A (spoiler-ful) review of the first book in the epic YA fantasy series
This book was a VERY interesting read. I went into it not knowing what to expect. Several hours out of it, I’m still not sure what to think.
First, the good. Yelena is straight form The “Strong Female Protagonist” Academy. She’s also a survivor, with a horrific story of abuse that becomes clear as the novel unfolds. Snatched from her family as a child, she grows up as an orphan in the household of a powerful and ambitious lord. At age 16, she catches the lord’s eye and…well, you can imagine what happens next. At age 18, she murders the lord’s son in an act of grisly revenge, and when we finally catch up with her, she’s rotting in the dungeon next to the rats, waiting to die for her crime. She doesn’t quite get the chance. The mysterious and magnetic Valek, right-hand-man to the military dictator who rules Yelena’s once-kingdom, offers her a job as the Commander’s food taster. Instead of getting paid, she gets to keep her life.
Of course, Yelena’s newly leased life is not exactly simple. She has to dodge the angry guards of the former lord, a friend who betrays her, a magician who may or may not want her dead, her own burgeoning magical talents, and her increasingly intense feelings for her enigmatic and generally stone-cold captor. It’s a lot for a terrified teenager to juggle, but Yelena faces each fresh hell with a sarcastically deadpan “and now this, too?” aplomb. The characters are original, the plot is speedy, the setting is fresh, the premise is juicy.
And yet. There are some serious things that just don’t add up in this story. Yelena’s magical powers erupt without warning early on in the novel. Magic is illegal in her homeland, and when she finally tracks down a text that can offer some explanation, she learns that the source of all magical power is a “blanket” that covers the world. Sometimes, the blanket can snag or snarl. I mean…really? A blanket? I understand that epic fantasy can sometimes be a little too bygone and poetic, but this felt so mundane it was almost Pratchett-ian. Similar with Yelena’s magical journey. She ignores her powers for pages and pages, then suddenly “taps” into them while learning staff fighting. In a moment of magnified concentration, she goes from a skinny and poorly-coordinated pupil to a master who can mow down three of the nation’s most talented fighters in a single afternoon. It strains credulity, in a genre known for straining credulity.
Then there are Yelena’s conflicted feelings about the military dictatorship that rules the nation. I’m not sure what Snyder is trying to give us here: are these rulers some kind of benevolent fascists? The dictator, who took over in a coup, clearly deposed a corrupt king. But he’s implemented an empire that seems to be a paradise of bureaucracy, where citizens are assigned a profession at age 12 and have to file paperwork every time they want to visit the next town. The Code of Behavior, a strict and utterly context-less legal document that condemns Yelena but also saves her life, doesn’t distinguish between murder and killing in self-defense. More complicated are Yelena’s feelings themselves: the regime condemns her unfairly, yanks her out of the dungeon only to give her an even more dicey and dangerous existence, and yet the Commander’s even-handedness earns her loyalty. Interestingly, this is actually one of the elements of the story that had the most potential. Many fantasy geographies are ruled by kings and other feudal lords, usually presented either as lecherous monsters or paragons of virtue. The dictatorship occupies a conflicted middle ground (literally), and I found myself wishing we talked more about its contradictions. Unfortunately, the story eschews political philosophy in favor of plot, a choice that some readers may prefer.
Then there’s the relationship between Yelena and Valek. Remember Valek? He’s the blue-eyed not-quite-prince (actually, an assassin) who’s responsible for keeping Yelena subservient but also, inexplicably, protected. When someone makes an attempt on Yelena’s life, Valek moves her into his suite in the castle; thereby adding “oppressively present roommate” to his list of qualifications. It’s a long list. He’s a master stonesmith, can defeat four heavily armed men while wielding only a beer mug, and is immune to magic. He’s also a frequent and unrepentant killer who keeps a bloody knife mounted to his wall and whom another character refers to as a “psychopath.” Yelena justifies it all by telling herself that Valek is just doing his job, which is a troubling line of logic at any time, but especially in defense of a military dictatorship. Lucky for him, this terrifying figure is also a babe who looks “stunning” in a military dress uniform, so all is forgiven. Yelena falls in love with him with the abruptness of someone missing a step in the dark. What’s even weirder is he falls back, and they end up consummating their relationship on the floor of, unsurprisingly, a dank dungeon, while waiting to die. Somehow Valek the super spy is both shaken and stirred by Yelena’s charms, forgoing his customary reserve to spout lines like “you’ve…invaded my blood and seized my heart.” Yelena is perspicacious enough to note this doesn’t sound entirely positive, but she decides to jump on the moment anyway. The phrase “our souls bonded” is used, coming perhaps from the same fount that brought us the magic “blanket.” “…the rank order of a decomposing animal intruded”, Yelena notes after the somewhat generic sex scene. Coming when it does, this is one of my favorite lines in the entire novel.
Afterwards, Yelena and Valek are entirely on the same side (what? how? why?) and team up to confront the Big Bad, an evil sorcerer who imprisons children. Faced with this enemy, Yelena finds herself reflecting on her journey since she herself was imprisoned. Honestly, this is where the story comes up short for me, although this judgment is admittedly subjective. At the beginning of the novel, still recovering from a rape so graphic and brutal that it would make George RR Martin blanch (truly, it’s very intense and the book should probably have SOME kind of content warning), Yelena notes that she feels as if her soul has left her body. This sense of being separated from her physical self is something that I’ve heard from other survivors, and I would have loved to see the story explore and develop Yelena’s healing over time. Instead, it happens in a rush in the last couple of chapters. Yelena has enthusiastic and positive sex with Valek, which seems a little surprising considering she’s never had a positive and fulfilling relationship with any man before in her life; and she reflects on how she’s found friends and “love.” Let’s be clear, she didn’t find Valek so much as fail to avoid him; and anyway, this journey feels a little unearned at the end. For most of the novel, Yelena is still recovering. For her to suddenly be OK feels just a little too easy, and in some ways, a lost opportunity for a genre that frequently exploits violence against women as a plot device. I wish Yelena had spent more time reflecting on what being a survivor means, and we’d had an honest perspective on how trauma operates in the mind and the body.
And of course, none of this even begins to address the fascinating figure of the Commander himself, who suddenly becomes a character about ten pages from the end of the story. We discover the Commander has been keeping a big gender-bending secret, which the novel addresses in a way that’s actually interesting. Unfortunately, the book is so jam-packed with plot, we don’t really spend a lot of time with this part of it, either.
For all these flaws, Yelena is a complex and fascinating character in an interesting world, with enormous room to grow. The series has many more books, and I’m curious to see where they go.