Is it cheating to bring a character back from the dead?
I don’t remember reading “The White Rider” for the first time. I’m not sure there was ever a time when I was working under the assumption that Gandalf was fully, irrevocably gone. And at this point it’s hard to even imagine a story in which he doesn’t come back, in which the fellowship struggles forward as they were, imperfect and alone.
And it doesn’t feel like cheating to me: not for any plot or mythos specific reason, but simply because it’s good for the story. Gandalf is a wonderful, vibrant character from his first appearance. He’s funny, charming, wise, and sometimes hasty. He’s fallible and intensely aware of it. He always feels like such a human character, and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security that he’s just a wise, talented old man in a pointy hat. But he’s not. Gandalf is old—nearly incomprehensibly old by human standards. He lived with the Valar, he walked Middle-earth for ages. There are depths to Gandalf—it’s no wonder he and Treebeard got on so splendidly. And one of the great treats of “The White Rider” is catching of glimpse of these depths, as buried facets of Gandalf simmer to the surface.
The White Rider
Gandalf the White makes his first appearance as a threat. Legolas spies him skulking through the woods, a hooded figure in white. He’s meant to be ominous:
At that moment the old man quickened his pace and came with surprising speed to the foot of the rock-wall. Then suddenly he looked up, while they stood motionless looking down. There was no sound.
It’s a creepy scene. The figure’s speed changes jarringly, the silence draws out the tension. When our trio react with fear, they are stricken by an inability to move or speak. The man will not identify himself, and insists the others talk about themselves. At one point he laughs “long and softly” which is a horrifying way to describe a laugh? And even after everyone recognizes this figure, he only remembers his name when Aragorn speaks it to him.
A lot of this is designed to ratchet up tension for first time readers. Most of the trio – especially Gimli – is convinced that this is an impending Saruman attack, so the ominous underlay makes perfect sense. But it also has the interesting side effect of forefronting danger as a key aspect of who Gandalf is. Gandalf himself makes this explicit later:
“I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
“Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous, more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli, son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.”
Gandalf has always been dangerous. But underlining his return with a sense of danger and strangeness makes the reader immediately aware that something has changed. Gandalf has returned, but he’s not quite who he had been.
The Wizard and the Balrog
And, to be fair, who would expect him to be? Gandalf has had a *rough* couple of weeks. After taking a tandem dive off Khazad-dûm with a fire demon, he plunged into an icy pool and then had a forty-eight-hour battle royale on a frozen mountaintop. When he cast the balrog down, he broke the mountain. This is a nice taste of Gandalf’s recent experiences:
“Far below the deepest delvings of the dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day. In that despair my enemy was my only hope.”
Yikes, Gandalf! That’s rough, buddy! The degree to which this was a traumatizing experience can be seen in his description of the battle, as he slips in an out of first person:
“But what would they say in song? Those that looked up from afar thought that the mountain was crowned with storm. Thunder they heard, and lightning, they said, smote upon Celebdil, and leaped back broken into tongues of fire. Is not that enough? A great smoke rose about us, vapor and steam. Ice fell like rain. I threw down my enemy, and he fell from the high place and broke the mountainside where he smote it in his ruin.”
It’s interesting how Gandalf tells his story, and how he abstracts himself until the moment of victory. Before that, everything is told from the perspective of a hypothetical third party or in the passive tense. It creates the sense that Gandalf only partially relates to that Gandalf on the mountaintop, and creates a distance between past and present identity. And that raises an important question: who is Gandalf the White?
Gandalf the White
“Then darkness came to me and I strayed out of thought and time, and I wandered far on roads that I will not tell.”
We get two different glimpses of Gandalf in the course of “The White Rider.” The first comes from Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. When Aragorn first hears the hooded figure laugh—before he knows his identity—he describes the sound as giving him a “strange, cold thrill” comparable to “the sudden bite of keen air, or the slap of a cold rain that wakes an uneasy sleeper.” After that, nearly every description of Gandalf features sunlight.
The first description given to him after being revealed states that his hair “was white as snow in the sunshine, gleaming white was his robe, his eyes under deep brows were bright, like rays of the sun; power was in his hand.” His laugh, no longer long and soft, is “kindly as a gleam of sunshine.” The Trio looks over to see another gleam of sun, this time filtering through the clouds and filling Gandalf’s hands with light “as a cup is with water.” At one point he looks straight into the sun; at another he recalls Gwaihir’s shock that Gandalf’s body was so light that “the Sun shines through you.”
In this line of thinking we get the easiest interpretation of Gandalf’s ordeals: it was a process of purification. Gandalf as always been associated with fire. He bears Narya, the ring of fire. Tolkien described him as inherently opposing “the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles… his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.”
But instead of a buried, turbulent flame, Gandalf’s ordeals have distilled him into purer sunlight, clearer and more assured. All of this also takes on more poignant tone, as Gandalf—when first sent as an emissary to Middle-earth by Manwë—attempted to decline, saying he was too fearful to go. It happens nearly entirely off-page, but it’s a lovely character arc. His battle with the balrog has concentrated him, illuminating the aspects that always lay underneath.
The Turn of the Tide
That’s not the whole story, though. Gandalf is more powerful than he was, and more self-assured. But there is a sense that he still feels somewhat powerless:
There I lay staring upward, while the stars wheeled over, and each day was as long as a life-age of the earth. Faint to my ears came the gathered rumor of all the lands: the springing and the dying, the song and the weeping, and the slow everlasting groan of overburdened stone.
I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see.
Gandalf’s knowledge feels greater than it ever was; he can sense Saruman’s thoughts and sense Sauron’s purpose. He can hear the “rumor of the lands” and glimpse far-off things. But knowledge never brings him a sense of omnipotence or control. The “rumor” he hears is chaotic and contradictory, filled with slow, large-scale trends but lacking focus. His knowledge reaches to the “far-off” but not the close up. There is a permeating sense that Gandalf knows so much, but not enough.
It’s a double thematic bonus for Tolkien. It gives Gandalf limitations, so his assertion that “much will be destroyed and all may be lost” and that “I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still” does ring true. And more importantly, it implicitly highlights the importance of free will and individual action in the narrative. Gandalf can know so much, but still not that Sam would accompany Frodo, that Merry and Pippin would be cast into Treebeard’s path, or any of the other “small stones that start an avalanche in the mountains.” All power in Tolkien’s universe must be limited. There are too many factors at play.
[Side note: This also places a nice capstone on Aragorn’s arc. On several occasions he has wished for more information in order to make a decision; it’s suggested here that knowledge does not necessarily come accompanied by the comfort of certitude]
Empathy and the Enemy
Despite all of these character beats from Gandalf, I can imagine complaints from those, ermm, less sympathetic to Tolkien’s style. Gandalf’s massive Balrog battle happens off-page, and is quickly summarized in about two paragraphs. And before we even get to it, we get pages of speechifying. It’s understandable that some people may grumble about trading a mountain battle for a mountain of exposition.
I think it’s good exposition though, and rather needed. Sauron and Saruman have been such distant, obscure threats for most of the story. And that’s been fine: so much of the drama of The Fellowship of the Ring was predicated on that distance and obscurity, and the real conflict happened largely within our characters. But at the same time, it’s nice to get some insight from the newly-insightful Gandalf.
[Sauron] assumes that we were all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place… Indeed, he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered his darkest dream.
It is so satisfying to me that Sauron’s—and Saruman’s—downfall boil down to a lack of empathy. The only reason that anything in Lord of the Rings works is because the bad guys simply lack the imagination to consider that the world is different from what they imagined it to be. Sauron’s world is one of conflict, strife, power. That’s understandable, given his history. It’s also, in part, incorrect. Saruman is in the same position:
There is much that he does not know…. His thought is ever on the Ring. Was it present in the battle? Was it found? What if Théoden, Lord of the Mark, should come by it and learn of its power? That is the danger that he sees, and he has fled back to Isengard to double and treble the assault upon Rohan. And all that time there is another danger, close at hand, which he does not see, busy with his fiery thoughts. He has forgotten Treebeard.
It’s a lovely little twist: Gandalf and Aragorn stress throughout the first half of The Two Towers concerning the things that they could not possibly know. They are acutely aware of them. Sauron and Saruman fear what they don’t know as well, but they also assume that they know what to fear. Evil fails in Middle-earth due to a failure of imagination and a lack of empathy. This revelation pairs so well with the newly-minted Gandalf the White’s thoughts and troubles (and Aragorn’s up to this point) that this chapter provides a good argument that Tolkien had a very strong sense of thematic cohesion in his work, and that these themes work on a multitude of levels.
- FIRST THINGS FIRST: I honestly can’t believe Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, aren’t freaking out over losing Éomer’s horses. It’s been a couple of hours and he basically said that his life relied on them returning them safely. They are so wrapped up in their new mystery-solving club that they don’t even pay poor Éomer a second thought.
- Gandalf describes Treebeard as “the oldest living thing that still walks beneath the Sun upon this Middle-earth.” A million continuity purists and Tom Bombadil fans cry out in anguish.
- As a kid, it bothered me a bit when Aslan rose from the dead in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I’m sympathetic to people being bothered in a similar capacity by Gandalf’s return. But at the same time, it feels very different to me. Aslan’s resurrection is unavoidably allegorical; Gandalf’s is not. Tolkien’s worldbuilding is wonky and multifaceted enough that very few things —even those that are obviously influenced by Christianity—feel rigidly Christian.
- This is a good chapter for Gimli, who continues to be a great character. He’s moody and emotional but always endearing. I very much enjoyed his unbridled faith in Aragorn’s investigative abilities, his shame over failing to recognize Gandalf (and trying to hit in the head with an axe) and his teasing of Legolas. My favorite, though, has to be his dramatic overreaction to thinking Galadriel failed to send him a message. Legolas point out that the messages were… ominous. “Would you have her speak openly to you of your death?” he asks. “Yes,” says Gimli, “if she had nought else to say.” I believe this is what kids these days call being EXTRA.
- Legolas does well for himself too: he calls Aragorn and Gimli “children” and teases Merry and Pippin for celebrating their escape by immediately sitting down for a snack.
- “What? In riddles?” said Gandalf. “No. For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to; the long explanations needed by the young are wearying.”
“I am no longer young even in the reckoning of men of the Ancient Houses,” said Aragorn.
I enjoy how petulant Aragorn sounds here. He sounds like a teenager insisting he’s an adult.
- Prose Prize: “The grey figure of the Man, Aragorn son of Arathorn, was tall, and stern as stone, his hand upon the hilt of his sword; he looked as if some kind out of the mists of the sea had stepped upon the shores of lesser men. Before him stooped the old figure, white, shining now as if with some light kindled within, bent, laden with years, but holding a power beyond the strength of kings.”
- Contemporary to this chapter: It is also March in Middle-earth. Gandalf makes his reappearance on March 1st, the second day of the Entmoot. Meanwhile, over the east, Frodo and Sam are entering the Dead Marshes.
- It’s been about six weeks since Gandalf’s disappearance – he fell at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm on January 15th. His battle with the Balrog on Zirak-Zigil was on January 23-25, which means poor Gandalf spent a solid week in the pits of the earth. After the Balrog’s death he lied on the mountaintop for about three weeks, awakening in mid-February while Frodo was looking into the Mirror of Galadriel. He only missed the Company in Lórien by a day.
- Éowyn countdown: NEXT CHAPTER. Mark your calendars Tolkienites, our favorite shield maiden makes her debut on March 29th.
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.