let’s read Throne of Glass – chapter 1

So you’re all aware up front, these posts won’t have any particular schedule, but I will try to manage at least one a week. The fact that the chapters are very short should help with this. Then again, chapters one and two definitely each merit their own posts in spite of their brevity…

After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side—as there was now.

I don’t judge a book purely by its opening passage, but I do admit that I put a lot of stock in it. Many of my favorite books have openings that stood out to me for some reason, and I can at least quote the first sentence of some of them offhand. This is not a promising opening, but it took me a while to nail down why. It is giving information, after all, and showing what appears to be a pretty tense situation with any number of potential stories. It took rereading the opening paragraph of another YA fantasy about a girl who kills people, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, to really figure out what was bothering me about Throne of Glass here.

Here’s Graceling:

In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. One that had so far proven correct, as Oll’s maps tended to do. Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went. Turning when it was time to turn; stopping finally before an opening that should contain a stairway leading down. She crouched and felt forward with her hands. There was a stone step, damp and slippery with moss, and another one below it. This was Oll’s staircase, then. She only hoped that when he and Giddon followed her with their torches, they would see the moss slime, tread carefully, and not waken the dead by clattering headlong down the steps.

It doesn’t read like Maas is telling a story here, it reads like she’s pitching a story. “There’s this assassin girl who’s been in prison but now she’s being brought into something mysterious!” It doesn’t give us anything about Celaena’s personality, it only paints her situation in very broad strokes, and while it tells us something about her place in the world, it doesn’t make us feel it.

Cashore, in contrast, starts off right in the middle of telling a story. It’s tense, not because of the potential of the situation, but because of the actions that are already taking place. We can infer quite a bit about Katsa from her thoughts and actions in this paragraph alone. She seems to be used to working in the dark (which implies a certain kind of activity), she’s confident but careful in what she does, she works with other people and she seems to care about them. Katsa has an inner life, not just a description of her situation. The narrative already has forward momentum, because things are already in motion.

Also, Cashore’s third person limited doesn’t awkwardly insert the viewpoint character’s full name.

(I’m going to warn you now, I’ll probably be referring to other YA fantasy fairly frequently in this series. Though I don’t expect it will usually be as long a digression as this.)

Back to just Throne of Glass. The narration goes on to explain that the hooded man is dragging Selena, I mean Celaena,  all around the building, a sort of headquarters for the guards and such, in an attempt to disorient her. Because of her super observation skills, this isn’t working. The hooded man is also the captain of the Royal Guard, Chaol Westfall, which rather removes any mystery.

The Captain of the Royal Guard would be an interesting opponent. Maybe even worthy of some effort on her part.

Oh my god. You are really doing that, and so early in the book.

She tries to get some information out of him, he rebuffs her, and we get this nice little bit of classism:

How lovely it was to hear a voice like her own—cool and articulate—even if he was a nasty brute!

Also- “nasty brute”? That’s your chosen pejorative for the man who you’re fairly convinced is going to execute you? I’d go with something stronger, myself. Or at least more descriptive.

She considers killing the captain like she killed one of her overseers a while ago, but decides against it.

She hadn’t seen where he’d put the key to her irons, and the six guards who trailed them would be nuisances. Not to mention the shackles.

Trained guards would be “nuisances,” not actual threats, because she’s just that special and talented even after a year of inhumane treatment and forced labor. There’s no hint that this is boastfulness on Celaena’s part, it seems to be presented as just a natural thought.

Which brings me to a tendency in fiction I’ve been wondering about a bit- why are assassins assumed to be these masters of combat capable of mowing down all opposition? It seems to me that an assassin’s greatest skill should, logically, be infiltration, not combat. You get into the household and figure out how to poison someone without anyone noticing, or how to slit their throat in the night and leave no trace. Sure, you need to be able to take someone down if things go wrong, but that’s not the same as being a super-soldier. If an assassin often has to fight large groups, aren’t they doing their job wrong?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff I love that uses this premise, but I’d still really like to see it done the other way. You know, other than as stealth missions in video games.

We learn more about who is enslaved here- criminals, rebels, prisoners of war, and people accused of using magic, even though magic apparently vanished some years ago. Gee, I wonder if this is an evil empire and our heroine will have to fight against the system?

Celaena becomes increasingly convinced they’re just going to all this trouble to execute her, but as the chapter ends it turns out she’s meeting…the crown prince himself! What could this be about?! Other than them secretly teaming up against his evil father, of course.

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3 thoughts on “let’s read Throne of Glass – chapter 1

  1. I also enjoyed the comparison with the opening paragraphe. While you said you didn’t judge a book by the first few sentence, I think it’s probably the most important part of the story to hook potential readers. I’ve read too many books where I fall alseep in the first few pages and then just give up completely.

    • I try to give books a chapter or two, because sometimes it can just take a little while to get used to the writing, or an otherwise well-done story can have a clumsy opening (introductions can be hard). But I admit, when I’m browsing a bookstore I often read the first page and pick up or dismiss the book based on that.

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