A Flash Of Light, The Crackle Of Electricity, The Smell Of Metal Shavings, And Taste Of Magic In The Air Sweet And Powerful And Sharp As A Razor. DaVinci Had His Machines And Merlin His Spells, But The Techno Wizards Have Both In Perfect Unison, A Mystery Even Mecha Dragons Cannot Understand. We Know The Magics Of Ink And Of Oil, And If You Seek Us, You Will Find Us In Our Workshops, Crafting A Masterpiece.
*Sadly, Andrea was unable to join the rest of us again, due to a family emergency.
Book 4: The Dark Wife
The Dark Wife, a lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth, is the debut YA novel from award-winning author of lesbian YA speculative fiction Sarah (S. E.) Diemer. Published in 2011, The Dark Wife won the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction, and was nominated for a Parsec Award for the first two chapters of the audiobook. Daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, the goddess of the Earth, Persephone grew up being told she would one day succeed Hera as queen of the gods on Olympus. She has everything a young goddess could want, except freedom.
Then one day, Zeus assaults and transforms her lover Charis into a rosebush. Soon after, she meets the enigmatic Hades, “lord” of the dead, and begins to contemplate something new: rebellion. The goddess (not god) of the Underworld then offers Persephone a chance to escape Zeus’s tyranny in the land of the dead. There, Persephone comes face to face with the truth about herself, the afterlife, and the history of the gods she thought she knew. Can she find love, and a new purpose, amongst the dead?
What did you think of the book’s setting?
Mehek: I think the distinctions between Earth, Olympus, and the Underworld offered a lot of richness to the story. You could see the River of Souls in the Underworld, and it sent a shudder down my spine every time it was mentioned. I think we could have stood for a bit more description of the Underworld as a first pan, but that might have taken away from the tightness of the overall story.
Gretchen: She has a vivid descriptive style. I loved how it felt both new and familiar. I grew up reading Greek mythology, so this is a very familiar landscape to me. Yet, the author managed to make it feel fresh and compelling. The various levels of Earth, Olympus, and Underworld reflecting the moods of the gods in charge of them was a neat worldbuilding choice.
Jeremiah: I loved the Underworld the most, but the author did an excellent job making the world itself feel real and lived in.
Michał: The portrayal of the world of Greek gods was my favorite part of the setting. It was pretty brutal, like the Greek myth could be a lot of the time. The Underworld’s first description was pretty powerful. Later on it didn’t feel as impactful.
Gretchen: What do you think changed for you about its description later on in the story? Was it just more familiar the longer Persephone stayed?
Michał: I think so. At first, it was this alien, chthonic realm. Then it just became Persephone’s home. And it lost a lot of its crushing weight.
Jeremiah: I think that was by design though. A lot of times when you first move to a new place there’s a lot of new and exciting ‘magical things’ and then it just becomes home and everything ‘magical’ is really just the normal.
Mehek: I kind of fell in love with it for that exact reason. How it became familiar/home.
Gretchen: Yes! The contrast between when the Underworld felt ‘alien’ and Earth ‘home’ to the contrary by the end of the story stood out. Suddenly the Earth was the world that felt strange. It was a great way to showcase Persephone’s character development. Speaking of which…
Did the characters resonate with you? What did you think of them in general?
Michał: Persephone’s slowly expanding awareness of the world around her worked quite well for me. Unlike with modern fantasy, at the beginning there’s a good chance the reader knows more about Persephone’s world than she does, because the Greek myth is so omnipresent in culture.
Gretchen: Oooh, that’s a good point! When we start, we think we know her story more than she does, only as the narrative progresses, we realizes, as Persephone does, that what we’ve been told isn’t accurate. We get to take the journey of realization with her.
Jeremiah: I like that for once Zeus was portrayed without the varnish of ‘roguish troublemaker’. Diemer showed him as he was: a misogynistic and abusive asshole.
Michał: The mythic Zeus is a pretty cynical answer to the question of “what would someone do if he had the power of the king of the gods”? The answer being, “whatever he damn well pleases”, both in the Greek myth and here.
Mehek: I’m kind of in love with Hades. I appreciated how human she felt and she was fleshed out and generally well developed. One of the struggles I have with first-person narration though, tends to be that the narrator, as a character in the story, feels like there is nothing to them. I enjoyed the story from Persephone’s perspective, but felt as though she wasn’t as developed as she could have been. She felt about as developed as any other first person narrator.
Gretchen: I get what you’re saying. I’m generally Not A Fan of first-person narration. I think Persephone worked better for me than most others I’ve read because we got to see her learn and change her perspective.
Michał: I don’t think this book would have worked without a first-person narration.
Mehek: You’re right. The book wouldn’t have worked if it hadn’t been in first person. But it suffers from what all books suffer from when they are in first person: limited perspective.
Gretchen: I have to say, the rest of the Greek gods were pretty tragic to me. With this abusive asshole at the helm of Olympus, the partying of the gods and Demeter’s passivity came across quite compellingly as methods of coping with Zeus’ abuse and control. I also like that Demeter was so sympathetic even when she made choices we might not agree with.
Michał: I wish we’d seen more of Hermes. He worked well as Persephone’s ‘wingman’, you could say.
(Get it? Because he has wings on his feet…) *collective groan*
Mehek: I totally agree, Michał. Hermes was great and I wanted more of him. I am usually not one to wish books were longer, but in this particular case, I just wanted more and more of Persephone/Hades
Gretchen: I would have loved more from them, too, because what we got was beautiful. Diemer has a way with words, and Persephone has a beautiful voice when she talks about her interactions with Hades. Lyrical. One might even say divine. *badum tiss*
Michał: I liked Pallas, as the closest to a mortal perspective we got. She was dead, so not quite mortal anymore, but still. She lived and died as a mortal human.
What didn’t work with the novel?
Jeremiah: Well, this is going to be hard because I kind of adore this book. I’m racking my brain for anything that really put me off or pulled me out of the story. I said this when the book was recommended, I think this book is amazing.
Gretchen: I’m with you on that. I can’t think of anything bad to say about it. I loved every inch of it and devoured it in basically one sitting.
Michał: I’m going to say something surprising, which is that the romance honestly didn’t work all that well for me. Not that it was bad, just… not terribly riveting to read.
Mehek: I can see what you’re saying. You know it’s going to happen, it’s obvious really quickly, so the romance wasn’t built all that much.
Jeremiah: Nope. Riveted. Happy lesbian love stories a rare gem in of themselves but even ignoring that, loved it.
Mehek: I mean, I am in love with this book and want to marry it and have it’s babies, but I do see what Michał is saying.
Gretchen: HA! I second the idea of marrying this book. Yes please. I want to take it with me to bed every night.
Michal: Like I said, it’s not bad, but just as Mehek said, it’s a bit of a foregone conclusion. I found Persephone’s rebellion against the pre-established, seemingly unmoving world order much more compelling. The resolution to that felt too quick, even if I liked how it happened because she did something no one had considered before.
Gretchen: That’s acceptable…I guess 😉 But all kidding aside, that was a compelling part of the book, so I can see why it drew you so strongly.
Jeremiah: Whatever, the love story was awesome. Ya’ll got holes in your hearts.
What Did Work in the Novel?
Gretchen: So clearly that love story was one thing that worked well, at least for most of us 😉 I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to read basically a domestic Hades and Persephone story. Like. They’re precious. Also pretty much the embodiment of that Hades/Persephone ‘hold my flower’ meme. I love it.
Jeremiah: Diemer’s words seem effortless. I’ve read her other work and they all share that same easy flow of language. She has a way of allowing her characters have their day in court. Even Zeus is allowed a little understanding, not forgiveness, but a small bit of empathy. I loved how epic the story felt while still busying itself with the small details of this budding romance.
Gretchen: Her language is lyrical, flowing, and atmospheric. All of her metaphors and imagery flawlessly match the setting. Earth felt lush, dreamy, vibrant. The Underworld dark, mysterious, and somehow vast despite being underground. The scene where we meet Gaia? I can’t even begin to describe how breathtaking it is to read.
Mehek: I just wanted to flip it back to the beginning and start re-reading the second I finished. I had to restrain myself from buying everything else the author has written. I don’t know what we, as a society, did to deserve something so lovely but. It’s so, so lovely.
Gretchen: Seconded. Go read this book. Seriously. It’s everything. Hades gets Persephone a three-headed puppy. When will your OTP ever?
Jeremiah: I have read this book many, many times. Not as many as Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, but still, a lot.
Michał: Not going to lie, puppy Cerberus was the highlight of this book. But I enjoyed it primarily as a mythic retelling, and rebellion story. We’re shown this natural order of things — Zeus is the king of heaven and none dare oppose him, only appease him. The Underworld is a dreary place of misery. Persephone has no time for either of that.
Gretchen: Everything is amazing, go read it. The end.
Jeremiah: As far as retellings of myths go this ranks up there with Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. Both in terms of understanding the material and with the verve to play with it. On top of that it’s just lovely people. Come on, the world’s on fire, but we have this book so we might be ok.
Michał: This is the lesbian fairy tale you were looking for. Even if you’re not looking for one, though, this is a damn good mythic retelling and subversion. Written in beautiful language.
Gretchen: I wholeheartedly agree. It takes everything we think we know about Greek mythology and upends just about all of it. The handling of the realm of the dead, the tragedy of the Elysian Fields as a place where soldiers spend the rest of eternity with their misery and trauma was masterful. I especially appreciate that the resolution to that was hope, compassion, and allowing the dead to find a way to move past their sins and find forgiveness and healing. A+. All the awards for that.
Mehek: This book is really wonderful. Read it, treasure it, enjoy it. I wish I had the words to encompass my love for this book but go forth and read it yourself to find out why I’m speechless.
Images Courtesy of Createspace Independent Publishers
Mask of Shadows Balances Trauma, Revenge, and Love
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.
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
GRRM’s Take on the Fall of Sveaborg in The Fortress
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.
Throne of Glass Waste of a Compelling Premise
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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 Spirit: Stallion 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.