Assassin Meets Handsome Promiscuous Prince and Stoic But Desirable Bodyguard While Fighting in A Tournament, Playing the Piano, Dressing Up for Dances, Killing Demons, and Falling In Love.”

  Eventually she rebuffs Dorian, because “I’m going to be free, and I’ve never been free in my entire life.” That was a totally unexpected good decision.  No, wait, it was! It was a solid finish, which I must confess caught me by surprise.

I get why the book is popular to young female readers. Celaena has it all. She can protect herself and others; she can overcome the loss of her parents; she can survive incredible horrors; she is beautiful, and alluring, and smart. She attracts the most popular men – and rejects them both.  The author has noted, "I'd love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered."

But I wonder what kind of empowerment is happening here. This is not a story that translates well into the real world. Girls who survive what she has desperately need help – not because they are weak, but because they have been terribly damaged. People cannot commit the violent acts she has without paying a price in their soul.

Men like Dorian are a bad idea in the real world. In the book, evil only twists perverted old men or contract killers. But there is a much more appealing face to evil - for example, handsome men who use women and casually throw them away. They are not as obviously distorted as Cain, but they share a common allegiance. There was a squandered opportunity here for Mrs. Mass to make a point about trustworthiness, respect and honor (which could still happen in the sequels).

Chaol is supposed to be the ethical hero, the one who tames the moral ambiguity in Celaena. That mission was not accomplished in this book. I liked Chaol, but I had no sense that Celaena understood that he offered a moral compass. Perhaps the series will bring more clarity as it unfolds. 

There’s plenty of what I would call "realistic fiction" out there for a YA audience – Hunger Games, Divergent, Incarceron, and The Raven Boys come to mind. Even Warm Bodies is deeper than you might expect. The stories are fictional (and they are not perfect), but they take place in a "real" world that offers some truth about life. Throne of Glass is not only fiction by genre; it also tells a story that is often not true. 

No comments:

Post a Comment