REVIEW: Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

REVIEW: Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

Tower of Dawn by Sarah J. Maas

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Length: 672 pages

Release date: 5 September 2017

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Chaol Westfall has always defined himself by his unwavering loyalty, his strength, and his position as the Captain of the Guard. But all of that has changed since the glass castle shattered, since his men were slaughtered, since the King of Adarlan spared him from a killing blow, but left his body broken.

His only shot at recovery lies with the legendary healers of the Torre Cesme in Antica—the stronghold of the southern continent’s mighty empire. And with war looming over Dorian and Aelin back home, their survival might lie with Chaol and Nesryn convincing its rulers to ally with them.

But what they discover in Antica will change them both—and be more vital to saving Erilea than they could have imagined.

I’ve seen the usual controversy floating around about SJM’s new book, those usual terms like “ableism” and “cultural appropriation” thrown around as people become massively passionate about a fantasy series that turns into more of a budget ASOIAF with every book. *Yawn.* You know what, my issue isn’t with any of that. I honestly couldn’t care less about whether or not Sarah J. Maas took inspiration from Genghis Khan for the khaganate. My reason for giving Tower of Dawn a squinty look and a solid two stars is the same issue I have with all of SJM’s books these days: The length could easily have been cut in half with no adverse effect on the plot. Or, in other words, this book is 672 pages, and I couldn’t tell you what happened in over 300 of them because nothing did.

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So how did she fill those 300+, you say? Contemplation, and side quests, and long, winding conversations, and food porn. So much food porn. You thought GRRM wrote sumptuous feasts? Allow me to introduce you to your new supplier:

“Chaol dined in the Torre kitchens, where a rail-thin woman called only Cook had stuffed him with pan-fried fish, crusty bread, roasted tomatoes with mild cheese and tarragon, and then managed to convince him to eat a light, flaky pastry dripping with honey and crusted in pistachios.”

Hungry yet?

There’s nothing wrong with the loads and loads of description that Maas piles on. In fact, I quite enjoyed reading them–they were certainly more interesting than the equally lengthy descriptions of Chaol pining for Yrene, or Yrene pining for Chaol, or Nesryn pining for Sartaq, etc., etc. But when your novels are clocking in at over 200k words in a publishing world where agents won’t look at debuts over 100k, I really wonder if it’s time to edit out a few words. Or at least make sure that something happens in them–I have nothing against long books, as long as the amount of content justifies the length. A Storm of Swords justifies its 400k words. Tower of Dawn doesn’t justify more than 100k. It’s glaringly obvious that this was originally a novella that spiralled out of control when SJM couldn’t be bothered to cut it down because she’s making so much cash that she can publish whatever she wants (another symptom of the GRRM syndrome). She’s making bank, so good for her, but the writing quality would have been well served if this stayed as a novella.

There’s a lot of lazy world-building and plotting here. It might all be excusable for another writer, but from the #1 YA author of the past three years, you would expect more.

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Case in point: Welcome to Velaris Antica, the capital of Maas’s new exotic location. Velaris Antica is a shining utopia where everyone is happy. Literacy rates are high, there’s universal healthcare, gender equality is championed, and the people support their benevolent dynasty the khaganate. A few days’ travel from Antica are the Illyrian Steppes Tavan Mountains, home to a group of people who live at high altitudes and get around flying with their wings ruks.

The big issue isn’t the similarity to ACOTAR, which isn’t actually as bad as I’m making it sound. What really gets me is how sanitised the khaganate is. We’re told about a dynasty of conquerors who united the entire Southern Continent under their rule, and yet SJM also attempts to convince us that all the khagans were wise and merciful, accomplishing their conquest without much bloodshed. Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it. I can’t suspend disbelief to accept that the khaganate somehow was so different to Genghis Khan, so different to the Roman Empire, so different from every empire that has actually existed in real life that there wouldn’t be enough war crimes to execute the khagans a thousand times over in the eyes of the Geneva Convention. And I wouldn’t normally invoke modern-day morals to evaluate a fantasy novel, if not for the fact that SJM very much writes from a 21st-century viewpoint herself. Characters speak and behave in ways that are a lot more compatible with how we would act today than what someone in the purportedly crapsack ToG world would do.

If you want a nuanced treatment of conquest in YA that shows the realistic nastiness of fire and blood while still maintaining a touching optimism, read Kiersten White’s Now I Rise instead.

If you’re just looking for some fluff and softcore porn, which Maas’s novels are evolving more and more into lately, Tower of Dawn doesn’t even provide much of that. You can recognise a love interest coming from the moment they first step onto the page in SJM books, and that holds true here. So after Chaol and Nesryn meet their new love interests (with heavy foreshadowing that this time, it’ll be their “true loves”!), it’s just waiting 600 pages for them to confess their emotions. At least Sartaq and Nesryn stay relevant and interesting. They’re probably my favourite characters in ToG at this point, just because of how they’re not destined to be “THE CHOSEN ONE” the way that Aelin, Dorian, Manon, and practically everyone we read about has become. Plus there’s this beautiful fan art–all credits to @arz28art!

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I should probably stop reading about Nesryn and Sartaq before SJM turns her into a Mary Sue and him into a woobified cardboard Rhysand clone (which there are already hints of), but that shouldn’t be too much of a problem as she’s going to return to Aelin again for the final book. Sigh.

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