I admit, I’m a sucker for anything Leia related. She’s my favorite character in the entire Star Wars franchise (sorry, Doctor Aphra, but you will always come in second). That being said, Claudia Grays new YA novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan (hereafter PoA) blew me away. And I already loved Bloodline, Gray’s novel about middle-aged Leia set not long before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I didn’t think Gray could prove to me even more how much she understands Julia’s, Kylie’s, and my perceptions of Dutiful Princess Leia after Bloodline. And then she wrote this.
PoA is stunningly in character, character driven, and rich. I know for a fact that I’ll be reading it again and again, and that’s not something I normally say about YA novels. There are deep, multi-layered relationships between female characters, complicated family dynamics, a shit-ton of pre-A New Hope era worldbuilding, and plenty of easter eggs for more dedicated Star Wars fans (Krennic anyone?). In short, it’s one of the best damn Star Wars novels of New Canon and a must-read for any Leia fan.
A (Brief) Spoiler Free Rundown
Sixteen-year-old Princess Leia Organa faces the most challenging task of her life so far: proving herself in the arena of body, mind, and heart to be formally named heir to the throne of Alderaan. She’s taking rigorous survival courses, practicing politics, and spearheading relief missions to world under Imperial control.
But Leia has worries beyond her claim to the crown. Her parents, Breha and Bail, aren’t acting like themselves lately; they are distant and preoccupied, seeming more concerned with throwing dinner parties for their allies in the Senate than they are with their own daughter. Determined to uncover her parents’ secrets, Leia starts down an increasingly dangerous path that puts her right under the watchful eye of the Empire. And when Leia discovers what her parents and their allies are planning behind closed doors, she finds herself facing an impossible choice: dedicate herself to the people of Alderaan—including the man she loves—or to the galaxy at large, which is in desperate need of a rebel hero…
The Good Stuff
Fair warning, I’m going to gush. A lot. You can tap out of my fangirling whenever you want, but I have so much to say about this book that I couldn’t cut anything. Think of it as more of a book analysis than a strict review, if that helps.
PoA is not a traditional YA novel, though my opinion on that might stem from having mostly read YA dystopian novels in the past few years. For starters, Gray utilizes third person intimate narrative perspective rather than first person. I find the choice not only refreshing but fitting. Third person intimate offers all the benefits of first person—close, visceral engagement with Leia’s feelings and thoughts—without the drawbacks of a potentially boring or annoying headspace. (Not that Leia would have either of those, but still.) We experience Leia’s struggles with her, but we get to see beyond that as well.
Leia’s Character Arc
PoA is almost entirely character driven rather than being a rapid-fire action story like the Abyss duology. Leia’s internal conflict acts as the major motivating factor for the plot rather than the plot itself. The Challenges of Heart, Mind, and Body she must accomplish to be invested as official heir to Alderaan exist to contextualize and further develop Leia’s psychological and emotional struggles with her parents’, and eventually her own, involvement with the budding rebellion against the Empire.
It’s a character study of teenage Leia, a privileged (in the socio-political sense) royal heir on the cusp of adulthood transitioning into a determined, compassionate leader both for planet and the rebellion. Yet rather than give us a silly, pampered, spoiled, or naïve princess learning how to have compassion and look beyond herself as some authors might have done (a rather sexist narrative in itself given the underlying assumptions about teenage girls such a perspective implies), Gray offers something completely different. The Leia we encounter already has much of the character traits we love about her: her sense of duty, her compassion, her instinct for command and leadership, her ability to manipulate other people’s perceptions of her to her advantage in order to accomplish her goals, a dedication to her people and the oppressed of the galaxy at large.
Nor does Gray shy away from honestly representing Leia’s character flaws. Her temper comes up more than once—a flaw Gray also highlights in Bloodline, so A+ marks for consistency in characterization. Leia’s tendency to judge people instinctively and be slow to change her mind about them is a recurring theme. So, too, her action-oriented, impulsive approach to problem-solving that sometimes misses the forest for the trees. In short, she’s the Princess Leia we know from the film franchise, just younger and still figuring some things out.
Thus, Leia grows not by learning compassion or how to take charge; she already has those traits. Rather, she learns what it takes to be the leader she already wants to be, and must choose if she’s willing to accept the sacrifices, and the burden of guilt, loss, and remorse, that such leadership requires. She experiences the consequences of decisions made without all the information. She learns how to form alliances, rely on others, and delegate tasks to those with the best skillsets for the job. She’s not learning that she can lead, but how.
Leadership has burdens, some of which can and ought to be shared, some of which must be borne alone. How to balance the two, as well as how and when to let yourself enjoy life even when the world is full of oppression, is yet another aspect of Leia’s journey. The novel both assumes and proves Leia’s capability even as Leia herself struggles to prove herself to her parents. It’s a delicate balance and Gray manages it deftly.
Moreover, Gray acknowledges Leia’s privilege yet never condemns her for having advantages other people don’t. She can’t help who her adopted parents are or what her home culture is like. She can, however, use those advantages to help shield and lift up others, which is precisely what she does. As a message to teens, I can’t help but marvel at how delicately Gray handles the concept of privilege. Leia’s story is a call to arms for girls (and boys) with systemic advantages to use those advantages for others.
Along similar lines, I cannot overemphasize enough the importance of a story about a 16-year-old princess—and one who is decidedly not Not Like Other Girls—who stands up for herself, for others, and for what’s right. One who believes she can make a difference and acts on it. One who loves her parents, and they love her, and understands that open, honest communication is the key to healthy relationships even if she has to figure out exactly how to do that. One who stares down tyranny and oppression and fights not to be Rebellious™ for it’s own sake, but to do the right thing and right the wrongs of an oppressive society.
I really, really love Princess Leia, okay?
Romance and Relationships
Also unlike many YA stories, the romance takes a back seat to Leia’s complicated dynamic with her parents, which I appreciate. She also gets to have meaningful friendships with other female characters alongside of her love interest. For Gray, no one kind of relationship, being it platonic, romantic, or parental, matters more than any other. They all make up who Leia is as a person and have different roles to play in her story.
I’ve seen some people criticize the love interest, Kier Domadi, for being boring, but I quite liked him. He’s different enough from Han to not be a copy, but not so totally different that it undermines either of them as love interests for the same character. He’s neither a knockoff or a replacement for Han, but Leia’s attraction to him still makes sense. Their relationship also helps contextualize Leia’s resistance to forming lasting attachments in the midst of war and why it was she fell for Han in the first place.
More than anything what I enjoy about Kier and Leia’s relationship is the emphasis placed on friendship, mutuality, and consent. Leia is in control of how far the relationship progresses and never changes herself to gain Kier’s approval.
It must be said that many of the same people I see criticize Kier often argue in favor of a queer relationship between Amilyn Holdo and Leia. While I understand the draw of this ship (it’s pretty fantastic) and am sympathetic to the desire for a queer Leia, I think it’s important to remember two things. One, The chances of Disney and Lucasfilm story group canonizing queer Leia are less than none. I hate to put it so bluntly, but it’s the truth. Gray is not at liberty to inject her own version of Leia into the novel. Even if she wanted to canonize queer Leia (which may or may not be true), given how tightly Disney and Lucasfilm story group control new canon, it would never happen.
But that doesn’t mean they’re close-minded. The team is actively working on expanding the diversity of their representation, including the normalization of diverse gender identity, sexual orientation, racial and species backgrounds, interracial relationships, and women in all levels of society and work. The effort put into building such diversity into the minute fabric of the worldbuilding in the Star Wars comics and novels is quite evident. Part of normalization is working diversity into the background, and it’s everywhere in New Canon.
It’s not just background either. They have okayed protagonists (Aphra) and secondary characters as queer (Amilyn herself) and permitted pretty heavy queer subtext for some iconic characters (Ahsoka). They’re moving in the right direction. While more can definitely be done and pushed for representation-wise, they’ve been pretty clear about Leia’s sexuality. And I’m okay with that. Canonizing their most iconic female character as queer is a lot to ask. It’s fair to be disappointed, but it’s also important to be realistic.
Secondly, such criticism of Kier ignores what makes him interesting and exciting as a love interest. For one, like most other Alderaanians’, he’s non-white; his skin tone is described in exactly the same way as Breha’s and Bail’s, both of whom are played in the films by Latinx actors. This may not sound significant, but it is. Interracial ships are still rare, especially white women with non-white men. There’s a lot of fandom racism about these kinds of ships in particular and Star Wars is no exception. Just scroll through a Tumblr search for Rey x Finn if you don’t believe me.
In that light, giving Leia a canonically non-white love interest is a big deal.
He’s also strongly coded as neurodivergent, which just adds more layers of impressive. While not queer, Gray gave Leia one of the most diverse love interests she possibly could, and that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
I also appreciate how well Gray, and other recent Star Wars novels, have nuanced the Imperial/Rebel Alliance conflict. Or, rather, how well they’ve nuanced the people on both sides of the conflict. Because regardless of what I’ve seen people say, the New Canon Star Wars novels never shy away from calling Palpatine of the Empire tyrannical, evil, and immoral. Nor do they shy away from showing the atrocities that occur under and because of its dominion. PoA is no exception. The Empire as a system of government and Palpatine as the leader of it are evil and oppressive and must be stopped, full stop.
That does not mean the books don’t attempt to put a human face on the people existing within and even supporting that system. People get caught up in pretty awful things for reasons other than “they’re racist bigots”. Sometimes it’s “I need to feed my family” or “I’m loyal to that one person and have a hard time seeing them as anything but the good person they used to be”. Sometimes fear keeps people from acknowledging how bad things are, or a desire for comfort, or a love of home and protecting the things they love. It doesn’t change or excuse their choices, but it’s worth remembering that not everyone who actively or passively supports a tyrannical regime does it to be a huge asshole.
A system can be evil, but that doesn’t mean every single person who either participates in or fails to fight back against it is also 100% evil. True moral complexity is not the same thing as moral equivocation. Nowhere do PoA or any of the other New Canon Star Wars novels seem to imply that the actions of such morally grey characters are anything but reprehensible. However, there’s a difference between saying someone acted immorally and calling that person evil. Star Wars is attempting to walk that line, and for the most part, I think they succeed admirably. That being said, I’ll be the first to tap out if it starts to veer too much into apology.
I know it’s a fine line between excusing and nuancing. And recent events in our social history may lend a less sympathetic eye to the goals of the Star Wars novels in attempting to paint a more nuanced picture of Imperial loyalists. At the same time it’s helpful to remember that these books were written before Charlottesville. Before our president failed to immediately and whole-heartedly condemn white supremacy. Such events may change how we digest these stories, for sure. But if anything, I think remembering the goal of such nuancing is even more important now.
To me, putting a humanizing, sympathetic face on characters who are loyal to the Empire helps us understand them. (Note: understand, not agree with, excuse, or give into.) Comprehending those who think differently, even in ways we find repugnant, helps us to fight back. Knowing how they see the world better arms those of us who resist to engage with them more effectively. Like Leia, we can fight better when we know those on the opposite side and why they act and think as they do. And we may even be able to win some of them over despite their passivity or even outright resistance to our perspective.
One of my favorite things about Bloodline was the canonization of Leia Huttslayer. If you don’t know what I mean, Leia Huttslayer was a fanon creation that sought to reclaim the sexist depiction of Leia in Return of the Jedi while Jabba’s slave. Leia Huttslayer turns an act of objectification (the slave costume) into an act of defiance (killing Jabba with the literal and metaphorical symbols of her slavery). In Bloodline, Leia Huttslayer has become a symbol of underground resistance to the Hutt cartels and a powerful motivator to rise up against them. The focus becomes Leia’s power rather than her exploitation and objectification. Canonizing Leia Huttslayer was a pretty blatant fuck you to one of the most sexist moments in Leia’s scripting.
Gray does something similar in PoA, though much more subtly. In the Original Trilogy, the second most sexist depiction of Leia, to my mind, comes at the end of Return of the Jedi when she’s intentionally softened and sidelined to being more of a traditional female love interest to the more active male protagonists.
Throughout PoA Gray repeatedly points out the importance of hairstyles for the royal women of Alderaan. The intricate patterns of braids Breha and Leia wear symbolize their royal authority. Leia and Breha literally start their days with getting their hair braided and never take them out in public. An Alderaanian woman letting someone take down her braids is one of the most intimate acts she can allow, and even seeing her without her braids denotes vulnerability, intimacy, and trust.
Combined with Gray’s focus on Leia learning how to be ‘just Leia’ and celebrate life even in the midst of immense suffering, you have a powerful matrix for recontexualizing Leia’s scripting in Return of the Jedi. Leia unbraiding her hair now becomes an act of assertion, of Leia choosing to be just herself over her role as princess or rebel leader. Rather than a demure domestication, Leia quite literally letting her hair down is an act of defiance in the face of immanent doom. She’s choosing to “dance now” (as Breha encourages her in PoA) and embrace joy rather than wallow in fear or anxiety.
And that’s a goddamn gift. Just like Leia Huttslayer. In her two books, Gray has taken the two most sexist moments of the OT and turned them in their head. Bravo, Claudia Gray. Bra-fucking-vo.
Speaking of recontextualizing canon, Breha Organa. After having so long been sidelined to barely an appendage to Leia’s history, Breha finally gets to shine as the badass, strong, intelligent queen she is. Like showing off her pulmonodes (her artificial heart and lungs) as a reminder that “[she] cannot be so easily stopped” by near death experiences. Or her being the ruler of Alderaan while Bail works in the Senate. She may be more ‘conventionally feminine,’ but that doesn’t stop her from being awesome. Because honestly, it shouldn’t (despite what some tv shows seem to think). She’s an excellent bookkeeper, throws a mean banquet cum subversive alliance planning meeting, and an equal mastermind behind the rebellion alongside Bail. In short, she’s everything I wanted Breha to be.
Moreover, Claudia Gray finally gave us the Breha-Leia interactions fans have been clamoring for for years. Just as Bloodline was Leia’s book to grapple with her relationship with her adopted father Bail versus her blood father Anakin, PoA is Leia’s book to engage with her mothers. Bail actually takes a huge backseat to Breha. While this may upset some, given how little time has been devoted to Leia and Breha’s relationship, I’m more than pleased.
Via their interactions, we get a better understanding of Breha’s imprint on Leia. Leia often utilizes a calm exterior to defuse and disarm others, a move she must have learned from Breha, as that seems to be her default. Leia’s moral resolve where other’s might equivocate or take longer to decide, her attraction to danger and fierce determination in the face of it, her quick thinking and instinctive sense of what must be done in tense situations—all these come from her mother Breha.
While there’s less space devoted to Padmé, given Leia does not realize she’s her mother, Gray still manages to work in a truly heartbreaking scene of Leia visiting one of the moons of Naboo. There, she meets the current queen (I totally ship Dalné x Leia btw) as well as (Moff) Quarsh Panaka. When it comes to her biological parents, Leia may be more Anakin’s daughter than Padmé’s. But the trip to Naboo’s moon and the interaction with Queen Dalné invites a comparison between Leia’s determination to do what’s right for her people and her mother’s.
This is a damn near perfect novel, and there’s very little for me to find fault with. As noted above, I disagree with those who find Kier uninteresting or boring, and I actually find the ‘slower’ parts of the novel to be some of the most fascinating. That’s where a lot of the internal character work happens, and I love internal character work.
My one criticism of the novel is actually more to do with New Canon as a whole, namely, it’s treatment of Saw Gerrera. I see the point they’re trying to make overall, that good intentions are not enough (see Amilyn’s arc) but that extremist violence can be counterproductive. However, I’m not sure how well or how consistently this is being done across the various media platforms. PoA’s discussion of Saw’s tactics is more nuanced, and we get to see first hand just how unhelpful rash, violent action can be. However, Rogue One didn’t handle his story nearly as well, and I think that’s poisoned the well a bit for me. Though maybe I’m being too much like Leia and relying on poor first impression. Still, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.
Some have pointed out that “Strength through joy”—a phrase Leia utters to encourage herself in a tense situation—was the name of a German government agency in the 1930s. However, despite what some of the discourse going around might say, this is not a “Nazi slogan;” it was the name of the German Labor Front’s leisure and tourist board. It may sound like splitting hairs, but a government organization’s name, even one in the Third Reich, is not a “Nazi slogan”; one is nationalistic, the other is specifically a tool of oppression. Nor was this phrase on an equal level to “work makes you free,” the slogan that topped many of the Nazi concentration camps. I admit, my research has been fairly cursory, focusing primarily on the origins of the phrase rather than its aftereffects, so it may be the phrase evolved after the organization fell apart in 1939.
More importantly, regardless of the origins of the phrase, Claudia Gray herself has said she had no idea it was ever used by the Third Reich and is horrified at the associations readers with that background knowledge of the phrase have pointed out. While it is fair to ask questions about why such a phrase was not recognized by anyone else who prepared the book for publication, it seems most likely to be an extremely unfortunate coincidence rather than intentionally pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic (since Leia was played by a Jewish woman).
Final Score: 10/10
As a YA book, it’s an excellent read and a refreshing break from the much more common first person, romance and plot driven narratives. The messaging for teens about resistance, moral complexity, compassion, using privilege to help the marginalized, and standing up in the face of fear and tyranny could not be more necessary in our current political environment.
As a Star Wars novel, it’s unmissable—a captivating glimpse into Leia herself and the start of the Rebellion with Bail, Breha, and Mon Mothma, as well as another layer of nuance to the Imperial/Rebellion continuum.
As a Leia novel, this highly engaging, intimate exploration of an iconic character and her transition from teenage princess to Heir of Alderaan and Rebel leader is required reading. The only thing I can ask for now is that Disney and Lucasfilm contract Claudia Gray to write as many Leia novels as she can stomach. I’ll devour them all.
Images Courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm
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.