Thursday, July 28, 2016

Do Tell

Yesterday we were discussing trends in the Young Adult genre, and how the popularity of Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games may have sparked a trend in YA fantasy featuring a tough, kick-ass young girl caught up in magic and court intrigue. Specifically, the rise of the teenage female assassin as the protag in a book aimed at teen girls. I decided to pick on the Throne of Glass series just because it was popular, and available in my local library. Except somebody had checked out the library’s copy, forcing me to do a speed-skim of the book in question in our area Barnes & Noble.

Well, it’s a year later and I finally got hold of a library copy and actually read the thing. Here’s my impression of Celaena Sardothien, the most proficient and feared assassin in her particular Middle-Earthian world: what a total dickette.

Picture a stereotypical head cheerleader. Let’s give her the whole package: blonde hair, blue eyes, flawless skin. Whatever she wears, whether it’s a prom dress or gym clothes, it always fits her perfectly and looks spectacular on her. All the boys are in love with her, including your boyfriend. She’s arrogant, judgmental, and carries an air of entitlement like a designer purse because she knows she’s the best. She never passes up a chance to tell you so.

Now give this girl a sword. That’s Our Heroine.

In addition to being unlikable, Celaena commits the cardinal sin of a fictional main character: she doesn’t do anything significant. Oh, but she could. The narrative is constantly telling us just how good she is. She could escape any time she wanted just by doing such-and-such. She could kill that guy over there with a rolled-up napkin and a butter knife. She’s faster, tougher, more skilled and more successful than any other assassin EVAH. It says so, right here in her press release. She watched the opening fight scene of Deadpool, snorted loudly and went, “Amateur.”

And what does she do in her introductory book to justify all this hype? Well, ummm, okay, she’s pretty good with weapons. She wears a lot of lovely gowns. She gets both the prince and the captain of the guard to fall in love with her, even though she treats them both like dirt. She does beat up one guy, and she kills a monster from another dimension with a magic sword she found earlier in the book. Supposedly she’s racked up a body count, but in this book, which runs over 400 pages, she does not kill a single human being.

This is supposed to be a book about the best and most feared assassin in her world. Shouldn’t the star of the show, um, y’know, assassinate somebody?

It gets worse. At least three times people walk right up behind this fearsome killer-for-hire and take her by surprise. Good thing they weren’t assassins. In the climactic battle we still don’t get to see her fighting prowess because she’s drugged right before the fight starts. Guess it never occurred to her the woman who hands her the cup of wine, who’s made it clear she’s Celaena’s sworn enemy, might slip something into her drink. The price of arrogance, folks. In what should be a scene showcasing all those lethal skills we’ve been hearing about for 300-odd pages or so, Celaena stumbles around, gets beat up, and has to be rescued by a ghost. I kid you not on that. The captain of the guard ends up killing the designated bad guy. Four hundred pages, and the hero of the book does pretty much jack, with a side of squat.

This is the opening book of the series. Not an auspicious debut for this particular character. Pity, because it’s got a smooth and readable style. The author is certainly capable of telling a good story. Shame she chose to tell it instead of showing it.

I’ve heard the series gets better. Consensus on Goodreads says the second book reads as if the author took note of all the complaints about the first book and then fixed them. I hope so. I’ve just started reading the second book. Celaena’s working as the king’s designated assassin. But she doesn’t like the king, so instead of killing her targets she fakes their deaths and helps them escape. So she still isn’t killing anybody. What exactly is it this girl does for a living again?

# # #

Which brings us back to one of the other points I brought up in the previous blog. This is a Young Adult novel. It’s being marketed to teens and pre-teens, girls in particular (which would explain all the emphasis on pretty clothes and the romantic triangle). Hunger Games and Divergent featured tough female protags and made a ton of money. Fine. We’ll make our heroine a badass assassin, whose very name makes grown men shudder in terror. But she’s still a teenager, so we can’t show her killing anybody, just in case one of those impressionable young readers starts getting ideas in regards to that bitch at school she doesn’t like. And acts on it. Then her mother reads the book, and lawyers get involved. That’s how you make grown men shudder in terror here in the modern world.

So the writer’s left walking a narrow ledge: introduce a lethal, tough-as-nails heroine, tell us what a kick-ass babe she is, and then never show it. Because she’s the heroine, and the heroine has to Stand for a Higher Purpose. She can’t go around killing innocent people because That’s Bad. If she’s too despicable she won’t sell books. Even worse, she won’t sell books to the parents, who are the ones actually buying the books. That’s how you end up with Throne of Glass, and the writer telling us all about her character instead of being allowed to let the girl go out and do something. For instance, if she was half as good as we’re constantly told she is, she could have easily killed the king halfway through the book and escaped. But then we wouldn’t have a series, would we?

And remember: Luke Skywalker never defeated the Emperor, and he only sort of defeated Darth Vader. Darth redeemed himself by killing the Emperor while Luke, the hero of the trilogy, just stood there. Then George Lucas monkeyed with the SFX to make it look like Han Solo didn’t shoot first when everybody knows he did. Han’s a hero now. He has to be Upright and Moral because all those little kids (and their parents) are watching. At least Celaena’s in respectable company.

All of which leads me to wonder: why is it Wolverine can go around killing people willy-nilly and everybody loves him? I’m going to think about that one. If I come to any conclusions, I’ll post them here next week.

No comments:

Post a Comment