Coven Chat: Empire of Storms

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Happy Halloween, witches! Today we’re having our discussion of Sarah J. Maas’ Empire of Storms. Remember that in a Coven Chat we spoil and spoil and spoil. Don’t read on if you aren’t caught up on the series.

Allison: First off, let me say that I found Empire of Storms just as addictive and completely engrossing as all of the books in this series. I’m actually really excited to read it again. I felt like a lot of the action in previous books is starting to come together in EoS in a deeper way.

Alyssa: This series is really addictive and I reread it every year when a new book comes out. I can’t help myself! I love that each additional book is much more expansive in its worldbuilding and cast of characters, and that QoS and EoS reintroduced us to some of the characters from The Assassin’s Blade.

Nicola: Yes, agreed. I noticed a shift in QoS when characters from the novellas like Lysandra and Arobynn started appearing, and even more so in this book with Ansel’s return and the appearance of the Silent Assassins. It really feels like all those story threads from the first few books in the series are being drawn together towards the ending, and I love it.

Speaking of endings, can we talk about the end of this book for a second? I was really not expecting any of it, and I stayed up late because I just HAD to finish it – then I couldn’t sleep because I was fretting about Aelin. Seriously, that ending was one of the most shocking I’ve read in a long time.

Allison: I really didn’t expect the ending at all, but it was clear that Aelin did! I don’t know what I was expecting. I mean, I think we knew that some kind of showdown was coming between Maeve and Aelin, but I thought that perhaps Maeve would offer a bargain of some kind for assistance in the war.

I think that Maas started putting some serious distance between us and Aelin in this book to support the ending and the next book, which I assume will rely heavily on the characters she built up in this storyline, like Lysandra, Aedion and the witches. I loved the deeper characterization of Manon and the Thirteen in this book. I’m actually hoping that we get some novellas about the witches, or possibly a spinoff series.

Alyssa: Yes, I’d love a spinoff series or novellas about the witches! Manon and the Thirteen are some of my favorite characters, and they really help sustain this series. While I’m fond of the characters in Aelin’s inner circle that dominate the first few books, I really like that HoF, QoS and EoS introduce us to new characters who exist outside of Aelin’s sphere of influence.

Nicola: I wasn’t sure about Manon in HoF, but as the series has progressed she’s really grown on me, and I really like the relationship between her and the Thirteen. The fact that they’re more loyal to each other than the Ironteeth as a group speaks volumes about their relationship, and I find it fascinating that Asterin and the others show such loyalty to Manon, when the Ironteeth witches are, supposedly, cold-hearted and cruel. They’re much more human than they would like to think.

Allison: I think it will be interesting to see how the reveal that the Ironteeth clan-leaders have been manipulating their offspring to be so ruthless in coming books. It’s clear that the Thirteen are just as “emotional” as Manon, so we can’t necessarily dismiss her feelings as purely being due to her heritage.

Alyssa: I love Manon’s identity as half Ironteeth, half Crochan, and that she experiences so much character growth in HoF, QoS and EoS. I love that she’s complex and conflicted; that she upholds as well as questions her beliefs and personality traits, since she stays cold-hearted and ruthless but she also begins to value hope and love above all else…her humanity more than her upbringing as a monster. Manon will likely have a very significant role in the final book, now that she’s discovered she’s the Crochan Queen, and I can’t wait to see that storyline play out. She may be my favorite character now.  

Allison: Speaking of favorite characters: Lysandra!!! I love her so, so much. There’s this scene where she’s in her snow leopard form and she’s resting her head in Aelin’s lap and I was just so damn happy. I love that she is so fierce and so loyal and that she and Aelin have all these secret machinations.

Nicola: Yes! I love Lysandra. She’s fast becoming my favourite character. She’s just so determined and protective and just damn perfect. And I love how Aelin starts to really trust her in this book. Aelin’s always had issues with things like sharing power, trusting women and general jealousy, and now she’s at the point where she trusts Lysandra to pretend to be her for the rest of her life. It’s a HUGE bit of character development for Aelin, and it shows how different Lysandra is from the vain, shallow courtesan Aelin once believed her to be.

Alyssa: I love Lysandra and her romance with Aedion too! It’s almost like she’s become the heroine of this series (along with Manon, perhaps). And I don’t get irritated with her in the same way that I sometimes get irritated with Aelin. I’m curious to see what happens when she plays Aelin!

Allison: Aedion, please forgive Lysandra right away! Lysandra, please forgive Aedion back for being a leetle too obsessed with his cousin… I’m also curious to see how Lysandra “plays” Aelin.

I’m thrilled to see Lysandra’s character get more time and energy, but I admit was frustrated by what’s happening with Rowan’s character in this book. I was a huge fan of Rowan in HoF, but he hasn’t developed much beyond stoic-Fae-male and that’s a little bothersome for me. He’s SO objectified! I mean, I want to defend Rowan here and say all the things that I’d say if a female character was getting this kind of treatment.

Alyssa: Yes. Even though I think Rowan might be the best “mate” for Aelin, he is a less interesting character in QoS and EoS than he was in HoF. He loses some of his depth when he falls in love with Aelin, and he is objectified!  I feel like Rowan’s intense (obsessive? possessive?) love for Aelin is his whole identity now. Honestly, I’ve sort of lost interest in Aelin’s love story in this series and I’m more invested in the secondary characters’ relationships: Lysandra/Aedion, Manon/Dorian, etc. I actually find their relationships more romantic than Aelin and Rowan’s–even if they are “mates.”

Allison: I’m conflicted about the “mating” conceit that SJM has developed for both her series. It sometimes creates an excuse for toxic masculinity that doesn’t always get checked. Some of it feels cheap alongside the amazing depth that she’s created for her female characters.

Nicola: I’ve been re-reading the series since reading EoS, and while reading the novellas something struck me: What does Aelin being Rowan’s mate mean for Celaena/Sam?

Allison: Ohhhh, I hadn’t even thought of that.

Nicola: I feel like the notion that she’s fated to be with Rowan cheapens her first love, as though the future she and Sam imagined could never have materialised. And what about Rowan’s supposed mate? I really hope that this is explored in the last book. Weirdly, I also feel like Rhys gets way more character development, even though we don’t see his POV in the ACOTAR books.

Allison: I completely agree with you about Rhys. I just re-read ACOTAR and ACOMAF and he sort of “corrects” some of that toxic masculinity, but there’s that same attitude of “Fae males are just like that” that I’m not reacting to well.

Alyssa: I agree. What’s supposed to be a romantic conceit is getting annoying and problematic for the reasons you both mention. Also, “mating” seems more unnecessary and confusing in this series than in ACOTAR.

Allison: Completely. In ACOTAR it takes center stage because ACOTAR is up front a more emotional book, Feyre’s relationships are very important.

Alyssa: I suppose an argument in favor of the “mating” conceit is that it’s important considering they are Fae and immortal. But I find the toxic masculinity problematic, too. It does seem like these books argue that all of that behavior is not just normal, but something we should desire. I wonder if that’s a problem with the Fae/vampire trope in general?

Allison: Yeah, I feel that way too. I think in ACOTAR there is a lot of condemnation for the extreme that it goes to. Even in the first book, you can see the seeds for Tamlin being so possessive and Rhys’ commitment to Feyre’s freedom (and fighting his nature) is the antidote. I think the mating concept feels out of place and kind of confusing in this series though.

Alyssa: It’s a bit tacked on that we find out near the end of EoS that Aelin has been keeping secret her realization that Rowan is her mate. But she kept a lot of secrets from Rowan and everyone else in EoS. Honestly, I found that secret and some of the other reveals slightly irksome and perhaps too convenient.

Nicola: Aelin keeping secrets was something that didn’t sit right with me, not because it’s not in-character (it is), but because she used to be the reader’s main POV character, and now she’s keeping secrets from us. I’m not against the whole ‘trick-the-reader’ thing (I love it in Six of Crows), but I don’t think it works when the character used to be the main POV character and now there are a lot of things kept secret from the audience.

Alyssa: Yes, that’s a really great point. I think that’s why Aelin’s keeping secrets didn’t quite work for me as well.

Allison: And it wasn’t just a couple of things, but an entire plotline that we don’t get to see and that isn’t really even hinted at. I like it when we get to know that something is going on, but just not what exactly. I felt like there was a big shift in tone in this book in a lot of ways.

I’m just going to say it: the sex didn’t work for me in this book. I’m all about there being sex in YA books, I guess I’m just not sure how I feel about it being erotica. There’s something about an adult writer, writing this kind of stuff for teenagers that makes me really uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m a bit prudish.

Alyssa: Yes, while Maas’s depictions of sex have always been more mature than most authors of YA, it becomes even more adult in this book. It’s strange because before I reread HoF and QoS, I thought that Aelin and Rowan had already had sex; but they don’t have sex until the middle of EoS! So in some ways, the fact that Aelin and Rowan wait is typical YA. But, the erotica in EoS and Maas’s books in general (even when the characters are not in fact having sex) makes the YA categorization problematic. I’m also a bit uncomfortable with Maas’s books being for teens (14 and up).

Allison: I wasn’t disturbed by this at all in ACOTAR. It’s clear from the beginning that the content is much more mature in that way, but I feel really uneasy about the way it’s developing in this book.

Nicola: It’s made me uncomfortable, too, especially when I consider just how uncomfortable I would have been to read that stuff as a teenager. I was a pretty prudish teen, so my experience is by no means typical for teenagers, but reading sex scenes like that would have really upset me a book so far into a much-loved series simply because at the age I started reading books like ToG I wasn’t emotionally ready for books like EoS.

And IMO it’s not just sex, but violence as well. It’s always been a very violent series, of course, considering the main character is an assassin and the story opens in a death camp, but in earlier books it was less graphic and more implied. For instance, there’s a scene in TOG when one of the competitors has been disemboweled. It’s a horror-filled scene (especially when Celaena points out that the man’s tendons had been severed so he had to lie there watching the creature sharpen its claws before he died), but it’s nowhere near the description of one man screaming as the creatures in EoS disembowel him.

Allison: I have to say that for me, this book is absolutely not YA, which is troublesome, given that it’s the fifth book in this series. I feel like this was not a great time for such a dramatic shift in content. I’m an adult reader, so my perspective is different, but I don’t love thinking about how teen readers might perceive this shift.

Nicola: Yes, I agree. I think a lot of teen readers would just take it in their stride, but for others this book will be the turning point where the series is no longer something they feel comfortable reading, which I guess isn’t really fair to them when it’s so late in the series.

Alyssa: I’m not sure if this is true or merely speculation, but I’ve seen claims online that the series has transitioned from YA to New Adult with Empire of Storms.  But, whether EoS is still officially YA or not, I wonder if teens are less shocked by this shift than we might think since they have likely already read ACOTAR and might want and expect Rowan and Aelin to have a more erotic relationship. And those fans that ship Chaol might have cared more about the shift with HoF to Rowan as Aelin’s love interest. It’s almost like ACOTAR attempts to bridge the shift between the first and second half of the series.

Allison: This has me thinking about the way that the Harry Potter books got more and more intense as the characters grew out of middle grade age and into YA. Perhaps something similar is happening here? Aelin is aging out of a YA audience (she’s 19 now), so the books are too?

J.K. Rowling caught a lot of flak for that while the Harry Potter series was still being written, for the darkness and violence. I remember that while the last few books were coming out that people were angry that as the characters aged so did the maturity, and Rowling’s response was that she believed her readers were aging as well and could handle it. I think that on one hand, that’s true in a real time perspective, but on the other hand, when the books are complete, who is the audience for a series that undergoes that kind of dramatic transformation?

Nicola: I was thinking about Harry Potter, too. I was 9 when I started reading the series, and 17 when the final book came out, so I very much grew up with the series and likely would have stopped reading altogether if the later books were at the same maturity level as the earlier ones.

What I also find interesting is that Maas originally wrote ToG as an adult fantasy novel, and it was her agent (or publisher?) who suggested she market it as YA. So it’s possible she had always intended to incorporate more mature elements later on in the series.

Allison: That’s interesting. I think it will be interesting to see where the series heads next. I know we’re all looking forward to the next book… AND THAT CHAOL NOVELLA! Thanks so much for joining us. Our next Coven Chat will be about Crooked Kingdom in November.

 

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