THRONE OF GLASS by Sarah J. Maas

“I am Celaena Sardothien, Adarlan’s Assasin. If these men knew who I was, they’d stop laughing. I am Celaena Sardothien. I am going to win. I will not be afraid.”

THRONE OF GLASS, the first book in a series by Sarah J. Maas, was an impulse buy. Available for $1.99 on Amazon, the book promised the story of a world-famous assassin who is pulled out of the salt mine where she has been imprisoned for the past year so she can compete in a competition to determine the king’s new champion.

It’s a solid premise, and was similar enough to Jay Kristoff’s NEVERNIGHT, which I had recently enjoyed, that I was poised to enjoy THRONE OF GLASS as well. Unfortunately, it’s possible that reading THRONE OF GLASS so soon after reading NEVERNIGHT made the former book pale in comparison.

Whereas NEVERNIGHT’s Mia is motivated by the murder of her family and pits her in a life-and-death battle with her classmates, Celaena’s competition merely serves as window dressing for her love triangle with the captain of the king’s guard and the prince himself. Celaena bears scars from her sentence in the salt mine, and takes some time to return to full health, but for the most part, the difficulties Celaena must have faced in life are glossed over in favor of mooning over boys and deep consideration of what each word, glance, and action means to her future romantic possibilities.

While Celaena is 18, she seems far younger — both her and the prince freak out after they kiss, and we’re treated to a few chapters of each wondering what such an incredible step means to the future of their relationship. The captain of the guard kills one of the villains, then mopes about — inexplicably, the man charged with defending the royal family has never killed anyone before, and must deal with the emotional ramifications before he can continue doing his job.

Maas’s prose is solid, but ultimately, I felt that the story of an assassin pulled out of prison to compete for a role as the king’s new champion should have been far darker and contained higher stakes. Books in which the primary conflict regards which boy the heroine will choose have simply missed their target demographic with me.

EMERGENCE Edited by J.M. Martin

This review originally appeared at Fantasy-Faction.com.

 

Emergence is a shared-world anthology that takes full advantage of its format, building one story atop the next to create a three-dimensional world that ultimatelyreaches its peak with Edward M. Erdelac’s Perennial.

As Ragnarok Publications Editor-in-Chief Tim Marquitz explains in the book’s introduction, he originally intended to write a superhero novel, but soon realized that rather than telling the story of a single superhero or a group of superheroes, what he truly wanted was to create a world of superheroes – men and women of varied backgrounds, cities and motivations facing a variety of challenges. As Marquitz says, he wanted to create a world “in the vein of Marvel or DC.”

Recognizing the enormity of such a project and the advantages to bringing a variety of authors into the project – each with their own perspectives on the superhero genre – Marquitz approached Ragnarok Creative Director Joe Martin about turning his idea into a shared-world collection.

The resulting first book in the Humanity 2.0 series is Emergence, which includes stories from Jeff C. Carter, Marquitz, C.T. Phipps, Eloise J. Knapp, Erdelac, Rob J. Hayes, G.N. Braum, Martin and Steve Diamond. Each story features super-powered individuals, known as chimerics, many of whom have taken on alter egos with which they either fight or commit crimes. It’s a broad ideas that creates a vast playground for the authors involved.

Early on, I wasn’t certain what to think about Emergence. Carter’s From the Barrel of a Gun kicks off the book with the tale of a superhero, The Red Wraith, seeking revenge against a sniper who has been picking off superheroes and villains alike.

The story’s plot does a good job of introducing us to a world adjusting to the sudden and largely unexplained appearance of superheroes and villains, but I was disappointed to discover that many of the superheroes were clearly based on some of the most popular characters in comics history. From Obsidian (real name Benjamin Grimes), who’s uncannily similar to the Fantastic Four’s Thing (real name Ben Grimm), to Magnetar, the self-proclaimed Master of Magnetism, the very first superheroes we meet in the anthology feel like cheap knock-offs. Admittedly, these are secondary characters, but as the opener to the anthology, I was concerned regarding what would follow.

Subsequent stories introduce readers to super-powered characters trying to adjust to their new powers and the changes those powers have forced in their lives. Marquitz’s Whiplash stands out thanks to the first-person perspective of his teenaged protagonist, a punk rock fan and secret superhero who prowls the city streets fighting crime.

It is with Perennial that Emergence truly hits its stride. Erdelac, Amazon tells me, is the author of the acclaimed Judeocentric/Lovecraftian weird western series Merkabah Rider, Buff Tea, Coyote’s Trail, Andersonville and the compiler of Abraham Van Helsing’s papers (in Terovolas). His entry represents the first story in the anthology to feature a non-superhero protagonist, a welcome change of pace.

Perennial begins by introducing readers to Niko “Tink” Tinkham, a scarred former child actor working to stop a woman who kidnaps newborns from hospitals. When his efforts to stop the kidnapping place him in the path of a fireball-wielding chimeric, we’re introduced to Niko’s own chimeric friend, Pan, a perpetually young, flying superhero modeled after Peter Pan.

As the story progresses, we learn about the relationship between Tink and Pan – what brought them together, and why their past is coming back to haunt them. It’s a character-centric superhero story, complete with a painful origin story, three-dimensional relationships, and a hero whose powers come with legitimate drawbacks.

The story’s primary villain is far more terrible than any other we meet, primarily because his pedophilic crimes truly exist in our world. The crimes committed aren’t motivated by grandiose plans to take over the world or eradicate humanity, but by greed and power – all-too-human qualities. Erdelac’s characters aren’t homages to Marvel or DC heroes, but to recognizable pop culture figures, making it feels as though the world of Humanity 2.0 is a world parallel to our own, with a few slight tweaks (and more than a few super-powered battles wreaking havoc in the streets).

The next story, Avenger, features another human trying to make his way in the world of chimerics. Stoner, a former Australian special ops soldier turned mall security guard, stumbles upon a chimeric and soon finds himself part of a special unit designed to battle evil chimerics. Stoner brings another unique voice to the proceedings, and his story serves as a clear set-up for Martin’s Bring It On, Hero.

These later stories do a much better job of taking advantage of the shared world, making frequent references to characters from previous stories and showing the way that different characters relate to the organizations in place to bring order to the new chimeric-filled world. It results in a much deeper world, and better reaches the series’ potential.

Emergence goes on sale Sept. 13, and will be followed in 2017 with Chimeric. Now that the authors have an established setting and collection of heroes and villains to build upon, I’m excited about the possibilities. Humanity 2.0 is a great opportunity for authors to create their own superhero stories in a shared world, and as the story continues, it promises to get even better in future collections.

THE LAST FOUNDING FATHER: JAMES MONROE AND A NATION’S CALL TO GREATNESS by Harlow Giles Unger

Harlow Giles Unger’s James Monroe biography, THE LAST FOUNDING FATHER: JAMES MONROE AND A NATION’S CALL TO GREATNESS, reads less like a biology and more like a sacred tomb for acolytes to use in worshipping the do-no-wrong object of their devotion.

The parts where Unger is simply relaying the events that happened are well done and quite readable, but all too often, he offers opinions designed to glorify Monroe and his wife beyond all reason.

By Unger’s description, Monroe was preceded by three presidents in John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who “were mere caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack (and) its its capital city in ashes.” Even worse, the 35 years after Monroe’s presidency were led by presidents who were “self-serving, politically ambitions successors” who undermined the national unity he created and led the country into Civil War.

Unger describes Jefferson’s choosing of Madison as his secretary of state over Monroe as Monroe “stepping aside,” rather than being overlooked in favor of Madison, a close and well-respected friend of Jefferson in his own right. Perhaps not coincidentally, Unger reserves much of his vitriol for Madison, claiming that when Monroe served in Madison’s cabinet, it was Monroe who took the reins of the country, especially in the wake of the British attack on Washington. Later, he doesn’t appear to recognize the irony of his response when he brings up accusations that John Quincy Adams had actually crafted the Monroe doctrine:

The assertion that Adams authored the Monroe Doctrine is not only untrue, it borders on the ludicrous by implying that President Monroe was little more than a puppet manipulated by another’s hand. Such assertions show little insight into the presidency itself and the type of man who aspires to and assumes that office; indeed, they denigrate the character, the intellect, the intensity, and the sense of power that drive American presidents.

Each time Unger mentions Madison, he makes certain to belittle the fourth president, referring to him as “incompetent,” and making frequent references to Madison’s well-documented health problems and his short stature. When comparing the foreign policy experience of the two presidents, he says:

Monroe’s many years as a minister overseas had taught him diplomacy as a chesslike game of subtle moves, each fraught with nuanced, ripple effects that can accrue to the advantage or disadvantage of either side. Madison’s years in a nation of unsophisticated frontiersmen had taught him diplomacy as a game akin to the new card craze of Slap Jack.

At another point:

… the president [Madison] seemed impotent, with no command of his armed forces, no credit with Congress, and little influence over the American people. His sickly Lilliputian stature did little to inspire confidence. Everything he said or did only alienated more Americans.

When Monroe makes his seventh annual address to Congress, Unger says that some members trembled with awe as they watch him make his way down the aisle, a description that again feels over the top; I would have loved to see a source there so it seemed less a product of Unger’s overactive, awestruck imagination.

If possible, Unger seems to go even further overboard in defense of Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth:

Washington gossips accused the Monroes – especially Elizabeth – of transforming the White House into a European court. Through no fault of her own, she became the target of mean-spirited attacks, born largely of envy – of her beauty, of her exquisite (and expensive) taste in clothes and furnishings, and of her refined manners and superb education.

What Unger wants you to understand is that not only was Monroe the awesomest president who ever presidented, but he also had the hottest and most perfect wife ever. People who disliked her didn’t have any genuine motivation for their feels — they were simply jealous!

Now, I don’t point all this out to demean Monroe or his wife — I bought this book specifically to learn more about him and his strengths as an American president, and Unger’s comparisons of Monroe to George Washington were indeed eye-opening. But over the course of the book, Unger’s descriptions of Monroe got in the way of the story of Monroe’s life, and made it difficult for me to trust Unger’s accounting of the events in Monroe’s life.

According to this book, everything great that happened, from the Louisiana Purchase to the conclusion of the War of 1812, was a product of Monroe’s greatness despite the perpetual idiocy that surrounded him.

A more nuanced view of Monroe’s life would have been far more satisfying. I have no doubt of his accomplishments or his strengths, but to really understand this president, I also would have liked to learn about his weaknesses and regrets. Unfortunately, this isn’t the book for that type of insight.