Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooookay. This is a tough one.
It's a long post. Not exactly super spoilery, but it's long. I had a lot of complicated feelings about this.
There's a lot of baggage and things I feel like I need to unload at the beginning, so that everyone knows where I'm coming from. I'm very much a Pierce fan, but I tended towards her woman warrior types and the Emelan-verse. Her woman warrior stuff was why I started reading her in the first place. I never liked Immortals as much as Protector of the Small, and I was never particularly charmed by Numair. THAT SAID, when this book was announced, I thought I was going to lose my goddamn mind. Even her poorer books have been good for the most part, and at least good to read. I'm rarely irritated or frustrated by Pierce's works, and often when I am, I look at it from a context of decades of writing. I was upset that the Tris book wasn't here, but I was happy to get a Pierce book, whatever the context - I felt similarly when Battle Magic came out, and then I loved Battle Magic. Even if it was BEFORE all my favorite characters really get introduced, and it's about a character I wasn't enthused about, understand that I was really, very happy to get a Pierce book, and that I was 100% prepared to like it. Even love it.
(spoilers: I didn't love it.)
Oof. If this book was split almost perfectly down the middle, I would say that I really loathed the first book and had my problems but generally enjoyed the second book. Let's really get into one of many things that divide the first half from the second half.
Arram. Yeah, so I've never hugely enjoyed Numair. He was an interesting enough character, but I wasn't ever particularly taken by him, but his use in the Immortals as an instructor and as a clear demonstration of the break between power=/=strength was interesting enough. But one of the reasons I never wanted to get into his past is that, increasingly as I grew older, I've read his story. I've read his prodigy destined for great things story again: [b:The Name of the Wind|186074|The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle, #1)|Patrick Rothfuss|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1472068073s/186074.jpg|2502879], and again: [b:A Wizard of Earthsea|13642|A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)|Ursula K. Le Guin|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1353424536s/13642.jpg|113603], and again: [b:Eragon|113436|Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle, #1)|Christopher Paolini|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1366212852s/113436.jpg|3178011] and again: [b:Ready Player One|9969571|Ready Player One|Ernest Cline|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1500930947s/9969571.jpg|14863741] and AGAIN: [b:The Grace of Kings|18952341|The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty, #1)|Ken Liu|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1403024981s/18952341.jpg|26965646]- critically acclaimed books that I personally think are garbage because I'm sick of this story. And the unfortunate thing about Arram's time in the book is that it does nothing, nothing to allay that, deconstruct that, or just about anything that examines the trope at all. Arram IS the character toe to tip, as they say. He's a genius, completely powerful - and though his POWER gets deconstructed, his GENIUS never is.
If Arram had been older - if he'd at least been the age of Ozorne and Varice, maybe I'd have less of a problem. But the insistence that Arram be as young as he is, to constantly press upon the reader his prodigy-ness, his intellect, his goshdarn destiny, makes this trope incredibly more obnoxious. Nothing is there to temper Arram's intellect, or even a consideration as to what it might be like to BE such an intellect, like the crippling insecurities that might come with it. Arram isn't ever not good at something he cares about. He never gets frustrated about that - he never has to. Ozorne gets twitchy (briefly) when it turns out that Arram outmarked him in exams once. I would have honestly really, really, really appreciated a scene where Ozorne returns the favor, and Arram's spiral afterwards, whether he recovers quickly or not. Or Varice does, when she's existing as a character outside of being a love interest (more on this later). Arram never has to confront being bad at anything - when he is, it's with a laugh and a shrug, of things like cooking magic or war magic, which he wants nothing to do with (oh but it's implied he could be SO GOOD AT IT).
And it never stops! I thought that Breq having to mention that ships had FEELINGS TOO got irritating in [b:Ancillary Sword|20706284|Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)|Ann Leckie|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1413464739s/20706284.jpg|40026175]! Nothing compares to the endless barrage of "have we mentioned yet that Arram is smart and destined for things?" Yes, I get it. Can I move on now? Can I read this book? Can I get this cool scene with my Grandma Sebo yelling at a crocodile god without being constantly reminded of Arram's already written destiny and greatness? "okay. But have we mentioned that Varice is beautiful?"
So let me lay my cards out. Characters like Varice are Not My Thing. I've always been a kind of masculine girl, and I reveled in books that allowed girls to be that way. That morphed into a direct resentment of feminine things, and then I grew up enough to realize that was a failing, and now I spend a lot of time watching/reading/consuming things that have feminine female characters trying to put it on perspective for myself. Why do I dislike a female character? Is it because they like things that *I* find frivolous? Is it JUST because of their feminine aspects? Is it ONLY their feminine aspects? Especially in the case of Varice being the only prominent peer female character in the book, I dedicated a LOT of my time trying to like her, understand her, accept her. I tried so hard.
But the thing about Varice is that I don't dislike her because she's very feminine. That's just the icing on my hating her cake.
It really gets summed it very well the first time she's introduced, which hit one of my least favorite pet peeves right in the kisser. Sort of my Bechdel test for literature (and it being a LOW BAR to meet), if a book introduces a female character with a quantification on her level of attractiveness, I am immediately not that into it. This counts, essentially, double for books written today, because I think writers should know better than that. It also isn't a singular pass/fail thing re: female representation in books - as with the Bechdel test, it doesn't account for everything, like attractiveness being a vital aspect to the character, or beauty (or lack of) not being the character as a whole, or it being a misstep in a book otherwise filled with decent female characters.
Oh, but that's the rub, see.
Varice has little character outside of her informed beauty and intelligence, and it's not even deconstructed as with Thayet and Arram seems incapable of pushing through Varice's appearance to know or care who she is beyond it. And with Arram go the reader, so...
And this book does it every. single. time. Varice gets introduced to a scene. Every. Time. Every time she is reintroduced to the narrative, she walks in looking pretty or lovely or gorgeous or beautiful. Oh, we could get into the discussion of Varice demonstrating intelligence in certain things she says and does. I even appreciate and like scenes where she manipulating guards and political upper folk and being good at it. I like her insistence on the validity of kitchen witchcraft, I didn't have a problem with her being a little superficial regarding the games. Varice is a teenage girl - the fact that she can be sure of herself in these ways is important, and I can appreciate that. But overall, she's stuck in the corner, chained by her "pretty and intelligent labels" and I did not feel we got enough demonstration of her intelligence. WHY is she elevated the way that Ozorne and Arram are?These examples are not nearly as clear or as established as with Ozorne. What are her ambitions? Who are her family? They didn't want her to be a kitchen witch - this is all I know of them, really. Is there a reason she's so skilled at the manipulation of people?
Maybe this will all be elaborated in later books. It could be an interesting parallel to the fact that Numair can hardly salivate over a 13 year old being that he's 27 from the start of the Immortals, and so the final relationship between him and Daine>Arram/Varice. Maybe that's going to come in a later book! Here's a list of things I kept thinking I might want elaborated in future books:
- More discussion of house slaves
- Arram's insufferable intellect
- The fact that Laman is used almost specifically only as a vessel to give the audience a PSA about how being prejudiced is bad and then DISAPPEARING
- Arram having definable faults that he has to confront in the text of the book
- Alternate sexualities and the society's perception of them at least being consistent? Are they accepted? Are they not?
- Indication that Varice is important to Arram outside of his romantic interest in her? Ozorne is a constant presence throughout the book because Arram is thinking about him all the time, or talking about the royal family, which leads back to Ozorne. Where is Varice in these thoughts? Varice has so little presence that I'd relax about it for a while but then get an abrupt "hey Varice is here, being beautiful" and get riled up again. At least let my annoyance be consistent - I just don't know what Varice means to Arram outside of romance.
- Just so much more nuance. on So Many Goddamn Things.
And I can accept that those nuances might be coming. Pierce has always been very good at writing perspective, and it might be that Arram isn't read for nuance but this is also a MASSIVE EXCUSE TO MYSELF. Nuances can be demonstrated within a text without the main character necessarily cottoning onto them. You know who's good at doing things like that? TPierce! There's even a REALLY good aspect of Arram/Ozorne that gives example of this! The fact that Ozorne is clearly more than a little ruthless and perhaps unstable and that Arram insists on looking past it and deluding himself with statements like "he's not normally like this" and often becoming scared about Ozorne briefly but moving on from it. Bad thing! Main character avoids! Refuses to see! Almost intentionally! Doesn't really notice himself doing it! Oooo aaaaa.
So I'm left with feeling like there was a good way to actually do the things that I had problems with, that the author is more than capable of it, but it simply wasn't present. And so I end, asking myself: Maybe in the next book?
This happened so many times that I got sick of myself thinking it. A book should be able to stand by itself - if these things ARE going to be discussed, be pretty clear about where that discussion is going to be going. The only thing that assures me that it WILL be elaborated on is my faith in the author - admittedly an impressive amount. I have that faith. But I shouldn't have to purely depend on that faith, nor expect readers who aren't familiar with her to have it.
Ozorne is one of the best things about this book. He is well-developed, occasionally terrifying, and we constantly see Arram's concessions to his volatile behavior. The way that Ozorne acts and feels, even if it's being a little too overt, those of us who know what will happen understand and see the seeds. And those who don't know Ozorne can tell something big is on the horizon. Something will happen, it's not good, and it has something to do with Ozorne and the throne. See? All the seeds and places are being set into place. I KNOW, even without knowing the future, that there is something to continue on in furthering books without losing the impact of Ozorne's development in this book alone.
The second half of the book finally starts the hinting, and had a lot of incredibly well written, introspective sections about a lot of different problems, themes, and plot furtherment. This isn't to say it wasn't without its problems, but it got into what makes the first book of a series interesting enough to read a second one. But a lot of the stuff I had an issue from the first half isn't pulled apart anymore, and thus I'm looking to the future to do it for me without any feeling that it will. OTHER than my faith in the author. It should not be this way.
The evidence of how incomplete the book feels also lives in the plot structure, which is Academy-academy-academy-fieldtrip-fieldtrip-fieldtrip-END. It doesn't have a cyclical feeling, though it tries to squeeze past me by reminding me of the first scene with the water at the very end to force a "came full circle" feeling. It didn't work. The plot just.... continues. It goes. There isn't much of a closed, tight feeling to the book as an individual entity. Everything seems to hinge on what's going to happen next.
And I hope it's good. I hope.