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The Black Gate is Closed

Katie

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Tolkien likes borders. I suppose you have to like them, as a fantasy author, otherwise you’d never find the patience to draw up the map. You’d swiftly become bored with all those stories about people who step through an gate in the wood and fall into Faerie, or people who pay the toll to take a ferry across a river and end up in a different world.

Crossing a border happens often in The Lord of the Rings: Sam leaving The Shire for the first time, the hobbits going under the hedge in Buckland to enter into the Old Forest, the crossing the Celebrant to reach Lothlórien, and even Aragorn and Company simply first crossing over into Rohan. This seems to be what’s going to happen again here, as our group approaches the Black Gate. The first sentence of the chapter states that “before the next day dawned their journey to Mordor was over.” It’s… not, quite, and you could argue that a lot of this chapter rehashes what came before. However, the arrival at the Black Gate serves as an emotional fulcrum for both Frodo and Gollum, prompting decisions that shape the rest of the narrative.

Frodo at the Black Gate

“I did,” said Frodo. His face was grim and set, but resolute. He was filthy, haggard, and pinched with weariness, but he cowered no longer, and his eyes were clear. “I said so, because I purpose to enter Mordor, and I know no other way. Therefore I shall go this way. I do no ask anyone to come with me.”

This is the first time Frodo speaks in “The Black Gate Opens,” and it’s startling. It’s a big step away from his behavior in the marshes where he was near silent, dragged down by the weight of his burden and increasingly aware of a deadly gaze ready to pin him to the spot. It’s nice to see Frodo suffering less. At the same time, his new attitude isn’t derived from hope but the realization that his quest is finally over. “I am commanded to go to the land of Mordor, and therefore I shall go,” says Frodo. “If there is only one way, then I shall take it. What comes after must come.” It’s a resoluteness built on certainty, a certainty built on inevitability.

His renewed clarity stems from the fact that Frodo believes he’s reached the point where there aren’t any more choices to make. He’ll try to get through the Black Gate. If he does, he does. Then he’ll take it from there. It’s something that Sam realizes immediately and – like last chapter – does not try to talk him out of, or provide him with any false hope:

Sam said nothing. The look on Frodo’s face was enough for him; he knew that words of his were useless. And after all he never had any real hope in the affair from the beginning; but being a cheerful hobbit he had not needed hope, as long as despair could be postponed. Now they were come to the bitter end. But he had stuck to his master all this way; that was what he had chiefly come for, and he would still stick to him.

Frodo’s Choice

Of course, Frodo isn’t given much time to relax with his clarity of mind . Sméagol/Gollum provides him with another choice, as impossible as all the rest. Throughout his journey, Frodo has been remarkably light on the self-pity (no joke, guys, I would have felt sorry for myself every single step). He slides close to it here, wondering why Gandalf’s guidance and advice had been taken from him so early. But he never sinks into it. He comes to the conclusion that it’s not a choice with a right answer, a choice that anyone could make based on wisdom and sound judgement. It’s simply a choice.

And here he was a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go. It was an evil fate. But he had taken it on himself in the far-off spring of another year, so remote now that it was like a chapter in a story of the world’s youth, when the Trees of Silver and Gold were still in bloom. This was an evil choice. Which way should he choose? And if both led to terror and death, what good lay in choice?

We never get a direct insight into how Frodo makes his choice. It’s interesting though that he chooses to follow Gollum’s ominous-sounding path right after witnessing Sam sing about oliphaunts, and then talk about them with Sméagol. It’s also interesting that Frodo frees himself from indecision with a laugh—right around the time that, off to the west, Gandalf laughs to free himself from the vestiges of Saruman’s voice.

It’s never stated explicitly, but it’s hard for me to read this section and interpret Frodo as choosing the more hopeful path. I mean, it’s not that hopeful – Gollum is being openly shady in his description of it, and his answer to whether his secret path was guarded is to ignore the question and until finally doing the equivalent of throwing up is hands and yelling, “yeah, PROBABLY.” Attempting to infiltrate the Black Gate would be a suicide mission. In turning away from it with a laugh, Frodo is embracing the reality of having to endure more pain and uncertainty for the improbable hope that it will lead to a better end.

Gollum at the Black Gate

Gollum, of course, is in the inverse situation. While Frodo for a moment seems to be free from further choice, Gollum’s choice becomes impossible to postpone. He fears the Ring falling into the hands of Sauron at least as much as Frodo does, and he fears it more viscerally. “Don’t take the Precious to Him!” he says. “He’ll eat us all, if He gets it, eat all the world.” It’s interesting to see here, too, that Gollum bestows Important Capital Letters not only on the Ring, but also on Sauron. He’s standing right on the border with the land where he underwent what we can assume was some terrible trauma (at one point he says that Sauron’s hand only has four fingers, but “they are enough”). He doesn’t want the Ring to return to it, and he has only a final chance to stop it.

Gollum’s first attempts to do so are rather pitiful. Before he suggests Cirith Ungol as an option, he makes the vague, half-hearted suggestion that Frodo simply give the Ring to him, and go away to “nice places” and not worry about it anymore. Even Gollum doesn’t seem fully convinced that it will work. He only has one real path to take (as Frodo assumes he himself does), but he doesn’t yet want to do it. He doesn’t want to send his master into a spider cave and doesn’t want him to be endangered. So he tries something else, a nebulous, unconvincing proposal to just adopt the Ring and let everyone live happily ever after. But when Frodo states resolutely that he will go into Mordor with it, no matter what, Gollum panics and admits that there is “another way” (another, orc-and-spider-filled way). It was where his choice was heading from the start.

You Will Never Get it Back

When Gollum offers up this choice, things go mentally downhill rather quickly for him. At first he gets a stern warning from Good Cop Frodo (even Bad Cop Sam is approving of his style):

“Already you are being twisted. You revealed yourself to me just now, foolishly. Give it back to Sméagol, you said. Do not say that again. Do not let that thought grow in you! You will never get it back. But the desire may betray you to a bitter end. You will never get it back.”

Frodo then goes on to promise that if Gollum were to try to take the Ring, Frodo would put it on and use it first (in a close foreshadowing of the actual end of “Mount Doom”). It’s an awful moment for Gollum, and he collapses into an “abashed and terrified” mess. It’s hard to know if it’s because of Frodo’s closing threat or the stark repetition: “You will never get it back.” The speech is a telling moment for Frodo as well. As far as I can remember, this is Frodo’s first suggestion that he would be willing to put on the Ring and to use it against someone else. It’s hard for me to tell at this point how much of a hold it has over Frodo, which is part of what makes this moment so frightening. It’s hard to know how much of his speech to Gollum comes from personal experience (the sense of being twisted, perhaps) or from his own fears (you will never get it back).

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The Easterlings

Now for a somewhat off-topic discussion. While The Lord of the Rings has not been maliciously racist, “The Black Gate Opens” continues the trend of unfortunate racial connotations. I’m not convinced that Sauron’s supporters marching into Mordor are designed to be any particular ethnic group, but they do read like an amalgamation of traits that a white Englishman in the early 20th century would use to describe non-Europeans.

“They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black, with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel, wicked men they look.”

That’s not great, and at best it’s a rather orientalist view of foreignness. At worst, we’re left with the notion that one of the very few non-European peoples in the story were either (a) dim enough to being unquestioningly duped by Sauron, (b) too weak to mount a resistance, or (c) totally on board with Sauron’s whole vibe.

This would be less a problem, of course, had Tolkien not associated most of his heroes with whiteness and fairness. Hobbits are perhaps an exception. As far as I recall hobbit skin tone is only related to the reader as various shades of brown, and the hobbits with the darker skin are described as far more numerous. But even in that scenario, we run into problems. Frodo, for example, is frequently described as being fairer than most of his hobbit brethren. His fairness also tends to be correlated to an inner nobility and moral strength. It’s a relatively small part of Tolkien’s overall thought, I’d say, but an unfortunate one.

Final Comments

  • Gollum’s insistence that he did escape from Mordor on his own was very sad, to me. “I did escape, all by my poor self. Indeed I was told to seek for the Precious; and I have searched and searched, of course I have. But not for the Black One. The Precious was ours, it was mine, I tell you. I did escape.” While I’m sure it was not intended this way at all by Frodo and Sam – the questions they were asking were important ones to ask – Gollum seems to have interpreted it as an attack on his agency in escaping a place he views with deep-seated fear.
  • This chapter is particularly adept with the foreshadowing. When Frodo is disappointed to discover that it’s not Gondor marching on the Black Gate, he compares the imaginary soldiers as “risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valor long passed away.” We have quite a few chapters to go until Aragorn reaches the Paths of the Dead, but chronologically it’s only about two days away.
  • Frodo’s reference to the Trees of Silver and Gold (Laurelin and Telperion) is another nice reference. Additonally, Shelob—whose unstated presence hovers over this chapter—is the last descendant of Ungoliant, the spider-darkness-monster (?) that destroyed the two trees.
  • Sméagol’s insistence that he doesn’t want oliphaunts to even exist again walks the funny/sad line well. “No, no oliphaunts,” said Gollum. “Sméagol has not heard of them. He does not want to see them. He does not want them to be.” Poor Sméagol has been having a tough time, so I can understand not wanting to have to deal with war elephants, but the extent to which he escalates things made me laugh a little.
  • I loved this: “He said: we’ll go to the Gate, and then we’ll see. And we do see. O yes, my precious, we do see. Sméagol knew hobbits could not go this way. O yes, Sméagol knew.”
    “Then what the plague did you bring us here for?” said Sam.
    Never change, Sam.
  • Prose Prize: It had always been a notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness. I like this so much, both as a sentence and with the following acknowledgment that kindness isn’t the equivalent of naivete.
  • Tolkien’s Wanton Cruelty to Innocent Punctuation Marks (sponsored by Mytly): A tough inaugural chapter all things considered. There are boatloads of semicolons, but I wasn’t able to catch any of the rarer three-in-one-sentence uses. At one point he uses a semicolon in three of four consecutive sentences. If we expand our scope, though, to Tolkien’s general language brutality, a clear winner emerges. Tolkien’s use of “amidmost” on the first page of the chapter, to designate the Sea of Nurnen that is presumably… most amid Mordor, is something that I both hate and love. Calm down, J.R.R.
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: Tolkien was kind enough to build this one in for me! Thanks, buddy! As noted in the chapter, Gandalf and the Fellowship 2.0 are speaking to Saruman at Isengard. And Pippin’s palms are starting to get itchy.
  • Guys, it’s almost Faramir time.

All film stills are from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) courtesy of New Line Cinema. The painting of the Black Gate is courtesy of Ted Nasmith.

Katie spends her days reading about medieval history and her evenings wondering if it’s too late to drop out of graduate school and become an astronaut.

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Mask of Shadows Balances Trauma, Revenge, and Love

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Mask of Shadows (MoS hereafter) is the breakout novel from debut YA author Linsey Miller, released August 29, 2017. The stunning cover masks a serious game of life or death with an intriguing protagonist, secondary characters that will steal your heart, a fascinating world, and a forbidden romance that bridges class, war, and our protagonist’s thirst for revenge.

If you felt let down by the assassin protagonist and weak worldbuilding in Throne of Glass, as fellow contributor Gabby did, this just may be the remedy you’re looking for.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Summary

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that.

But genderfluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of the Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeds in the competition and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

Please Note: While Sal variously prefers he/him, she/her, and they/them pronouns, Miller has clarified that they/them ought to be used as default, so that’s what I will be using throughout.

What I loved

I found Sal’s perspective riveting (I’ll get to Sal’s gender identity later, as I believe it deserves its own discussion). First person perspective relies on enjoying the protagonists headspace and for me, Miller accomplished that. Sal is clever, no-nonsense, and blunt. They flout conventions just enough—but always to a purpose—without being too much of a Snarky Rebel Hero™. There have some really insightful one liners sprinkled throughout the novel that made me think, too, like:

“The only difference between robbery and murder was what you stole.”

Much of Sal’s character relies on a delicate balance between seemingly opposing traits. They’re simultaneously highly perceptive of minor details about other people’s mannerisms that point to geographical or class origins while also almost completely unaware of political intrigues. I find the combination charming and refreshing. While it does make certain aspects of the final act of the book feel a bit rushed in places, it makes sense of their character and history. I understand this may frustrate some, but to me, it worked well. All the pieces are there in hindsight for the reader to make sense of even if Sal didn’t see them right away. And I have every belief that given the trajectory laid out for the second and final book in the duology, these matters will become more prominent.

Sal’s personal trauma and the burden of being a sole survivor of what amounts to a genocide by proxy are felt throughout, and Miller does a good job balancing Sal’s desire for revenge with the more pressing concerns of surviving the assassin auditions. All while falling in love with a member of the ruling class they so despise to boot. As someone who lives with PTSD—though not from watching the brutal deaths of my family and the destruction of my entire culture—I believe Miller did an excellent job depicting what that headspace can (but definitely not always) look like.

Sal’s sometimes dispassionate, sometimes triggered, sometimes guilty feelings about violence and death for example, make perfect sense to me. They’re all a piece of the complicated experience of living with trauma. Though it may not feel perfectly cohesive to someone who hasn’t lived with PTSD, I think Miller brought out the dynamic in a believable, authentic way.

The same goes for their struggle to both retain and erase their history and identity. Sal wants to cling to the being the last Nacean while also fully become Opal, the assigned name of the Queen’s assassin role they’re auditioning for. They desperately try to give nothing away about themself—to hide behind their numbered mask that functions as their ‘name’/designation throughout the competition—yet unwittingly give pieces away that we see reflected in other characters’ interactions with them. I found this tension between a desired loss of self and defining oneself by one’s trauma to be one of the most compelling aspects of Sal’s character.

Similarly, the way Miller interwove the theme of masks, hiding, and identity throughout the worldbuilding and characters impressed me. Aside from Sal’s personal struggles, you have the creatures called shadows—the disembodied souls who kill indiscriminately in order to regain their former body—stealing human faces as ‘masks’ as they search for their former selves. Miller juxtaposes these with the Queen’s faceless/masked yet all too human assassins who kill to protect her and the peace she maintains. The souls-in-search-of-bodies also act as a foil to the would-be Opals. The shadows steal people’s faces to regain their sense of self and embodiment; the competitors attempt to become someone else (Opal) behind their masks, but their bodies and actions betray their true selves.

Interesting Side Characters

A compelling protagonist ought to have an equally complementary array of side characters, and MoS fits the bill. Maud, Sal’s assigned servant, captured my heart almost instantly, and the dynamic between her and Sal were some of the funniest moments in the story. Yet there’s a tenderness that adds even more layers of enjoyment. They shape each other and both learn to trust, open up, and help each other. I always appreciate when a loner character learns to make friends and isn’t punished for it, so Sal finding Maud warms my heart.

Elise, Sal’s love interest, is no less intriguing. She’s smart, witty, and bookish without feeling like a Hermione rip-off. Miller also explicates her resistance to certain aspects of courtly life and the society’s political history realistically. In other hands, Elise could have been Not Like Other Girls™, but she doesn’t, and I appreciate that.

Sal and Elise play off each other well. The deeply romantic and intimate moments between them took my breath away. There’s a real sense of forbiddenness about their growing love without it veering too close to Romeo and Juliet-eque melodrama. It’s not so much star-crossed as a sense of underlying culture clash that may come to a head…or not, depending on what happens in the sequel. Either way, I liked it. The development felt well-paced, neither insta-love nor a slow burn. And absolutely zero love triangles, yay!

The three assassins Ruby, Amethyst, and Emerald completely captivated me the moment they appeared on page and that feeling never left. For not having ‘real’ names nor even visible faces since they wear masks almost the entire time, they’re surprisingly fleshed out. Despite being supposedly interchangeable fingers of death in-universe, they’re each unique individuals. I could read an entire novel about their exploits. Definitely faves.

They’re not the ‘nameless’ characters, the rest of the competitors don’t have ‘real’ names either. They go by the number assigned to them in order of their addition to the competition. One, Two, Three, Four, and so on down to Sal, who is Twenty Three. Most of the numbered competitors don’t matter to the plot, so a ‘real’ name wouldn’t make much difference. And for the ones who are significant, Miller gives enough personality traits to distinguish them. Just as Amilyn Holdo was the dreamy, weird one in Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Eleven was the nervous one who trained as an apothecary. In the end, I didn’t find “Four” all that harder to remember than a ‘real’ name like “Larry” would have been, just unconventional. The use of numbers as names actually added ambiance and worldbuilding.

Intriguing Worldbuilding

Speaking of worldbuilding, I devoured it. If people prefer a more action driven narrative with few to no breaks to provide worldbuilding details, character exposition, or backstory, this may not be the book for you. I, however, adore worldbulding when it’s done well, and this got my imaginative gears working big time.

If anything, I wanted even more because what we got was so rich and tantalizing. I want to know everything about this world, the politics, the history, the various religions and cultural norms. I love that the assassins are named after the Queen’s rings. Calling them the Left Hand is a funny little play off of “don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing”, only reversed because its the left hand that deals in shadows and secrets.

I want to know everything about the Queen and her role in the preceding war. Heck, I’d read a political thriller about her navigating court life after her ascension and maintaining the delicate balance of peace necessary to consolidate and hold her power. I want to know more about the mages, the runes, the magic. Are the shadows really gone? Is there still magic elsewhere that could bring them back? What was the world like when magic had not been drained from the land?

All that to say, I think Miller balanced worldbuilding and plot well. Sure, there were info-dumps, but all of them were relevant to the characters and/or plot. They also felt well placed and spaced out; I can’t think of a single moment where I felt like it was a wall of exposition I had to wade through to get back to the story. Everything was relevant, nothing was extraneous.

Some Potential Drawbacks

I’ll be honest, MoS is pretty violent and gory. As I mentioned, Sal suffered major trauma and has PTSD, so that could be hard for people to read. As much as Linsey Miller sometimes jokes about her “goofy novel about color-coded assassins,” she also understands that MoS deals with some pretty dark stuff. It isn’t Grimdark by any means, but neither is it an angsty love/adventure story. Death is an ever-present theme; there are mentions of abuse, war crimes, mass murder, and torture. Self harm and misgendering occur, though every instance of the latter is handled immediately and firmly rejected.

Certain aspects of the competition might be hit or miss for some. I’ve read critiques that Sal progresses a bit too quickly through some of the challenges they face (like learning to read). Then again, I’ve seen other reviewers complain that the training montages were too boring, so it’s kind of a toss up. Too quick of a progression may get criticized for being unrealistic, but too much time on the work involved may get criticism for being slow. Perhaps a bit more of a struggle with literacy could have been included and less about proper foot placement in archery or swordfighting, but neither of these was enough to break my engagement.

I’ve also seen MoS criticized for being derivative, and I’ll admit I have not have read widely enough in YA circles to assess whether or not this is accurate. I haven’t read Throne of Glass, the book to which it is most commonly compared. But, from the summaries and snippets I’ve read from Throne of Glass and Gabby’s previously linked review, I don’t think they’re all that similar other than “assassins in a competition.” There may be other assassin books in YA that might be more similar (apparently this is a common trope?), but again, I haven’t read them so I can’t say to what degree MoS imitates them or offers something different.

I didn’t find the plot all that overly similar to Hunger Games either, other than “teens kill each other in a competition.” As with Throne of Glass, I don’t find such an oversimplification in plot comparison useful. With that kind of rubric, you could claim Firefly is the same as Star Wars because a group of rebels fight a tyrannical authority in space. To me, the execution, tone, characters, and worldbuilding of stories matters more than a broadly similar plot premise; there are only so many plots, after all. So, So while MoS may share some very basic plot points with Hunger Games or Throne of Glass, the stories aren’t the same because nothing else is the same. What matters to me isn’t “I’ve seen this plot point before” but rather “what sets this apart.”

But, that may not hold true for everyone. If you’ve read a lot of assassin YA stories lately, MoS may be one to come back to after a break. But I do think it’s worth coming back to, because it does some really interesting worldbuilding and the characters are delightful.

On Sal as a Genderfluid Protagonist

When it comes to the specifically genderfluid aspect, I’ll start out by admitting that I am a cis woman. I do not wish to talk over the experiences of those who are genderfluid. Nor did I think it appropriate for me to address this aspect without interacting with someone who identified this way. As much as I found Sal compelling and well written, that didn’t mean they were good rep. So, I talked to my friend Kay, who identifies as genderfluid, about certain aspects of the story to see what they thought.

The first being Sal’s clothing choices. Miller has Sal use stereotypically masculine, feminine, and neutral clothing choices as a shorthand for which pronouns they prefer (he/him, she/her, and they/them respectively). I had seen criticisms from cis writers of this convention and wasn’t sure how to react. Having not read MoS themself, Kay felt they couldn’t comment on it beyond it sounding like a reasonable, if admittedly simplistic, shorthand explanation based on the setting. However, Kay also admitted not every genderfluid person might like it as a storytelling convention.

I also discussed passages that stood out to me as reflecting a deep understanding of genderfluid experience with Kay. At one point, Sal uses the metaphor of a river to describe themself.

“Rath had asked once, a while after we’d met and been living together, and I’d not known how to explain it yet. I didn’t have the words. He always felt like Rath, and I always felt like Sal, except it was like watching a river flow past. The river was always the same, but you never glimpsed the same water. I ebbed and flowed, and that was my always.”

As Kay had used a similar metaphor in a short story they’d shared with me, it struck me as well done. Kay agreed wholeheartedly, especially as it spoke to their preferred self-description.

What struck me most talking with Kay about the book was that Sal’s genderfluidity just was. It didn’t define their character, but neither was it ignored. Sal explains themself clearly and for the most part, people accept them. Misgendering only occurs three times. The first is a matter of ignorance, the second two rudeness, yet all are immediately corrected in such a way that highlights respectful use of pronouns as a matter of basic human decency. Anything else is disrespectful. Only bullies and villains misgender people intentionally in MoS, which is precisely how I think such behavior should be handled.

By talking to Kay, I wasn’t looking to be told this was a perfect depiction, or even to justify my hesitantly positive reactions. I honestly wanted to hear whether or not it spoke somewhat to their genderfluid experience in a meaningful way or whether they believed it was harmful. If the latter, I would have immediately put it down and walked away.

At the same time, not all genderfluid experiences are interchangeable or the same across the board. Miller herself has been up front about this, and Kay asked that I mention they do not speak for all genderfluid experience, only their own. I have read/watched several positive reviews of the book from non-binary reviewers alongside my discussion with Kay; others are more critical of the representation.

The truth is, not every genderfluid person will like the depiction of or feel validated by Sal. And that’s perfectly fair. Other genderfluid persons may find their character, arc, and experiences meaningful, and that’s valid, too. As a cis person, I can’t tell anyone what to think about Sal. My opinion is about as useful as a bicycle to a fish.

I can only speak to other cis readers like myself, so I will. It’s not our job to tell genderfluid persons how to think about this character. The most important thing we can do is sit down and actively listen to all perspectives. We can advocate for more and varied literary depictions of this underrepresented community. And we can encourage the rest of the LGBTQ+ community and ourselves to support original works by non-binary and genderfluid authors that reflect their stories and experiences.

Final Score: 8/10

Please Note: As I do not believe it is my responsibility or place to ‘grade’ representation, my final score reflects my opinion of everything except Sal’s gender identity.

Engaging, complex protagonist and well-fleshed out secondary characters; the worldbuilding may be a bit info-dumpy to some, but is also detailed, rich, and always relevant. Pacing of the third act is slightly rushed compared to the second, but makes up for it by being page-turningly tense. There are some truly excellent plot twists I didn’t see coming, which gets bonus points from me because I can usually spot plot twists a mile away.

Oh, and I can’t think of a single character explicitly described in a way that came across as ‘white’ to me off the top of my head. There are other LGBTQ+ secondary characters, too, including at least one (I think two) who is bi/pan and one who is aro/ace. So that’s pretty awesome.


Images Courtesy of Sourcebooks Fire

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GRRM’s Take on the Fall of Sveaborg in The Fortress

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project

Spoilers for the short story “The Fortress” and for the history of Scandinavia

Among the bibliography of George R. R. Martin (GRRM), The Fortress is an unusual story with unusual origins. While GRRM is known for the historical influences in his writing, particularly his fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), The Fortress is entirely a work of historical fiction.

As he tells us in the autobiographical segments of the Dreamsongs collection, GRRM graduated in Journalism with a minor in History. In his sophomore year he signed up for History of Scandinavia, and,

We read Norse sagas, Icelandic eddas, and the poems of the Finnish patriotic poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. I loved the sagas and the eddas, which reminded me of Tolkien and Howard, and was much taken with Runeberg’s poem ‘Sveaborg, ’ a rousing lament for the great Helsinki fortress, ‘Gibraltar of the North,’ which surrendered inexplicably during the Russo-Swedish War of 1808. When it came time to write term papers, I chose Sveaborg for my topic. Then I had an off-the-wall idea. I asked Professor Scott if he would allow me to submit a story about Sveaborg rather than a conventional paper. To my delight, he agreed.

That story is The Fortress.

Not only did it get GRRM an A, but also his professor encouraged him to send the story to The American-Scandinavian Review for possible publication. It wasn’t accepted due to its size, resulting in GRRM’s first ever rejection letter (albeit one he remembers fondly). Traditional magazines weren’t interested in the story either, so The Fortress returned to the drawer until Dreamsongs was published.

Today in History: Russia and Winter team up to ruin the day

If you’re as ignorant in Scandinavian history as I am, here’s a primer: Sveaborg, also known as Viapori or Suomenlinna, is a sea fortress built on six islands which now form part of the city of Helsinki. Its construction started back in 1748, when Finland was still part of Sweden. Sveaborg was thought to be impregnable, “the Gibraltar of the North”. You can still visit it today if you want.

The fortress played an important role during the Finnish War (1808 – 1809); its surrender to Russia in May 3, 1808 is thought to have paved the way to the occupation of Finland by Russian forces. This in turn resulted in the Finland region becoming the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, predecessor of modern Finland.

Framed by excerpts of Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s The Tales of Ensign Stål, GRRM’s The Fortress tells the story of the siege and surrendering of Sveaborg.

We follow the perspective of Colonel Bengt Anttonen and his concerns with Admiral C. O. Cronstedt, the man in charge of the fortress. Anttonen believes the admiral is being played by General Suchtelen to overestimate Russian forces and Sveaborg’s weaknesses, thus becoming inclined to surrender a fortress that could otherwise resist until the arrival of Swedish reinforcements.

Anttonen and his confidant Captain Carl Bannersson are getting ready for a possible mutiny should the officers decide to surrender the fortress. Since the control of Sveaborg is vital for a Swedish reaction against the Russians, Anttonen repeatedly attempts to persuade Admiral Cronstedt and his trusted advisor Colonel F. A. Jägerhorn to wait for reinforcements instead of surrendering. While Cronstedt is worried about the lives of the people inside the fortress, Jägerhorn believes in the czar’s promises that Finland will be an autonomous state under Russian rule.

On April 6, 1808 Cronstedt signs an agreement with the Russians giving them three of Sveaborg’s six islands. They will recover two if Swedish ships arrive before May 3. Two couriers will be sent to Stockholm to ask for those reinforcements, but if the ships don’t arrive in time, Sveaborg will surrender entirely.

Anttonen argues this is a false chance, since the ice around Sveaborg would never melt before this date; even if the reinforcements arrive, the ships wouldn’t be able to approach the fortress. To make things worse, Jägerhorn picks Bannersson as one of the couriers, severely hindering the possibility of mutiny.

May 3 finally arrives and no sign of Sweden, but Russia used this time to increase their forces. Anttonen decides they must act at once and gathers what few men he can to take Sveaborg by force. Before they can do much, they’re surprised by Jägerhorn’s far superior forces. Anttonen won’t give up without a fight and charges against him, getting shot three times. Bengt Anttonen dies, Sveaborg surrenders, and soon Finland does too.

In the epilogue, a dying Cronstedt receives the visit of now-Major Carl Bannersson. It’s been exactly twelve years since the surrender of Sveaborg and Bannersson says he never forgot it, so it’s time for some Receipts™—or, as I’ll call them from now on, “cold historical facts.”

Bannersson shows Cronstedt papers proving that Sveaborg’s forces were far superior than the Russians and Suchtelen was probably playing him to sign a truce. They could have easily waited for Swedish relief. In one final punch, Bannersson says the Russians never intended to give them a chance; they delayed the messengers for so long they only arrived in Stockholm on May 3. 

Bannersson says History will forget about Bengt Anttonen and his failed mutiny, but wonders what it will have to say about Cronstedt. A day later, Cronstedt dies.

Human history in conflict with itself

I have to confess, I was a bit uneasy with GRRM writing historical fiction, since he’s part of the “that’s just how it was back then” crowd, even with less-than-accurate historical references. So after I was done reading The Fortress, I did some digging to see how much of that truly happened.

The story is quite accurate in its events, and the characters Cronstedt and Jägerhorn were based on actual people. I couldn’t find anything on Anttonen or Bannersson, so I’m assuming they were invented. As the reasons behind the surrender of Sveaborg remain a mystery, there’s interesting room for speculation.

Given its point of view and epilogue, The Fortress more or less sides with the people who blame Cronstedt for the fall of Sveaborg and the loss of Finland to Russia. That’s not unexpected when you consider GRRM was highly influenced by Runeberg’s poems, and those gave Cronstedt a Historical Villain Upgrade. In The Fortress he’s presented as ultimately wrong, even though he possibly wasn’t.

Maybe because GRRM writes with the benefit of hindsight, everybody in the story is right about something. Yes, Cronstedt overestimated Russian forces, he was probably being played by Suchtelen, and in the end he was despised by everybody. But also yes, Sveaborg had a lot of flaws, Sweden would have likely lost the war anyway, and surrendering the fortress spared several lives. And, well, this whole deal was vital for the formation of Finland as we know it, so take your pick.

I’d love to hear from the History people on the comments. How does The Fortress feel for you?

I now wonder if it’s actually possible to write historical fiction without taking sides, especially if you place somebody as your point of view. I honestly don’t have an opinion on this yet.

It’s the journey, not the destination

One of the most remarkable features of The Fortress is how much you can be invested in those characters and events even though you know that Sveaborg will surrender in the end (even if you know as little Scandinavian history as I do, GRRM spoils it in his commentaries).

It goes to show that one of GRRM’s biggest strengths as a writer is to make the journey matter, far more than the destination. Yes, we know Sveaborg will fall, but we don’t know how or why or what this will mean for the people involved. Those are the elements that make us care about this story. Gee, I hope everyone who adapts GRRM’s stories understands this and can make his journeys justice…oops.

The prose in The Fortress doesn’t feel as vivid as in GRRM’s other stories. The descriptions are quite timid, perhaps even more than in his previous works like Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark. Maybe that happened because he was talking about a real place and didn’t want to say anything inaccurate about it?

Despite this, the narrative has a solid pace and a good deal of tension in the air, again quite a feat for a story we already know the ending to. The stakes are high and we don’t just feel for Bengt Anttonen, but also for Sveaborg and even the entirety of Finland. One of the main reasons for that, I suspect, are the characters.

If in Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark the characters fell flat, in The Fortress they feel human and fleshed out. The cast is small, but everybody has reasonable motivations and distinct personalities. While GRRM indulges in a bit of Cronstedt hate, he writes Cronstedt with enough nuance that I actually can’t bring myself to hate him in the end. The man looks miserable. 

GRRM even suggests that in Anttonen’s epic shade to Jägerhorn:

He turned away slowly, and opened the door to leave. Then, almost as an afterthought, he paused and looked back. ‘You’re just a misguided dreamer, and Cronstedt’s only a weak old man.’ He laughed softly. ‘There’s no one left to hate, Jägerhorn. There’s no one left to hate.’

As much as the narrative sides with Anttonen, it doesn’t really invite you to hate Jägerhorn or Cronstedt. And in the end, Anttonen is as much a dreamer as he accuses Jägerhorn of being. He firmly believes in Sveaborg’s strength, in the upcoming Swedish help, and in the success of his mutiny.

Anttonen’s willingness to shed Finnish blood for “the greater good” is an interesting conflict, one that I wish GRRM could have explored more extensively. It’s very much “the human heart in conflict with itself”, one of GRRM’s favorite themes.

Last but not least, a sad pattern also reappears here: the story is only populated by white men, or at least they’re the only ones doing the things that matter. I won’t take the size of the cast as an excuse because if you have only one character you can choose to make that character something other than male, white, cis, straight, etc. If GRRM so far only tells the story of one type of people, that’s on him.

The fortress under siege

This won’t be the last we see of the Finnish fortress in GRRM’s bibliography. Under Siege, also included in Dreamsongs, is a heavily reworked version of The Fortress, published in Omni in 1985. Think of The Fortress, but with time travel, America, Cold War, Fallout, mutants, and hearts in conflict.

I actually considered reviewing both stories in one go, since they complement each other in a way, but they’re different enough that I thought they would benefit from separate pieces. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

Next time: GRRM’s amateur phase comes to an end with “And Death His Legacy,” one of the stories he wrote in college for his Creative Writing class.

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Throne of Glass Waste of a Compelling Premise

Gabby

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Throne of Glass tells the story of Celaena Sardothien, an eighteen-year-old assassin living out a life sentence in the deadly salt mines of Endovier for the crimes she has committed. That is until she is dragged before the Crown Prince with an offer she cannot refuse: she may earn her freedom by competing for him to become the King’s Champion. As the competition ensues, many of Celaena’s fellow competitors begin dying in mysterious and gruesome ways. And thus, Celaene’s fight for freedom also becomes a fight for her life.

Unfortunately, despite its intriguing premise (and book cover) Throne of Glass failed to engross me. All the essential elements of fantasy: character, plot, world-building were flat, cliched and inconsistent.

Plot

Throne of Glass drew me in with the prospect of reading about an assassin fighting for her life in deadly competition. Yet, the actual test Celaena has to perform in the competition came off more as activities one finds at summer camp. There is racing, climbing, archery, and an obstacle course. There’s no tension, no real risk in any the test that Celaena is presented with. More disappointing is the fact that much of the competition is glossed over to focus on Celaena’s everyday life in the castle.

“…despite the three test she had, the most exciting of which being a obstacle course, which she pass with only few minor scratches and bruises.”

There are attempts at courtly intrigue and a mystery of who is killing the competitors, but both are sidelined for the love triangle.

Now, I don’t mind love triangles as long as they are executed properly. Love triangles can be an interesting way to show the protagonist inner struggle to choose one life over another. This one does none of that. Celaena’s two suitors are the Crown Prince Dorian, and The Captain of the Guard, Choal. There is no significant reason for either of these characters to like Celaena besides that she’s beautiful, something the plot will remind you of constantly. Overall, the romance felt forced and underdeveloped.

Characters

I found many of the characters to be inconsistent, particularly Celaena. Continuously, Celaena and other characters tell us how extraordinary she is, but she never lives up to her reputation. She is presented to the reader as this hardened assassin who has been through the ringer, but instead, she comes off as a shallow, whiny teenager more obsessed with clothes, appearances, and balls than surviving.

I do appreciate Sarah J. Maas’s endeavor to have Celaena be a multi-faceted character. Often times in order for female characters to be “strong” in fantasy (or in general) they have to be completely stripped of their femininity. The issue here is that there is a line between this being a character trait and the character coming off as superficial. When you have a character that has been a slave for over a year competing for her freedom complain about how she isn’t beautiful anymore or how ugly her pants are, you have officially crossed that line.

Another trait that put me off Celaene was her attitude towards other women.

“She never had many friends, and the ones she had often disappointed her. Sometimes with devastating consequences, as she’d learned that summer with the Silent Assassins of the Red Desert. After that, she’d sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agendas and power of their own. Girls who would do anything to get what they wanted.”

Characters are supposed to have flaws. It’s what makes them interesting, relatable, and hopefully, in the end, they will have learned and grown from them. Yet, in the context of the story, Celaena’s hateful viewpoint towards other women is never treated as a flaw. In Celaena’s eyes, all the other female characters are painted as shallow social climbers, and the text approves of this thinking. There is one exception in the foreign princess, Nehemia, but even Celaena suspects at one point that she might be the one committing the murders.

Then there is the whole assassin angle. Celaena never actually kills anyone in the story, which for a book about an assassin is kind of a letdown. Besides, we never actually find out how Celaena feels about being an assassin or why she does it. We don’t know if she does it for the money, glory, or just the thrill of the kill. We never find out if she feels guilty or simply doesn’t care. We learn an abusive mentor forced her into it, but she’s always thinking about how she would like to kill people. So she must enjoy it on some level? Though it’s never elaborated on. For something that is a huge part of Celaena’s life, it has little influence on her personality.

The other POV characters don’t fair much better.

There is love interest #1 Dorian, the Crown Prince, whose only motivation for busting Celaena out of prison was to mess with his father. He is the ladies man/reluctant hero type that the book tries to paint as deeper than he actually is. Basically, he is just bland and conceited.

Love interest #2 is Choal, the Captain of the Guard and Dorian’s best friend. I did like Choal. He had a good heart and was one of the few characters that didn’t idealize Celaena, despite the fact he later develops feelings for her. Still, he was terrible at his job. For the Captain of the Guard, he made far to many oversights, especially when it came to Celaena.

Finally, there’s Kaltain. Poor Kaltain. Initially presented as one of the shallow, social climbers that Celaena hates, Kaltain might be my favorite character, simply because she actually felt fleshed out. Her motivation to rise in the ranks wasn’t just for title or greed, but for protection. Her biggest character flaw lies in her single-mindedness to achieve this goal. She needs this sense of security so badly that she’s willing to make deals with horrible people to get it. That’s intriguing.

World-building

The world-building was a mess. It varied from little-to-none to awkward info dumps. Maas tries to bring in so much, from magic to political intrigue to religion, but it felt it was done without actually considering on how to work it into the story naturally. There’s nothing fresh or enlightening about Maas’s world, which is something that is very important in fantasy. When the world is real and fleshed out, it can completely transport the reader, even if it’s mostly in one setting, like Throne of Glass.

Conclusion

Throne of Glass is by no means a memorable work. It wouldn’t challenge you with complex characters or entrap you with fantastic world-building. It could have been a stronger book, but it is what it is, and I can understand why readers would like it. It’s a fast, easy read. So if you are just looking for some lite-fantasy with emphasis on romance, then give this a try.

Miscellaneous

  • It was cool that Celaene had her period without it being a big deal. You don’t see that a lot in fantasy.
  • There is this really weird fixation on characters physical appearances in this book. In every chapter, the reader was reminded how attractive the main characters were. And, of course, pretty characters = good and ugly characters = bad.
  • The only minority character, Nehemia, was mystical.
  • Hulu is adapting the Throne of Glass into a TV series, which should be… interesting.
  • Also, I not sure if Maas was trying to make direct references to SpiritStallion of the Cimarron and Secret of NIMH, but the quotes were so exact that I think she was.

“I name you Elentiya, ‘Spirit That Could Not Be Broken’.”

And “Queen Elena put her hands on Celaena’s shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Courage of the heart is very rare,” she said with sudden calm. “Let it guide you.””

Being that I didn’t enjoy Throne of Glass, I might not continue on with the series. I’ll read that it gets better, but if a series can’t pull me in with the first book, what exactly are my motivations to continue? We’ll see what happens. Until next time, let me know your thoughts and stay awesome.


Images courtesy of Bloomsbury

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