Double Mini Book Review: Throne of Glass & Shadows on the Moon

Since the holiday gifting season is fast approaching (and since we owe you a ton of reviews), we thought we'd give you some mini-reviews of books we meant to fully review earlier in the year. That way, you can add them to your wish-TBR-gifting lists or remove them from said lists.

Without further ado, here are two joint mini-reviews of two YA fantasies we read this past summer.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Pros: Expansive world; potential for epic plots ahead; easily likable characters (at least for Krispy)
Cons: Mostly fluff and little substance; frustratingly perfect heroine; clunky plot and meh love triangle.

Krispy's Take: I absolutely love the backstory of how this book came to be. I love that it once was a retelling of Cinderella (though very little of that is left), and I love that it was once online at Fictionpress and built a following there. I love that it's about a kick-butt heroine who is also unabashedly feminine (I love tom-boy-ish Katniss and Katsa, but it's also nice to see a tough girl who likes pretty dresses and jewelry).

Unfortunately, Throne of Glass didn't really live up to its hype (not unlike Celaena herself, but more on that later). It wanted to be too many things at once. It wanted to be dark, but not too dark. It wanted to be really epic but also character-centric. It wanted political intrigue, but it also wanted the adrenaline fueled pacing of The Hunger Games. As a result, not enough time or set-up is given to any of these aspects, and I often felt like the book was pulling its punches. For example, the main plot of this book is a competition that has all manner of warriors/fighters/criminals as participants. So I don't think you can blame me for expecting something Hunger Games -esque, something gladiatorial. Well, the competition turned out to be one of the more mundane aspects of the book.

Celaena herself was frustrating to me in the depth department because I honestly want to love her. I think it's awesome that she's both a badass and a girly-girl, tough and emotional, but as with many aspects in this book, there wasn't enough depth. I think some of it had to do with the tell-instead-of-show issue with the writing (i.e. we're often told what an amazing assassin Celaena is, but we rarely see her skills for ourselves). She has a dark past, but it seems to have only a glancing or momentary flashes of effect on her, and I don't know if this is just because she's over it or if she simply isn't a reflective enough character. I left the book feeling like I knew her back-story, but like I still didn't know her (if that makes any sense) - and this is also with my having read all the novellas!

A magic-related subplot is woven in with varying degrees of success. Particularly, there's a point early in the book where I felt the magic plot line was jammed in with too heavy a hand, but things do smooth out more as the book goes. Still, it never meshed comfortably with everything else that was happening. There's also weird POV shifts. I say weird because I don't think all of them were necessary, and some only show up every once in a while. The switches also happen way too much during the climax of the book, messing up the pacing for me.

That said, I did enjoy this book because it is fun and fluffy. The characters you're supposed to like are easily likeable; for example, I'm Team Dorian because he's handsome and a flirt and struggling to be his own man despite his tyrannical father. And as I said before, Celaena herself is a nice contrast to the usual run of Badass YA Heroines we've seen of late, and I'm all for different kinds of strong girls! While I wanted more depth from everything, there were at least interesting plot and character threads introduced, and it's clear that the world of Throne of Glass is an expansive one with far flung locations and long histories.

This book will probably be an easy and enjoyable start for new fantasy readers. It's a quick read and calls back to many classic elements of the genre without getting too complicated about it. Actual young adults will probably enjoy it too; I know if I had read this as a teen, I would have loved the heck out of it - with its assassin MC, hidden magic, and various kingdoms. I'm just too familiar with genre tropes now and much more crotchety and critical. Still, I enjoyed this book as one enjoys candy.

Intellectual Rating: 4 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: C/C+

Alz's Take: So I read a chunk of this story way long many years ago when it was still on Fictionpress.net under the title Queen of Glass.  Way long many years ago, I really loved it. 

Rewind to earlier this year: Krispy reads me the blurb for Throne of Glass and I'm like, "That sounds an awful lot like this story I read way long many years ago online."  To which Krispy says, "I think it's the same story."
Celaena Sardothian by ennemme //
via Sarah Maas' pinterest

Fast-forward to months later.  I read the book and, sadly, it did not stand the test of time--though that isn't an entirely fair statement since the story underwent considerable changes and revisions, not the least of which was changing the story from regular "adult" fantasy to specifically fall into YA.

The plot is disappointingly straightforward, and there are at least a couple of plotlines jammed into the story that never show up again and clearly setup for later books.  There are plenty of plot devices, some so-so setup for dramatic reveals that really aren't that dramatic, and in general, it's pretty generic fantasy with emphasis on the generic.  Except for the clothes.  There is a crapload of wordage spent describing everyone's fanciful beautiful clothes.  There are some lovely descriptions but I really don't need an update every chapter of what everyone is wearing.

Our beautiful blonde talented graceful shrewd multi-lingual world-renown assassin protagonist, Celaena Sardothien, is annoyingly perfect with a side-dose of angst over her Dark Past.  She's bubbly and snarky but she's much, much less annoying in Throne of Glass than she is in the novellas.  She's a super duper infamous assassin and this is barely evident in the book despite how often we are told (often from Adarlan's Assassin herself) that she is sooooo awesome.  You may find it disappointing that a book about an infamous assassin contains practically no assassinating at all.

Overall, I'd classify this book as "light fantasy" and probably a good choice for hesitant readers who are nevertheless interested in trying YA fantasy.

Intellectual Rating: 3 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: C

Shadows on the Moon by Zoë Marriott

Pros: Great Japanese fantasy worldbuilding without specific historical time period; every character in the book is a person of color; strong, persevering heroine; original fairytale retelling
Cons: Romance is a little bit underdeveloped; ending moves too quickly and is almost abrupt

Krispy's Take: For anyone looking for a fairytale retelling that really is refreshing and original, I highly recommend Shadows on the Moon! It is loosely based on Cinderella, one of the most retold fairy tales out there, but it still manages to be unpredictable and gripping. Why? It's not just because it's set in a fairytale version of Japan, though that helps give it immediate, superficial differences. This book comes off as a fresh twist on the old because first and foremost, it is its own story, only calling back to the original tale at times by using certain familiar elements (i.e. the ball for the prince's hand, former-gentry girl ends up being a servant who sleeps by the fire). This is how you retell an age-old tale in an innovative way.

Beyond that is the worldbuilding. We've griped before about cultural appropriation and simple lack of research in worlds built on the backs of real-life cultures, but this is an example of "based-on" worldbuilding done right. You can tell this book was meticulously researched with proper cultural details and characters that act in ways mostly consistent with that of the base-culture. The magic too is interesting and subtle; I liked that it wasn't the typical in-your-face magic that makes the heroine suddenly all powerful. It was also a nice physical incarnation of the variously explored themes of illusion, image, and identity.

Which brings me to the characters, especially the MC Suzume, who are all varied and complex. Particularly interesting was Suzume's relationship with her mother, who was frustrating and flawed but also very human. She's not the "wicked stepmother" we've come to expect from fairy tales and their retellings. Suzume is a great heroine because she is multi-layered and the things that happen to her weigh on her. She reacts to the traumas and triumphs of her life realistically; the repercussions of her actions and of actions against her are not swept aside. She also doesn't fall into the trap of losing sight of her goals (the plot) once the love interest comes along, and no one relationship rules her life (a trap that so many YAs fall into, especially when it comes to romantic relationships).

via Zoë Marriott's pinterest // Artist: Noir
And you know how I mentioned I like seeing different kinds of "strong" heroines? Suzume is one of them. She doesn't physically become a super warrior, but she shows great strength of character. Her strength is in her determination, devotion, and cleverness. It is a quiet strength that both works within the bounds of the gender roles of her society and pushes against it. In this book, you truly see how beauty can become power without beauty necessarily being glorified.

There are a few negatives. The ending came up a little fast. There's not enough falling action for my satisfaction and the events of the climax happen quite quickly. The romance felt a little underdeveloped because of its speed. It's not insta-love, but there's a lot of devotion developed over a short period of time wherein the lovers see relatively little of each other. But the romance is sweet and respectful, and it doesn't overstep into the realms of saccharine sappiness.

In short, if you like complex characters, well-researched and developed worlds, and fairy tale retellings, pick this one up. I think you'll find this book fits the bill.

Intellectual Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: A-

Alz's Take: This is how you write a Japanese-based fantasy novel right.  The author clearly did her research and despite how offput I was how on the very first page it was practically, "I donned my kimono and wrapped my obi and combed my long black hair with my tortoiseshell comb and then sat down to drink my miso soup while gazing at the cherry blossom tree outside", the book smoothed out and became less in-your-face-JAPANESE-zomg.

The book is very loosely based on Cinderella, so very loosely that you might not even realize it while reading--which is a good thing.  The plot takes inspiration from the fairytale without rotely following it, making for a refreshing read.

Suzume is an interesting heroine who struggles with many issues, ranging from controlling her magic to dealing with hostile family to self-abuse.  Yes, that's right, self-abuse.  It's not the focus of the book, but it is something that comes up and doesn't get swept under the rug.

Our struggling heroine forms many complex relationships over the course of the book, from her mother to her mentors to her love interest--though as for the latter, the romance was sweet but happened kind of fast.   I thought one of the most interesting dynamics was between Suzume and her mother since it's not the typical loving mother-daughter relationship prevalent in YA.

If you'd like to read a respectfully-written well-researched and just plain good Japanese-based fantasy, try Shadows on the Moon.

Intellectual Rating: 8 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: A-

Q4U: What YA fantasies do you think we should add to our gift-TBR-wish lists?

P.S. If there are any books we've read that we haven't reviewed that you'd like to know more about before the whole holiday rush, please let us know in the comments or email us. We'll do our best to get a review out by then...or at least respond to you privately with our thoughts!


Julie Dao said...

I've read both books this year! TOG was an entertaining read, though I think the character was less suited to be an assassin than simply a princess from another land who was bad-ass... would explain her beauty, obsession w/ popularity + boys, etc. SHADOWS is probably the best Cinderella retelling I have ever read and I have you guys to thank for recommending it!

Connie Keller said...

Ooo. Shadows sounds fantastic. It's definitely going on my TBR list. Thanks.

Sophia Chang said...

I already had Zoe's book on my TBR on Goodreads but now I know to fast-track it!

linda said...

Ooh, Shadows on the Moon sounds so good! It's definitely under consideration for my end-of-the-year ebook shopping. Throne of Glass doesn't sound like it'd be for me, though. Thanks for the reviews! I love getting your thoughts on books. :)

Lydia Kang said...

Duly noted. I had heard of both but not too much. Thanks for the honest reviews, as always!

Yahong Chi said...

Definitely adding Shadows on the Moon to my TBR pile; I love a good complex mother-daughter relationship. But, like Linda, I don't think Throne of Glass'd be for me.

As for YA fantasy -- Hiromi Goto has a pretty good Asian fantasy duo called Half World. And I totally want to hear your thoughts on Sarah Beth Durst's Vessel! *bounce*. ...Can I recommend you some MG fantasy too? :P Matthew J. Kirby's Icefall is just ugh-<3-inducing and Erin Bow's Plain Kate (gorgeous prose, 3D villain, talking cat who will BREAK YOUR HEART) is on the borderline of MG and YA; have either of you read it?

Christina Farley said...

I really enjoyed reading your reviews. I didn't realize both of these books were Cinderella retellings. They are both on my to read pile but I'm disappointed they are both retellings. I'm starting to get tired of the Cinderella tale.