"The power shall always belong to those who give their lives to the city."
'House of Earth and Blood,' the first book in the new 'Crescent City' series by Sarah J. Maas is a contemporary fantasy title about a half-fae/half-human woman--Bryce Quinlan, who loses her closest friends in a brutal killing. After the authorities put the alleged assailant in prison, the killings start again.. leaving Bryce in the midst of the mystery and one hell of a quest for vengeance.
When Bryce ends up with an enslaved Fallen angel on her heels everywhere she goes for protection, the two clash from the start. Hunt Athalar is a well-known and widely feared assassin for the Governor and he'll do anything to regain his freedom. He's pushy and she's stubborn.. and the result is often hilarious.
As this was my very first Maas read, I didn't really know what to expect. I've seen conflicting reactions to her previous work all over, but I try not to pay much attention to things like that. I realize most opinions are not based so much on the work, but rather personal preferences and prejudices one way or the other. This book was a lot though and I'm struggling to settle on a place to begin the discussion. There's a lot to process and that's mostly a good thing. Mostly.
"If it's not a date, then how is it different?"
"It'd be a trial run. For a date," Connor said through his teeth.
"She lifted a brow. "A date to decide if I want to date you?"
Since I like to approach titles with as fresh an outlook as possible, I let some time sit between my initial read of the synopsis and actually getting into the story. So, literally within the first five chapters, the author made me love those friends who weren't long for the world.. and then crushed me when they were gone.
If I'd re-read the summary, I would have been prepared.. but I didn't. Instead, I bawled my eyes out and I was barely getting started. Yet, I'm so glad for that experience. It really set the tone for the entire book which is full of ups and downs, tragedy and levity, joy and sorrow. This story wounded my soul. It hurt me on a level that is like the swift, brutal end of a cherished relationship. You know the kind.. where the other person walks away and you're still all in.. just standing there and watching them go? Yeah. That kind.
I want to get one thing out of the way first. There are people who pan the hell out of this writer.. and it was abundantly clear, very quickly--that what they mistake for a lack of skill or quality, is the way they personally feel about the characters or stories they've read. I've seen all sorts of reasons--they can't relate to the characters, they think the stories are cheesy, she replaces characters too often, and so on.
They cite her for poor character building (which I assure you is at least not the case in this book), couples with no chemistry (again, definitely not the case here--in fact the chemistry is great between friends, foes, lovers and most things in-between), and cheesy scenes. Okay, the latter could be misconstrued--the only cheesiness I saw was between friends being goofy, as friends are prone to do, or some really sweet moments which also happen in actual situations.
Now, as I said, this was my first and so far--only Maas read. Maybe it was the exception to all those above generalities imposed on her as an author by readers who are opposed to her. Maybe. But I'm seeing similar things about this book and it really just comes across as a people who don't know the difference between good vs. bad and like vs. dislike.
"There was only silence here. Silence and mist.
Was this death? Silence and fog?"
There are a lot of things Maas did really well in 'House of Earth and Blood.' The world-building is absolutely massive and intricately detailed. From the seven regions of the city, to their inhabitants and the political breakdown of each, and the symbolism representing it all.. you can tell she spent a ton of time fleshing it all out and there's a rhythm to how and why each group is placed where they are. Every faction and race referenced with any amount of focus has a full history and structure of its own. Some of the things that identify them are long-standing reliable mythology and others are creative off-shoots from the norm.
Nearly every character the story gives any serious attention to, has a substantial backstory of their own. The only exceptions being more secretive individuals for reasons of their own and perhaps we'll find out more about them in future releases. From the ruling body of the planet, to the bowels of Hel, to the people in between, there's a distinctive hierarchy keeping everyone in their place. A careful balance.. precarious and volatile.
"There are thirty-six photos on your four-year-old phone, and all of them are dismembered bodies," she said.
The conflict, both internal and external is rough.. and I mean emotionally. I laughed, I raged, I cried.. I adored, I detested. This book is an absolute roller coaster of emotions in spots. Honestly, the last 100-150 pages I spent mostly in tears. Sometimes melting from happiness, sometimes suffering soul deep blows. Did I like every character? No. Did I like every character I was meant to like? Probably still.. no. But that's okay.
Maas succeeded in immersing me. She gave me characters I could relate to.. either because I saw something of myself in them.. or something of someone I knew. She made me invested, sometimes rewarded me for that investment, and other times destroyed me with it. She moved me to react. And that's the mark of a really good storyteller.
It wasn't perfect. Nothing ever is. There are little plot devices here and there that seem far-fetched in the moment, but after you learn more later.. their purpose clears up. To be honest, in hindsight I realize at least they're typically addressed by someone within the character's social circle as questionable, but blown off by a whole lot of 'it doesn't matter--there's no other choice.' That's actually quite a brilliant use of subtlety to turn the reader's gaze elsewhere.
"That's what they call you, but that's not who you are."
"And who am I?"
"A pain in my ass."
I've told you many of the things I think she did right, but there is one big thing I think she did wrong. I think she made a decision for the sake of the drama it would create. I think there was a particular direction she wanted the story to take and she forced it to go there. And I think at that point, she either forgot who her character really was.. or she willfully dismissed that knowledge. It's a really common problem with current writers, some of my favorites in fact. So, make no mistake. I'm not putting her down. But I was incredibly angry for the character because it felt disloyal.
The motive for the act was strong and steady throughout the novel. I don't dispute the act entirely itself. I dispute how it was handled. Lying about it? In the particular case.. 100% inconsistent with the character's psychological baseline. It's not a clever twist, if it doesn't make sense for the character. It's a sharp turn off the road across a field full of holes.
When it makes sense, but you're so subtle the audience still doesn't see it coming.. that's when you hook them with it. You want to shoot for 'holy shit I should have seen that'.. not.. 'what the hell just happened?' Otherwise, you can literally toss them from the moment. That's exactly what happened to me. I put the novel down for two days because I was furious about the plot point decision, not the act itself.
The other things I saw were minor and also pretty common. An easy solution information download to clean-up plot points, for one. Though at least it was done in an acceptable, somewhat less overt manner. You could see it for what it was if you were looking, but I'm betting most readers these days are so accustomed to that, they barely notice if it's a decent setup.
Another minor issue (and other recurring complaint of mine in current titles), was the 'yoyo effect.' You'll see what I mean if you read the book. It happened in a big movie late last year too. There's a dramatic incident.. but wait, it's reversed.. only to be followed by another dramatic incident going the opposite direction, but wait.. that's reversed too, and then there's at least one more of those incidents.. that may or may not be reversed.
It's just, taking a climax and overdoing it to the point it's no longer interesting. Like 'The Departed.' Remember that older Leonardo DiCaprio film? The entire film was great drama.. very intense, very story driven. Twenty minutes from the end.. BAM.. sudden, dramatic incident. Would have been a beautiful ending. Maybe even one more after that. But instead, we got an entire series of them over that twenty minutes.. until the shock and surprise was just replaced with droll resentment.
"What brings loyalty from beyond death, undimming despite the years. What remains unwavering in the face of hopelessness."
Anyway, I've gone on far too long.. but give me a break. It was an 800 page novel. I wasn't a fan of the reveal regarding how the friends died. Personally, in my mind.. it sounded kind of dumb.. but 'suspension of disbelief' and everything else more than made up for that one choice that I just didn't care for. See what I did there? It was something I didn't like, it wasn't a case of 'bad writing.'
For the record, even with those three complaints I made.. I absolutely loved the book. From a technical aspect, it's a very solid piece of storytelling. But in addition to that, I really loved the story and Maas' great characters (good and bad) that I got to know. I can't believe I have to wait probably a good year or more for the next one. I can foresee a re-read in my future and that's an incredibly rare feat for a book with me.
Pick up this novel. Unless you have personal issues with the author or just dislike the style, you will not be sorry.