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Neuromancer Left us Confused and Cold

Julia

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Welcome to the very first edition of The Fandomentals Classic Sci-Fi Book Club. We’re making our way through some of the works considered to be essential reading for anyone interested in this genre.

This time we looked at Neuromancer by William Gibson. First published in 1984, this novel helped pioneer the cyberpunk movement and is credited with popularizing many of the ideas that would eventually develop into the world wide web.

Plot Summary: Case is a washed-up hacker who can no longer work because a poisoned neural system doesn’t allow him to enter “cyberspace,” so he spends all his time trying to get high in Japan. Then a mysterious man, who has a technological augmented “street ninja” named Molly working for him, offers him a second chance and a job pulling off a heist that gets him involved with a mysterious business clan of clones, and the artificial intelligences that they created.

What do you think of the world building?

Julia: I suppose the defining feature of cyberpunk is high technology juxtaposed with squalor. But even the high technology feels like it’s probably a little squalid too.

Lisa: It definitely does! It feels dirty and invasive. Grungy, even. The tech Case uses to “flip” feels dangerous and scrappy. I highly doubt the rich of this world tap into the Internet the same way.

Barbara: It was very effective. I felt completely immersed, at times even overwhelmed by the world. It was an interesting contrast with the lack of immersion in the character. And as a small aside, I cannot help but mention that I completely hated the depiction of Istanbul as compared to the other places they visit.

Julia: Oh Barbara, is there any fictional portrayal of Istanbul you DO like? But your point his well taken. And I’ll add in another point about stereotyping with the Japanese Yakuza assassins and the perma-baked Rastafarians. It was almost funny how the black side-kick character just randomly came along on the deadly mission for the climax because… he bonded with Case so much?

I think Lisa is right about everything feeling “grungy.” In my mind’s eye, everything is just dirty and the technology is held together with duct tape. Whenever I think of the Sprawl I just picture used take-out containers and Red Bull cans littered everywhere. And I can almost smell the red, infected skin around half of these cybernetic implants.

This is, probably intentionally, in very sharp contrast with Freeside and Villa Straylight, which seem almost sterile. Like an isolation ward in a hospital. You know that people like 3Jane don’t have any weird mirrors grafted to their eyes, or any such nonsense. Though the weird cloney incest ways of the Tessier-Ashpools and those fake contour tanlines are as gross in their own way as the Sprawl.

Lisa: Totally. Those tan lines are synthetic grunge. Perfectly placed but grimy all the same.

Barbara: Ha, yes, trust me Julia, I remembered my beef with that adaptation of Orient Express when I read Neuromancer as well. I swear it’s not me, it’s every author who thinks Istanbul is the best place to live their Orientalist dreams. But you’re right about the other stereotypes as well, of course, I actually wanted to mention the Rastafarians and forgot about it. Like you, I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of some of it.

I have to disagree about the tanlines though – I want that.

Caroline: To add to the conversation regarding the stereotyping, the word “gaijin” is thrown around a lot when they are in Japan. Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. I studied Japanese in college and went to Japan as part of an exchange program and, from what the Japanese college students explained to me in 2012, gaijin is often used in an insulting way. I found it weird that the narrative used gaijin so often, seeing as it closely followed Case, and Case himself seems to be a foreigner (I don’t think he’s ever described as Japanese?). It stood out to me during the story. I don’t know how people felt about the word in 1984, or what contact Gibson had with Japan prior to writing this, but it felt sort of forced into the text.

Otherwise, I felt the world-building was thorough but confusing, and definitely reliant on stereotypes! I guess that begs the question: can/how do you build an entire world without using stereotypes as a base?

The political and social aspects of the world building were very vague. What impression did you get of what the world is like in those ways?

Lisa: Maybe it’s just the current climate, but the lack of politics was a bit unrealistic. Is this future society so apathetic that they generally don’t care about their piss-poor quality of life? Most of these people live in “coffins”…it’s hard to believe a whole populace would take that lying down.

The lack of economic structure was weird, too. Besides the random service employee here and there, what does most of the populace do for a living?

Taking all that into consideration, it would seem that this future world doesn’t exist within the confines of any political, social, and even economical parameters that we can really understand. It is a race of people that is nihilistic in nature. The only being in the book that seems to have an innate desire to improve and grow is Wintermute. Everyone (and everything) else is stagnant, simply treading water to stay alive.  

Barbara: I felt like the social commentary there was more implicit, but it definitely was there. It worked for me, because I didn’t think Case was very political personally, nor any of the people directly around him. But you’re probably right that from the wider cast of characters, one would expect at least someone to mention something.

Julia: Yeah, I don’t think I got the impression that most people in this world live like Case does. I don’t think it’s usual for entire families to be shoved into “coffins” or anything like that. Though Molly’s rather vague descriptions of her childhood did make poverty seem… not unusual. There was some political content with the Panther Moderns, for instance, that gave the impression of political instability and endemic violence. 

Oh, and the offhand mentions of nuclear war. Apparently most of Germany is a radioactive wasteland or something? And, of course, there was a war with Russia that featured prominently in Armitage’s backstory.

It seems to be an SF trope that technology will make us superficial and materialistic. Any human energy towards “self-improvement” seems to be directed towards things like upgrading your implants, or cloning a better granddaughter, rather than towards anything intellectual or spiritual, let alone towards improving social conditions.

I (Caroline!) felt very disjointed throughout the story – the short sections and jumps from scene to scene threw me off for a long time. I definitely struggled getting a grasp on the setting, even with some of the nice descriptions. Did anyone else feel this way? If so, do you think it was intentional? Does a disjointed/jumpy narrative style reflect on themes of the story?

Caroline: To answer myself, I think there might be a connection or meaning when comparing the narrative structure to the life Case is living. The narrative jumps from place to place in quick slices; Case, likewise, jumps from living in the real world to being in cyberspace, experiencing reality and artificial reality in segments. I think the disjointed structure gives us the best understanding of Case’s brain, even more so than Case or any character development (if there was any…). It seems that the structure reflects the story, or the story reflects the structure.

Julia: Gibson apparently has a reputation for never spoon feeding the word building. He just throws terms and concept out there for the reader to figure out. I suppose that can extend to the story itself as well. Case knows about the whole nuclear war thing, so why would be explain it. He knows what’s going on too, so why should his close third-person explain it?

I can’t say it makes for an enjoyable reading experience.

Did you find the protagonist in any way memorable or distinctive?

Barbara: The protagonist actually makes this really hard to read for me, since he’s a very distinct type of (anti)hero, and one I’m really tired of. It’s obviously unfair to the book, because it was in many ways first in this (though there are inspirations Gibson pulls from), but I couldn’t quite free myself from it…

Lisa: I couldn’t connect with Case at all. I still feel like I know nothing about him (except that he really likes to get high). I think all Gibson’s characters are a bit shallow, if i’m being honest.

Caroline: Agreed. I know almost nothing about Case. At best he is a struggling drug addict; at worst, he’s just a literary device to let us see Gibson’s neato sci-fi world. Neither is abhorrent, but neither is compelling.

Julia: Yes, exactly. I feel like I know nothing about him. There was an attempt, I think, to make us care about him, specifically with the sacs of neurotoxin and Linda Lee (who he’s… mourning?) but I don’t think I at any point actually cared if he succeeded or not. That moment when he was screaming and crying because he thought Armitage was going to take the secret with him as he died and Case would be poisoned again did nothing for me.

Lisa: Nope. No feelings for Case, at all. I felt worse for Armitage!

Molly. Let’s talk about the her role in this novel and her relationship with Case.

Barbara: I can’t get over that first sex scene. Like, what even was that?

Caroline: I know right!

Lisa: Conceptually, it kind of reminds me of Sleeper, a movie Woody Allen directed in 1974. In the movie, Allen and Diane Keaton use an “orgasmitron” to have sex. The couple doesn’t touch each other at all and instead relies on the orgasmitron to stimluate the body to orgasim.

I think it’s a play on the idea that technology makes us less-human. Gibson takes it a step further, in my opinion, by partnering Case and Molly. They way they copulate is strange, foreign, and seemingly robotic, inferring a lack of intimacy. However, even though these two people have been manipulated both intellectually and physically to reflect the hyper-tech world they live in, they still find the need to sleep in the same bed. They still desire companionship, a very basic human need.

Barbara: Well the whole book is intentionally rather low on introspection, you only rarely find out what the protagonists are thinking or feeling, so that’s part of it, I think (and also relates to what you said about not connecting to Case). But that first scene…on one hand I tend to read it as some kind of strange male fantasy – he is in the same space with a woman, so of course she would want to have sex with him – but on the other, it read like borderline rape, given the state Case is in and that the initiative is entirely hers…

Julia: I think I’m questioning the decision of the author to have them have a physical relationship at all. I’m not sure what it adds to anything. It’s like it happened out of some sense of obligation. I’m don’t know if it was Gibson’s sense of obligation, or the characters’.

Lisa: Agreed. I don’t think the sexual relationship is necessary. Neither character is ever driven by their undying love (or even lust) for one another. If anything, the relationship is simply commentary on loneliness.

But I think that’s giving Gibson too much credit. This was written in the early 1980s when sex-scenes in entertainment were rampant. Instead of a time-lapse montage, most movies in the 80s included some kind of sex-scene montage. I think that’s just what audiences wanted back then.

And good point about the entire book being incredibly not introspective, Barbara! Thematically, is that a play on the mysteries of the AI world? We can never know exactly what a machine/computer is thinking?

Barbara: 100% agreed on the sense of obligation. I think it was primarily Gibson’s, and he transferred it to the way the characters acted…

Caroline: Do y’all think Gibson actively thought, “I must have a sex scene,” or do you think it was his unconscious bias about how men and women must interact in a story that led to it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written because it was just assumed a male (anit)hero has a female love interest, and of course she wants him, too.

Julia: I’m not sure why she would want him. I guess he doesn’t actively creep on her like Peter Riviera does.

Molly’s description of sex work in this world seems particularly disturbing, with the workers not in control of their bodies at all and not aware of what they’re doing.

Barabara: It seems to stem from this idea that sexwork itself is a deeply unpleasant experience that no one really wants to be present for. Because the vibe I got, at least, wasn’t “they force sex workers into this”, but rather “sex workers prefer not being present”, which is very disturbing indeed.

Julia: It reminds me a little bit of the well observed phenomenon of people feeling more free to express opinions they know aren’t socially acceptable on the internet because of the anonymity it offers. In this case, the anonymity is extended to sex. No one has to know about your weird kink, not even the sex worker you’re doing it with.

Lisa: Which plays into the idea of sex, and sexual deviance, as taboo, right? Gibson is acknowledging sexual “deviance” and it’s overwhelming existence in everyday life. This is chillingly similar to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Staying on Molly and Case, how do we feel about the uplink thing that lets Case see things through Molly’s eyes?

Julia: Not good? The Dolyist reason for this is rather obvious, the author wanted be able to see plot things that were happening to Molly without actually having her point of view. And that rubs me the wrong way, I’m not going to lie. Especially given the whole puppet sex worker thing she went through before.

Lisa: I think it’s cheap, too. It would have been much more interesting to write from Molly’s perspective. The uplink/flip could still happen, but from Molly’s perspective, we would have known what it felt like to have Case in her mind like that.  

Caroline: If a plot device is only a plot device, does that make it a contrivance? I agree with all above – it’s obvious Case’s ability to see through Molly’s eyes was solely for the reader’s benefit to see what Molly sees. I can’t connect it to any themes, etc., at all. I think if a plot device serves no other discernable purpose than its single purpose, it may very well be a contrivance. This felt very contrived and, as pointed out, very cheap.

Barbara: I second all that. Or at the very least they could have had some discussion about it or something, some more in depth exploration of the experience…the degree to which it was waved aside effectively confirmed that it was a plot device. The only moment when it was an issue was when Case felt Molly’s pain. I don’t know if we were supposed to believe this was everyday stuff for Case and so he felt no need to mention it, but I really don’t see what in his personal history would make it so…

Julia: Now that I think about it,God is Molly ever repressed. She spends most of the time she’s uplinked to Case just kind of talking about all her past trauma’s in this oddly detached way. She seems even detached from her own emotional reactions to things. We, the reader, are aware that her trauma with growing up in poverty and being sexually exploited motivate her, especially with things like her hatred for Peter Riviera, but I don’t think she’s much aware of it.

So, I don’t think I want to call Molly a “shallow” character, because that depth is all there, but the narrative didn’t explore it much at all. Which is a little infuriating, because, yeah, Case is that shallow. He wants money for drugs, I think. He has some kind of feelings about wasp nests maybe.

This society seems very afraid of Artificial Intelligence. Do you think the narrative argues that this fear is justified? How do we see Wintermute and Neuromancer as characters?

Lisa: This is one area where I felt Gibson really did well. The fear of AI is very well-depicted and real. Maybe because our society has been afraid of AI for decades…who knows? My favorite scene in the entire book was when Wintermute annihilated the Turing officers that were chasing Case. The way the AI used the environment to decapitate one of them was everything I would expect of an all-powerful sentient being.  

Wintermute and Neuromancer were my favorite characters in the entire book. They were incredibly interesting and complex. I found Wintermute to be intellectually stimulating, whereas I wanted to snuggle up in a blanket on the beach with Neuromancer. In a lot of ways, the two AI felt more human than the humans…

Julia: Wintermute is everything Case is not in a protagonist. He’s (?) got that introspective self-awareness that makes him very interesting and just the right amount of mysterious. And Neuromancer is everything thing the humans are not and really should be, as Lisa just said.  They both seems to actually care to ask questions about their own natures and how they can be better and grow. They’re like flowers that grew out a of pot of dirt at this point.

Why is Case the protagonist and not Neuromancer?

Million Dollar Questions: Is this book “good”? Did you enjoy reading it? Does it age well?

Lisa: I can see why it turned heads in 1984…the language and the story is incredibly unique. But no, I did not enjoy reading it and I do not think it ages well.

The lack of diverse characters (and the stereotyping Julia mentioned) doesn’t reflect modern day readers. I also think the characters are pretty shallow and unrelatable. I didn’t really like this book at all…

I’ve recently re-watched the Matrix trilogy and in a lot of ways, it’s a Neuromancer rip-off. (The matrix, Zion, uplinking, etc.) But the Matrix has done much better in terms of scale because it’s simple and relatable. There are diverse characters and a clear enemy. (There’s also an unnecessary sex-scene in Matrix Reloaded.)

Julia: Maybe it is just because the concepts, which were groundbreaking in 1984, one assumes, are all so old hat by now, but I didn’t find anything about this book particularly compelling. I don’t think I would have finished it if I didn’t have to for this book club. I suppose it goes to show that even hard sci-fi needs to be character driven.

Barbara: I picked up this book for the first time when I was fourteen, and couldn’t get into it. When I opened it now, I was curious if it would be better…it wasn’t. It was worse, actually, because it hasn’t aged particularly well and I see problems now that I wouldn’t have seen at fourteen. I would say that I enjoyed moments of it (the actual action is done well, in my opinion), but then there were long passages that left me completely indifferent and also bits that were downright unpleasant.

Caroline: I started out liking it – I was impressed by the world building and the sheer number of words Gibson created. But it quickly dissolved into a realization that the book is not particularly well-written, and in many cases is impossible to follow. The fact that the main character is totally unrelatable doesn’t help. I agree that much of it was unpleasant. Perhaps worse, a lot of it was boring. Without solid characterization, I couldn’t care much about what happened. I felt like I was watching the season finale for a show I’d never watched before and didn’t care about.

Apparently this book predicted the internet. Discuss.

Lisa: I’m not sure it was Neuromancer itself that predicted the internet…Gibson first wrote Burning Chrome in 1982. That’s where the term “cyberspace” was born.

Via history.com, “ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983, and from there researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became the modern Internet. The online world then took on a more recognizable form in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.”

So while, yes, Gibson can certainly be partially credited for “predicting the internet” as we understand it today, but it was in the works before Neuromancer was written. (Maybe ARPANET got their hands on Burning Chrome? Who knows….)

It certainly is interesting that both Burning Chrome and Neuromancer were written while the Internet was being developed/established. It’s highly unlikely Gibson really knew anything about that, right? He certainly familiarized himself with computer components, hardware and software…but where did he come up with the idea of a “network”?? According to Wikipedia, Gibson was TERRIBLE at math…

One thing I personally made note of while reading was that the technical concepts were actually quite difficult for me to visualize. The only thing I can think of is that tech is much more refined now and understanding raw, rough, seemingly archaic tech, is confusing.

Anyone else have that issue? Or was it just me?

Barbara: I definitely agree that it was hard to visualize most of the things he’s describing. It didn’t really bother me, because I tend to skim over descriptions in any case when I read, even when they are descriptions of regular things…but usually I know I could actually imagine it if I wanted to. I think it’s made harder by the amount of made-up tech words he uses. It helps worldbuilding, but makes it more difficult to imagine a scene, paradoxically.

I wouldn’t dare to speculate on the internet genesis topic, but I do find it interesting to see – as I often do in sci-fi – what he did not imagine. Like how the way the protagonist searches for information is so much less efficient than, you know, Google. Partly because he just doesn’t imagine encyclopaedias being made specifically for that kind of medium. It probably goes with the atmosphere, too, that things must be, as Julia said, squalid. Wiki is too tidy for that.

Julia: I think that it was easy enough to predict the concept of a global network that one can access regardless of physical location, but no one was able to predict how we were going to use it. It integrated into our society, rather than taking it over. All these concepts had a network that was totally immersive, “a consensual hallucination,” as this novel famously says, a mode of existence rather than a tool. And one one predicted that there would still be this focus on the written, rather than the spoken, word that the internet still has. And I certainly don’t think that we could have predicted that I could be writing a collaborative piece like this, with three other people in two other countries, while I was making breakfast.

Caroline: I agree with the point about the difficulty of imagining the technology. The fact that Gibson uses his special sci-fi lingo from the jump doesn’t help much either – it took quite a while for me to figure out a lot of the terms. In a way it adds to the immersion, but without an idea of what those things are, it just leaves big gaps in the mental image of the story. This is a place where written science fiction may falter while a visual adaptation would succeed. For instance, the “transporter” in Star Trek is explainable by watching things step onto the pad and disappear, reappearing somewhere else. This is much harder to explain in a written format, since so much detail is needed to convey that idea. A lot of Case’s jumping around from Molly’s eyes to cyberspace elsewhere is confusing because of how much detail he’s really seeing, as opposed to what we’re presented on the page.

I can’t make a determination one way or the other about the internet thing. Looking at it now, I’d like to say it’s not hard to imagine a network like the internet – but then again, I can’t predict what new technology will come out next year. I think we’re able to imagine concepts in technology, things we want to have – transporters, food replicators, robots, cell phones – but of course we can’t get the specifics down because it’s all speculative. Case’s experience with cyberspace is very different from a modern experience, I think (I don’t think he watched any funny cat videos during the story…), but the base concept remains the same.


Next Time: The book that put the OG in “Oh god, what have I done!?” Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Who was an eighteen-year-old when she started writing it. No, really.

This should be awesome.

Featured image: Neuromancer by Josan Gonzalez

Julia is a Managing Editor at The Fandomentals with far too many hobbies and complex emotions. She may or may not be an actual Martell.

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Mask of Shadows Balances Trauma, Revenge, and Love

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

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

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Summary

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

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

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

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

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

What I loved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting Side Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Intriguing Worldbuilding

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

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

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

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

Some Potential Drawbacks

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

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

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

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

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

On Sal as a Genderfluid Protagonist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8/10

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

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

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


Images Courtesy of Sourcebooks Fire

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

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Several covers of George R R Martin's books

Part of the GRRM Reading Project

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

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

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

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

That story is The Fortress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human history in conflict with itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the journey, not the destination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fortress under siege

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

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

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

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Throne of Glass Waste of a Compelling Premise

Gabby

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

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

Plot

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

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

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

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

Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other POV characters don’t fair much better.

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

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

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

World-building

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

Conclusion

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

Miscellaneous

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

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

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

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


Images courtesy of Bloomsbury

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