Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: "The Assassin ..." novellas by Sarah J. Maas

It appears that I haven't figured out how to work the timed posting feature yet. Here's the post meant for two weeks ago.

Sarah J. Maas' first novel, "Throne of Glass," comes out in August. Over the last few months and leading up to that debut, she's releasing four prequel novellas to build interest and back story: "The Assassin and the Pirate Lord," "The Assassin and the Desert," "The Assassin and the Underworld" and "The Assassin and the Empire." (That last one will be released in July.)

"The Assassin and the Pirate Lord" introduces Maas' heroine, assassin Celaena Sardothien, who at 16 already considers herself the best assassin in the world. She works for Arobynn, who is presented as something akin to a brothel madam for a stable of assassins. Celaena is beautiful, vain, self-centered and arrogant, but when she and fellow assassin Sam are sent to manage their master's purchase of 100 slaves, she realizes she can't abet human trafficking.

This was a good introduction. The antagonistic relationship between Celaena and Sam starts abruptly and isn't given much back story, and it resolves a bit too quickly, but that's a minor quibble. I generally like the characters — even the Pirate Lord, who is ostensibly the villain here. A bit more explanation of Celaena's role in the assassins' world would have been helpful - I found myself wondering a few times why it was so necessary for her to be disguised. We don't get that answer in this novella.

In "The Assassin and the Desert," Celaena is punished for her actions in "The Pirate Lord" with a vicious beating and sent to train with a covey of assassins in the Red Desert. She's out of her element and, though the assassins are familiar with her name, her reputation doesn't buy her the same awe it does back home. She has to convince the Mute Master of the desert to write her a letter of recommendation — essentially — but with a traitor at work in the assassins' base, her time to impress the master may be shorter than she realizes.

Sam isn't present in this novella, aside from in Celaena's thoughts, and I missed his character. The Mute Master's son steps into the leading man's role, in a way, and it highlights a weird contradiction in Celaena. She's very aware of her beauty and is a fairly worldly character, but we learn that she's never been in a relationship, nor even kissed a boy. It's rather odd for the way she's presented. Overall, the story arc is more developed than in the first novella, and there's more growth from Celaena.

"The Assassin and the Underworld" focuses less on action and more on personal growth. Back from the desert, Celaena finally learns what happened to Sam as punishment for their actions in "The Pirate Lord." She's dealing with her feelings for him at the same time she's trying to come to terms with her changed feelings for Arobynn. At the same time, she and Sam are working together to break up another web of human trafficking through the assassination of a key player.

Celaena faces the choice of remaining a kept woman or of leaving Arobynn and taking control of her own fate. It takes her longer to choose than I (and Sam) expected. We also finally get the reason that Celaena hides her identity: it's because she is presented to society as Arobynn's niece. Learning that earlier wouldn't have hurt anything, and it would have made parts of "Pirate Lord" less confusing.

The writing in these is top notch, and the characters are likable when they're supposed to be likable (and not, when they're not). Arobynn, in particular, comes across as a creepy, manipulative man. My only complaint, in fact, is that for all Celaena talks of herself as the BEST assassin EVER, it's not supported in the stories. She makes frequent mistakes, she gets caught, she gets played. I'm not sure whether we're supposed to believe she really is such an accomplished assassin or whether it's meant as a sign of her age; more clarification along those lines would be nice.

All in all, very good stories. I'm looking forward to "Throne of Glass" and the fourth novella — although judging by the description of "Throne of Glass," bad things are in store for Sam, in particular.

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