I’m back! I think. In any case, on to what you’re here for!
Are you ready for some exposition? Sarah J. Maas is!
As chapter 5 begins, Celaena thinks a little about maybe escaping, but does nothing. Everyone settles in to have lunch in the woods. But not just any woods- these are formerly magic woods, and as such have lingering “unnatural beauty.”
“The leaves dangled like jewels—tiny droplets of ruby, pearl, topaz, amethyst, emerald, and garnet; and a carpet of such riches coated the forest floor around them.“
You know what? Here is a picture of some rubies:
Here is a picture of the leaves of a Japanese maple tree:
Now, the rubies are nice, to be sure. But in my experience, actual living leaves have richer, more varied, more vivid color than gems. I was, in fact, intensely disappointed the first time I actually saw a ruby, because I had this notion from books of the color being this fantastic red like…well, like sunlight through maple leaves. It wasn’t. I was sad.
The point of this tangent is that you should really look at the world and evaluate your visual comparisons before you make them. Also, maybe the natural world has enough stunning properties of its own and doesn’t need to be “nature PLUS” to feel magical.
Also, reading a lot of fantasy as a child leads to disappointment.
ANYWAY, this forest is near or part of what used to be Terrasen, which the king of Adarlan conquered back when Celaena was eight. She was from Terrasen before she was saved by THE ASSASSIN KING (I’m still not over that okay). Back then, the world was magical and beautiful like this forest still is in part. But the king of Adarlan ruined that.
The soldiers start talking about how they think the forest is creepy and feels hostile, which angers Celaena. She argues that of course it’s hostile to them, it belonged to the king their king conquered (which is a point).
“’My father used to tell me stories about it being full of faeries,’ a soldier said. ‘They’re all gone now.’ One took a bite from an apple, and said: ‘Along with those damned wretched Fae.’ Another said: ‘We got rid of them, didn’t we?’
‘I’d watch your tongues,’ Celaena snapped. ‘King Brannon was Fae, and Oakwald is still his. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the trees remember him.’
The soldiers laughed. ‘They’d have to be two thousand years old, them trees!’ said one.
‘Fae are immortal,’ she said.
The first soldier to speak, by the way, is “olive-skinned.” He is the only one given any kind of descriptor at all. He is the marked category, therefore he is the “other.” We know through the descriptions of them that Celaena, the prince, etc. are white. This extends logically to the soldiers who aren’t given any description, because if they’re so unremarkable it stands to reason they’re similar to the people we already know. The “olive-skinned” soldier is also the first to comment on how the forest is unpleasant, putting him directly at odds with the white heroine.
Now, because “olive-skinned” can mean so many things, including “white person who has been out in the sun” and “person of Middle Eastern descent,” this could be unrelated to race. But it also could be that the one non-white soldier is the first to express the viewpoint that the narrative is definitely positioning as unenlightened.
I don’t think Maas was trying to be racist here at all. But I do think she failed to consider what and how she was writing, and as a result created some very unfortunate implications.
Beyond the conversation, Celaena ruminates on more exposition. Blah blah the evil expansionist king decided to crush all magic, drove out a bunch of fairies of differing types, and killed people with magical powers. But while the king claims he made magic go away, really it just suddenly disappeared years ago. Celaena knows, because she used to have magic.
“The king had claimed that magic was an affront to the Goddess and her gods—that to wield it was to impertinently imitate their power.”
Oh and it’s a religion vs. magic thing, because of course it is. At least there’s a supreme Goddess instead of a God, I guess?
Celaena reflects on how awful these mass executions and burnings and other atrocities were, but has a moment of actually introducing a complication into the narrative.
“Despite the carnage, perhaps it was good that magic had vanished. It was far too dangerous for any sane person to wield; her gifts might have destroyed her by this point.”
Anyone want to take bets that the idea that magic could be as dangerous as the evil king will never really be followed through on? Anyone?
They travel some more and it turns out that in spite of spending a year surrounded by unwashed, sweating, injured slaves, Celaena’s delicate nose is offended by horse smells. It also turns out that she doesn’t even think about how to pick the lock on her chains while the guard she’s chained to is posted outside her tent when they go to sleep. She’s an assassin, for crying out loud, shouldn’t she have skills relating to breaking and entering? Even if she’s not going to try anything now because her physical condition is too poor, why can’t she think about it? It doesn’t give the impression she actually wants her freedom that badly.
The next morning, she wakes up to a discovery.
“Small white flowers lay at the foot of her cot, and many infant-sized footprints led in and out of the tent.”
Fairies are about! But no one else noticed a thing!
So we all know Celaena’s some half-fae princess with super duper magical powers, right? Right.