One of the most controversial authors across social media, Sarah J. Maas certainly provokes strong opinions. Her latest fantasy series feeds a little fuel to nearly all the opinion-havers: it shows growth and maturation, but also offers much of what Maas is known and questioned for. And, in my opinion, what people go to her to find. I came away from this novel with a healthy respect for the giddy excitement it made me feel at 4am. In this post, I’ll review Crescent City and then suggest a (hopefully) helpful structure for talking about Maas amid a very prickly public discourse.
Bryce Quinlan had the perfect life—working hard all day and partying all night—until a demon murdered her closest friends, leaving her bereft, wounded, and alone. When the accused is behind bars but the crimes start up again, Bryce finds herself at the heart of the investigation. She’ll do whatever it takes to avenge their deaths.
Hunt Athalar is a notorious Fallen angel, now enslaved to the Archangels he once attempted to overthrow. His brutal skills and incredible strength have been set to one purpose—to assassinate his boss’s enemies, no questions asked. But with a demon wreaking havoc in the city, he’s offered an irresistible deal: help Bryce find the murderer, and his freedom will be within reach.
As Bryce and Hunt dig deep into Crescent City’s underbelly, they discover a dark power that threatens everything and everyone they hold dear, and they find, in each other, a blazing passion—one that could set them both free, if they’d only let it.
HOUSE OF EARTH AND BLOOD
This review is moderately spoiler-free, but for an optimal reading experience I recommend reading this review after reading the book or not caring too much!
Danika grabbed her hand again. “That’s the point of it, Bryce. Of life. To live, to love, knowing that it might all vanish tomorrow. It makes everything that much more precious.” She took Bryce’s face in her hands and pressed their brows together.
Just typing this (admittedly cheesy) quote threatens to make me emotional. Possibly the most surprising and impressive part of House of Earth and Blood was the centrality of female friendship. This relationship packed the most emotional punch for me, even more than Maas’ standard romantic pairing. In this novel far more than her past books, Maas tackles grief, female friendship, and young female independence in a mature, tender, realistic way. I have no notes. Just goosebumps.
This novel’s central romantic pairing—while disappointing at first (it’s basically the coupling in Jennifer Armentrout’s Kingdom of Blood and Ash)—keeps the reader turning the page. Maas has figured out that we will wade through hundreds of pages of mediocre plot as long as she pays near-equal attention to the expertly written romance for which she is so well known. And which she is, admittedly, exquisitely good at. Cut to me tweeting at 3 am: THEY’RE SO CUTEEEEEEEEEE
NUANCE IN A NUANCE-FREE ROMANCE FAIRYLAND
There’s actually some nuance to this particular romance. Maas departs from her past romance structures by making heroine Bryce just as secretive, interesting, independent, and generally messy as Hunt, our resident Tall Dark and Handsome. In past series Maas has fallen into a narrative where the male is a) emotionally unavailable as a result of past scars he broods about often and b) the material (financial or physical) savior when the female in a tough spot, and c) possessive and more powerful than the female.
In this series, each of these is reversed: Bryce is the one with past scars that make her emotionally complicated and closed off; Bryce is the one with more cultural/social status; and finally, Bryce is so weary of what she calls “alphaholes” that any concern on Hunt’s part is viewed with suspicion. Which is a modern and interesting aspect of their relationship.
I think this is ingenious. As an author writing for audiences that probably also consume trade romances, Maas is taking an extremely powerful, direct shot at the entire industry of dark romance and its tendency toward controlling, possessive, and comically testosterone-riddled “alphaholes.” The fact that this shift in the romantic dynamic is couched in a very classic romance—again, Hunt is pretty standard-issue Tall Dark and Handsome, and this couple cleaves to many heterosexual romantic stereotypes—is a powerful, subversive statement on Maas’ part. A lot of it might seem obvious: the woman is allowed to make mistakes too, we acknowledge female wariness of powerful men based on precedent, the woman can take the lead sexually, the couple is equal within their relationship. Obvious, but extremely hard to execute. And did I mention how cute they are??
Just take a moment to appreciate how self-aware Maas has to be to write this, which could at points easily be aimed at her famous Court of Thorns and Roses series:
“Alphahole. Possessive and aggressive.” She waved a hand at his bare torso. “You know—you males who rip your shirt off at the slightest provocation, who know how to kill people in twenty different ways, who have females falling over themselves to be with you; and when you finally bang one, you go full-on mating frenzy with her, refusing to let another male look at or talk to her, deciding what and when she needs to eat, what she should wear, when she sees her friends…Your favorite hobbies are brooding, fighting and roaring; you’ve perfected about thirty different types of snarls and growls; you’ve got a cabal of hot friends, and the moment one of you mates, the others fall like dominoes, too, and gods help you when you all start having babies—
NO SURPRISE ON THE PLOT FRONT
Plot-wise, this novel was incredibly disappointing. Maas does a fair job of slamming the reader into a completely new modern universe populated with every kind of supernatural being conceivable. But the way the plot is structured just isn’t interesting. There’s a big war on, a hugely powerful, evil Bad Guy (or seven), an investigation that throws our main characters together, a mysterious McGuffin to find, and finally, never to be forgotten—secret powers.
Some of these tropes I like, especially Maas’ affinity for secret powers. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s nice. It feels a little like a Cinderella for grown(ish)-ups.
My biggest gripe with this novel, though, was just how predictable it was. To some degree, I predicted every single major plot event in the entire book. That cannot be good. This is a problem Maas has often, but the elaborateness of her plots makes me wonder if she thinks they’re compelling, and over-indulges every obvious red-herring.
I realize that it’s hard to write original fantasy plots. Certain structures just work, and these structures are fine vessels for the strong emotional currents that drive this novel. But I’ve read many novels in the same genre that are not quite so mind-numbingly obvious.
THE SJM EXPERIENCE
First I’ll address the most common accusations and how I think about them. Then I’ll contextualize the conversation around Maas and explain where I think she fits within her genre and the literary public at large.
WHAT MAKES A PROBLEMATIC AUTHOR?
Maas has been accused of various things throughout her career, but in my opinion, she hasn’t done anything with malicious intent (a la JK Rowling) or even accidentally malicious. She seems to generally stay in her lane—the lane of a white, heterosexual woman with limited diverse experiences.
Being an author of Maas’ level of course comes with a certain level of reasonable expectation as far as diversity and inclusion go. Her earlier stuff was sorely lacking. While her clearest strong suit is feminism, it seems like she’s been trying to be more inclusive in her novels while still refraining from writing things so far outside her experience that she would be speaking for a group she has little understanding of. So: I think she’s gotten better at that, but I also think there’s a long way to go. The feminism of Crescent City still smacks of a narrow kind of white feminism, which has a long and troubled history of minimizing important racial and intersectional forms of oppression. Still not even close to being a reason to cancel Maas—just another conversation worth having.
Maas is also, to this day, accused of being Zionist. There are a lot of reasons this is essentially an accusation in bad faith. Maas is Jewish. She visited Israel for her birthright to see a city sacred to her religion. These facts do not add up to Zionism. It is absurd and dangerous to blindly equate Judaism to Zionism. Judaism is a huge umbrella under which reformed and orthodox, Israelis and Americans and all Jewish people in between fall. Would it be powerful and important to readers in her audience if she denounced actions taken against Palestine by Zionists? Of course. But Maas has never been publicly political (I actually don’t think this is an excuse for not speaking up. But it also doesn’t make her a Palestine-hating Zionist.) In fact, she’s hardly public at all—she just seems like a private person. And *we* just came for fairy sex and escapism. Maas’ plots haven’t had any glaringly religious undertones that I’ve been able to pick up on, except perhaps that in this new series, angels are evil? Correct me if I’ve missed something major. (I’ve read most of her books; I didn’t read Tower of Dawn because I, er, didn’t care about Chaol. Sue me.)
PUTTING MAAS IN CONTEXT
If you’re still interested in the constant “controversy” around Maas, I recommend this blog post.
In general, there are problematic qualities of her novels, especially the Throne of Glass series. There are disappointments related to Maas’ silence as a public figure. To be honest, I really like the discourse about the inclusiveness or lack thereof in her books; the discourse about the relationships she writes and the choices she makes. I think those conversations are worth way more—are way more nuanced and interesting—than just canceling her or refusing to read her novels on principle.
The most obvious way to handle the controversy around Maas—the method which seems to be woefully undersold—is to READ OTHER DIVERSE AUTHORS!!
Yes, I read and love reading Sarah J. Maas. But I am also a HUGE, HUGE fan of N.K. Jemisin, Tracey Deonn, Nnedi Okafor, Sabaa Tahir, Amal El-Mohatar, R.F. Kuang, Cixin Liu, and more. There are so many diverse, interesting, incredibly talented authors in this space, and despite what booktok or book twitter might have you believe, Maas does not have a monopoly on romantic fantasy readers. With each year there are more exciting, diverse authors and novels to discover.
This picture is iconic to me because, while I think it was originally supposed to be the Tall Dark & Handsome—the TDH—in Armentrout’s Kingdom of Blood and Ash, it applies to Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses; Crescent City; Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, and I’m sure more. See what I mean? It’s literally one singular template. Many of these TDHs could be POC, but they’re usually white-passing enough that it’s up to the reader’s interpretation. Which…feels distinctly like a kind of gross cop-out on the author’s part. “Light brown skin” to me is not white. But many, many fan artists portray the TDHs as white. Go figure.
Don’t be afraid to leave your thoughts! Tell me what you think of the woman, the myth, the legend SJM.
pic creds: xina.fey on ig, adamarart on twt, Jemlin Creations