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Maas and Masculinity: a few thoughts on Empire of Storms

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I’ve been a big fan of Sarah J Maas’s novels since her debut, Throne of Glass, came out in 2012. Since then, she’s only gotten stronger and more addictive as a writer, and so the fifth novel in the Throne of Glass series, Empire of Storms, was probably my most anticipated read of the year.

But while Empire of Storms was highly readable and plot-twisty and all the things you might expect from a Sarah J Maas novel, the book’s approach to romance left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Like Maas’s May release, A Court of Mist and Fury, Empire of Storms is obsessed with hyper-masculinity, and while in one novels that’s just a theme, two novels back-to-back present a more concerning pattern. In these stories about badass female characters saving the world, almost all the male love interests end up being possessive, aggressive and controlling.

Both series have a similar conception of “fae,” with extremely territorial males that get aggressive whenever anyone else male is even in the same room as “their” female.

Rowan bit down against the sight of other males near his queen, reminding himself that they were his friends, but–

Or:

The savage, wild snarl that ripped out of Rhys was like nothing I’d heard, and I gripped his arm as he whirled on Cassian.

The badass female characters roll their eyes at the guys’ stupidity, but it happens again and again, and no one is ever more than mildly irritated at their displays of possessive aggression. In fact, any effort to step away from violent possessiveness is treated as a sign of how great a guy he really is.

“Males get so volatile that it can be dangerous for them to be in public, anyway. I’ve seen males of reason and education shatter a room because another male looked too long in their mate’s direction.”

I hissed out a breath. Another shattered room flashed in my memory.

Rhys said softly, knowing what haunted me, “I’d like to believe I have more restraint than the average male, but… Be patient with me, Feyre, if I’m a little on edge.”

That he’d even admit that much….

The male fae are always referred to as “males,” as though to emphasize their somewhat feral masculinity, and they “snarl,” “growl” and “roar” their way through conversations. Despite the fact that the female characters have strong enough magic to face pretty much anything, the males are still violently protective of them, with this aggression becoming the defining characteristic of any male protagonist once he’s paired off with the heroine.

Still he did not move, did not stop staring at her, searching for signs of harm…. Aelin grasped his shoulder, digging in her nails at the violence rampant on every line of his body, as if he’d loosed whatever leashes he kept on himself in anticipation of fighting…. “Calm down. Now.”

He did no such thing…. “I am fine,” she said, enunciating each word. “You saw to that. Now get me some water. I’m thirsty.”

A basic, easy command. To serve, in the way he’d explained that Fae males liked to be needed, to fulfill some part of them that wanted to fuss and dote…. Rowan’s face was still harsh with feral wrath — and the insidious terror running beneath it.

Or:

“Aelin,” he snarled, debating how long until it was socially acceptable for him to break down the door.

And while this is presented as romantic — irritating, but attractive — the idea of powerful female fae is presented as a violent perversion. Both books have a fae queen as a major villain, and both of those queens have male thralls who they rape over decades or centuries. Meanwhile, there’s only one regular female fae among the heroes in either series — the other female characters are all half-fae, human, or other beings. We see male fae warriors for miles, but the most prominent female ones are evil and controlling.

Both series also embrace “fated love,” with the idea of fae mates. In both A Court of Mist and Fury and Empire of Storms, the protagonist is “mated” with their male love interest, a fact that the more knowledgable male hides from them for the majority of the novel, until they’re forced to reveal it. In Empire of Storms, this idea of fated possessiveness even erases past plot points and character development, like the deep platonic friendship between Aelin and Rowan in Heir of Fire. Now, instead of them building that connection between one another before the romance began, Rowan basically wanted to bite and possess her from the very beginning.

Empire of Storms is also an aggressively heterosexual book. Every male perspective character is paired with one female perspective character, making for four neat couples in all. Mentions are made of one main male character being bisexual, but there’s no sign of that in the plot itself.

The weirdest part of all this, perhaps, is the pairing of the witch Manon with Prince (now King) Dorian. They begin with an interesting connection, as Manon puts herself at risk to save Dorian’s life thanks to a life debt between them, and ends up stuck with the other main characters when the consequences of this mercy nearly kill her. Any development of this connection is then immediately abandoned in favor of a strange new dynamic, where Dorian has a character transplant and becomes weirdly dominant and cruel, while Manon turns submissive and relishes this opportunity to finally relinquish the murderous level of control she maintains over everything else in her life. The shift in both characters, especially considering Manon’s previous disdain for pretty much anything male, seems to suggest that they have to switch — he has to become controlling, she has to become submissive — in order for their romance to be worth reading.

Of course, “controlling” and “dismissive” are presented as virtues for the protagonist too. Aelin is a badass leader, and the book contorts itself to allow her to keep huge, important secrets about her plans from not only all her allies but from the reader as well. Her ultimate plan – to have her shapeshifting friend pretend to be her for life, while her boyfriend keeps up the pretence and her cousin gets involved in order to provide realistic heirs — is put into motion without even informing any of the male characters involved of her intentions, let alone asking for their agreement.

But this almost feels like the book’s version of feminism. Badass female character acts independently, with no regard for anyone else’s feelings, until her heterosexual love interest gets involved and is incredibly possessive around this otherwise uncontrollable protagonist. She rejects and dismisses it, of course, because she’s Strong and Cool, but that aggression is brought up as part of their romance again and again. She gets to be Strong, he gets to be like a stereotypical romantic lead, and everyone is, apparently, happy. Because what could be more romantic than that?

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

20 thoughts on “Maas and Masculinity: a few thoughts on Empire of Storms

  1. Oh man, that is so disappointing. I loved the whole Throne of Glass series so far. Except for the Rowan romance. Manon is one of my absolute favourite book characters ever. I haven’t read the last installment yet, but now I don’t know if I will.
    I hated the first Court of Mist and Fury book so I am definitely not continuing that series, but I was excited for a new book in the Throne of Glass series. I just don’t know if I can take it if Manon’s character gets destroyed like that.

    1. I love Manon too, and she had a great plotline in the first half of the book (and her relationship with Abraxos continues to be excellent). There was still lots to like about this one, and I’m definitely going to read the final book when it comes out, but I kind of get the feeling that she was rushed writing two long fantasy series in a year, and this is one of the ways it showed.

      1. Right, I can totally understand that. Manon isn’t the only reason I loved these books of course, but she intrigued me the most. I love her slow transformation from practically heartless to empathetic and somehow becoming stronger for it. It’s just so disappointing to hear that she becomes so submissive for a guy. And having said that, it’s also very disappointing to hear that Dorian changes like that. I liked that he was becoming more thoughtful too. I thought his line to the guard guy (I forget his name) that he doesn’t just get to choose the parts of someone to love, you have to accept the whole of them (something along those lines), was such a great line.

  2. Wow. I haven’t read these books; didn’t really feel compelled to. It’s so tough to find romance in YA that isn’t possessive or abusive or overall messed up from a real-world perspective.

    But maybe you might have better luck with A Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury. Have you read that one yet?

    1. I would have really enthusiastically recommended them before this book. Now I guess it’s a “they’re really good, until…” kind of rec.

      I haven’t read it yet. :( It’s tough to get hold of, because I don’t think it’s been released in the UK, but it’s still on my list! And I could really do with a YA fantasy palette cleanser after some of the disappointments I’ve had in the last month.

        1. It’s there, but I think it’s an import, so it’s pretty pricey. But I’m sure I’ll make a recklessly bank-account-draining book order soon. 😛 That one’s on my list, and A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston.

  3. I haven’t read this one yet and I can’t wait as I love the series. I was drawn to your article because I caught a glimpse of this in the last book with Rowan; he was always aggressive to a fault. But I had to stop reading your article when I read the spoiler on Manon and Dorian!
    NOW I’M DYING TO READ THIS – because Manon kicks ass.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
    Follow me on Bloglovin’

  4. At first I was kind of intrigued by your description of literature that basically objectifies and dehumanises men, but then as I read on I discovered that every powerful female character was evil and basically to quote John Knox “a monstrous regiment”.
    Then I more or less had the measure of the author.

  5. I haven’t read this new one and I’m not sure I will now. I loved Heir of Fire – especially for the deep friendship between Rowan and Aelin – so it was a huge disapointment to me when Queen of Shadows romantically paired them. It seemed so ridiculous and sudden after the constant emphasis in Heir of Fire that neither of them were sexually or romantically interested in each other. Personally I wonder whether the author changed her mind between books about the nature of their relationship. Another annoying thing was that two women of colour ended up being killed off as part of a plot twist.

  6. Love your blog! I’m curious, what do you think of the way romance is handled in A Court of Mist and Fury versus A Court of Thorns and Roses? I think she’s doing something really interesting there in portraying abuse and consent that I haven’t seen in other YA fantasy fiction.

    1. Thank you! I thought the shift between the two books was really interesting too. I know some people have criticised her for giving Tamlin a personality transplant, but I think it makes a good point about how abusive relationships don’t start off as abusive, and that’s why it can be so easy to become trapped in one. I also think people have good points when they say that Rhys’ attitude isn’t always so different from Tamlin’s, even though he’s “sympathetic” and “attractive”. SJM does love her alpha males. But it’s been a long while since I ACOTAR, so I can’t comment on it more than that!

    2. Just finished Mist and Fury. Really enjoyed it actually. The review here had me braced for the worst so I was pleasantly surprised.
      I liked the new characters who are introduced. I like that we have multiple female characters who are not killed off and are not bitter rivals.
      I liked how the friendship and flirting between Feyre and Rhysand developed. But wasn’t so keen on the sex scenes and mate bonding. I don’t exactly find sex scenes offensive. It’s just few authors are able to portray lust without alpha male dominance.

      1. Yes, I felt the same way. It was more of an “in retrospect, after reading Empire of Storms” that gave me all these thoughts. Although Mist and Fury was a weird one for me, because I really enjoyed it, and I couldn’t read it fast enough, but it really felt like it could have been about 200 pages shorter. The mate bonding stuff had me rolling my eyes, but I didn’t think it was as bad or as cheesy as EoS. But then again, I totally shipped Feyre and Rhysand even when we thought he was semi-evil, so I’m not sure I’d trust my opinion there. 😛

  7. First off, hi Rhiannon! I just found this website, a year after reading A Wicked Thing, which I LOVED, and, wow, what have I been doing without this? I enjoy reading your opinions so much, they’re so informative and educated. Second off, wow, I’m rather late to the party, aren’t I?

    Third off, I’m actually kind of glad I didn’t like the first book in the series because it’s honestly the worst when a good series turns a bit sour. I found a lot of problems with sexism, especially because I was tired of reading those same girl-on-girl hate tropes, and I’d just read Red Queen (there are literally zero sympathetic female characters other than the “special” protagonist in that book, and in all honesty, the villains were more interesting than the main character and I ended up being more interested in them, which is never a good sign) and I was hoping this book would be kind to me, but it really wasn’t. The friendship between Celaena and Nehemia was entirely based on hating on another girl, Lady Kaltain, for pretty much no reason. And there was just so much unnecessary hatred against Lady Kaltain just because she was a noblewoman during that time who tried to make the best of the system by using it to her own advantage and, well, doing what she was supposed to do. Furthermore, I felt that the characterization of Nehemia veered uncomfortably towards the pretty racist “mystical ethnic princess” trope. Also, can we talk about what I dub “Frivolous Tea Party” Syndrome? It’s a tactic used to demean women either in or connected to leadership use where they host a party, a time during which, in reality, they negotiate and network and literally stop wars and save lives, while the book/movie/TV show/whatever simply ignores that fact and acts as if it’s just a “girly gathering.” It’s incredibly disappointing to me when the traditionally “feminine” way to deal with political matters is simply dismissed and waving swords around, which is both generally less productive and also more violent in 9 out of 10 scenarios, is glorified instead. The depiction of the queen in that first book is very much representative of the incredibly sexist “Frivolous Tea Party” Syndrome.

    To add salt to the wound, there were just so many aspects of the plot and characterization that simply didn’t add up. The king was a rather two-dimensional villain who seemed to enjoy being evil just for the sake of it. Also, filling up your castle with a bunch of criminals, many of whom are now affiliated with members of your council more than yourself, especially when some of these said criminals are extremely dangerous and hate your guts, is generally not a very intelligent idea. In particular, when Dorian frustratingly decided to sponsor Celaena for the competition, I wanted to shake him. It’s stated that her hatred of the royal family was well-known, and seeing as she was, seemingly, the best and most notorious assassin in the land, putting her THAT close to the king when your own goal isn’t to kill him indirectly seems like a bit of a stupid decision. I also distinctly remember that one scene where Celaena devoured a mysterious, unmarked bag of chocolate while there was murder after murder of contestants and everyone was incredibly on edge. Those chocolates could definitely have been poisoned! Also, I kind of hated how the actual competition, which was supposed to be the epic focus of the plot, according to the summary on the back of the book, was glossed over. It was kind of like, “Two more rounds happened. Three more people died. Oh, well, let’s look at Celaena’s romance!” And, don’t get me wrong, I love me some romance, but I guess by the summary of the book, I was expecting the romance to be a little less prominent than it was and for the world building and characterization and plot to be more of the main focus. I think this might just be a little more of my misconception of what the book was about; I went in expecting fantasy, action, and mystery with a dash of romance, but I got a romantic fantasy with a side of action and a light sprinkling of mystery. Both of these kinds of books are fine, of course, but I think I just had different expectations, and I wish I had been a little more informed, and I wish the summary made this a little more clear. Maybe then I would have enjoyed it more.

    To be honest, I wouldn’t have continued reading the series unless I hadn’t been told constantly by my friends that it got better. And while it certainly did get better, I still have problems: the death of the only two women of color to further the plot for the white characters, as well as what you mentioned above with toxic masculinity and a lack of diversity in sexual orientation and pairings. Also, there was the fact that there was always this voice in the back of my head going, “You wouldn’t have picked up these other books on our own!” which definitely dampened the enjoyability.

    Wow, this comment is monstrously large! I guess I just had a lot of thoughts on this series, especially because of its prominence in the YA genre, which is a love of mine! If you’ve read this far, thanks for taking a look at what I have to say!

    1. Thanks so much, Sakshi! I’m so glad that you enjoyed A Wicked Thing and like this blog! <3 I've never heard of the Frivolous Tea Party trope before, but it's so apt. I think that the introduction of Lysandra later in the series at least creates the potential to subvert that trope, but it really annoys me when all the women in a world are presented as just too girly and stupid to do anything of substance for themselves until the kickass protagonist comes along. I know Sarah J Maas wrote Throne of Glass when she was really young, and I think her writing has improved unbelievably since the first book, but Empire of Storms was a real crash down to earth for me. All the great things I thought I was seeing in the past couple of books disappeared. It went from cracky fanficcy fun to a fantasy series I adored to eye-roll-worthy, and I'm still kind of bummed by that.

      But you're right, I find it hard to enjoy books in that scenario too. It's like my brain becomes extra snarky in resistance to being forced to keep reading, and things that I otherwise wouldn't mind become unbearable as a result. Honestly, that might be what happened to me with this book. I wanted to enjoy it, but I wasn't, so I slogged ahead and got more and more eye-rolly over the little things as I went along.

      1. High-key fangirling over your response!!

        I made up the term “Frivolous Tea Party Syndrome” because I noticed it was a recurring trope in tons of books/movies/tv shows, particularly in the fantasy genre. I’m not sure if anyone else uses it though? It might be one of those things I subconsciously picked up. One thing I actually really enjoyed about your book was the subverting of that trope and how Aurora learns to observe her surroundings so carefully during something that many a storyteller would have completely dismissed, which is such a sad loss of potential. Definitely the presence of Lysandra does create potential to subvert this, but that potential is never quite reached. The complete rejection of Lady Kaltain is also such a loss of potential! I think it would’ve been fantastic if Kaltain and Celaena/Aelin started off on rocky terms and soon learned to see past their initial perceptions of each other and have each other’s backs. It could’ve been a really fantastic female friendship and an exploration of different kinds of power, which is particularly needed in a series where the “strong” women come in pretty much only one type, but it was totally rejected.

        I highly admire that Sarah J Maas consistently improves her writing, and I think that’s wonderful! All due credit to her! At the same time, I think issues like racism and ableism and heteronormativity start popping up, at least more frequently, later on as well. I’m still quite dubious of her killing off her POC and shipping off the only alive one to a different plot because her love interest is disabled and therefore not as important to the main story, especially since said love interest was such an important character. It honestly really bothers me that her POC exist only to enhance the plot lines of white characters and that they so frequently end up dead.

        A series where any of the books fall flat is such a struggle because there’s a part of me saying, “Maybe it’ll reach its potential!” and another going “Why are you reading this if you don’t like it?” and I also hate leaving storylines unfinished. I get super snarky in those situations too, especially if a book is a major letdown that I was eagerly anticipating reading.

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