I went looking for something to critique that’s not YA, and I hit the jackpot with this #1 New York Times bestseller House of Earth and Blood by Sarah Maas. She’s had plenty of bestsellers previously, and this is the first of her new Crescent City fantasy series.
The cover is beautiful, but it only tells me that the main character is a woman. In the first few pages, I see an artful map of a city that looks like a crescent. After that is a descriptive list of the four houses of Midgard, which I am pointedly ignoring. Novels should be entertainment, not homework.
Let’s see what’s in this hot new book.
First Sentences Are Still Part of the Story
There was a wolf at the gallery door.
That’s a pretty intriguing first sentence. What is a wolf doing at a gallery? And since wolves have a slightly threatening connotation, it hints at possible conflict, too. I give it four out of five stars.
Which meant it must be Thursday, which meant Bryce had to be really gods-damned tired if she relied on Danika’s comings and goings to figure out what day it was.
Wait, what? This is really disorienting. First, Maas says that the wolf must mean it’s Thursday, which by itself would be fine. But instead of saying that Bryce must be tired if that’s how she knows it’s Thursday, Maas inserts another “which meant.” This suggests Bryce must be tired because it is Thursday. Then to top it off, Maas gives the wolf the name Danika. That way, readers have to figure out who Danika is while they are sorting out Maas’s misleading statement.
No doubt this phrasing is intended as a joke, but a joke can’t land while readers are confused. And since it’s harder to sort everything out during the opening, this is the worst place for it.
At least we know the viewpoint character’s name is Bryce.
The heavy metal door to Griffin Antiquities thudded with the impact of the wolf’s fist—a fist that Bryce knew ended in metallic-purple painted nails in dire need of a manicure. A heartbeat later, a female voice barked, half-muffled through the steel, “Open the Hel up, B. It’s hot as shit out here!”
The wolf has a fist with purple-painted nails? I guess this wolf isn’t actually a wolf. Gonna have to dock a star from that first sentence for being misleading. Now the big question is whether Danika is a werewolf, a metaphorical wolf, or something else entirely. Who knows!
And of course, readers have to put together that the gallery is called Griffin Antiquities, though that doesn’t sound like the name of a gallery.
Seated at the desk in the modest gallery showroom, Bryce smirked and pulled up the front door’s video feed. Tucking a strand of her wine-red hair behind a pointed ear, she asked into the intercom, “Why are you covered in dirt? You look like you’ve been rootling through the garbage.”
“What the fuck does rootling mean?” Danika hopped from foot to foot, sweat gleaming on her brow. She wiped at it with a filthy hand, smearing the black liquid splattered there.
“You’d know if you ever picked up a book, Danika.”
You caught me, Maas. I have never picked up a book. And I would have gotten away with it, too, if not for that meddling “rootling.” Apparently “rootling” means to dig around with the snout, like a pig does. I didn’t even notice it the first time, my brain substituted “rooting” because that’s what people usually say there. Since the two words are so similar, why use “rootling” instead?
It’s also strange that Bryce pulls up the video feed and then goes straight to remarking on what she sees without any narrated description of it. While that would be fine in omniscient, in close limited it feels like it’s breaking viewpoint.
We can also see Maas starting to work in Bryce’s appearance. Bryce doesn’t have much reason to focus on her hair, so it comes off as slightly contrived. However, it’s still pretty good considering how tricky it can be to describe a viewpoint character.
But you know what’s not tricky? Describing a side character that the viewpoint character is supposedly staring at via a video feed. Danika, are you a werewolf or what?
Glad for the break in what had been a morning of tedious research, Bryce smiled as she rose from the desk. With no exterior windows, the gallery’s extensive surveillance equipment served as her only warning of who stood beyond its thick walls. Even with her sharp half-Fae hearing, she couldn’t make out much beyond the iron door save for the occasional banging fist. The building’s unadorned sandstone walls belied the latest tech and grade A spellwork that kept it operational and preserved many of the books in the archives below.
As if merely thinking about the level beneath Bryce’s high heels had summoned her, a little voice asked from behind the six-inch-thick archives door to her left, “Is that Danika?”
Maas is trying to do too much with that last sentence. Using “the level beneath Bryce’s heels” is evocative, but again, it requires some mental calculation to connect that to the archives that were just mentioned. Putting it in a long clause that readers have to hold in their heads while they wait to see who the clause refers to is demanding a lot from them. If Maas had streamlined it to either “As if merely thinking about the archives had summoned her…” or “From that same level beneath Bryce’s high heels, a little…” it would have been easier to parse.
A little voice is asking this question. Is the voice drifting through the closed door? The word “summoned” suggests someone just arrived. Is the door ajar, and Maas just doesn’t want to describe this person?
This gallery also has an archive of books. Uh huh. So the first sentence is “There was a wolf at the gallery door,” but it looks like the story has neither a wolf nor a gallery.
Whatever this place is, it’s seriously tricked out with protections. It could be important setup, but I’m not sure for what. Is this world a rough place?
Don’t Introduce Too Many Characters at Once
“Yes, Lehabah.” Bryce wrapped her hand around the front door’s handle. The enchantments on it hummed against her palm, slithering like smoke over her freckled golden skin. She gritted her teeth and withstood it, still unused to the sensation even after a year of working at the gallery.
From the other side of the deceptively simple metal door to the archives, Lehabah warned, “Jesiba doesn’t like her in here.”
“You don’t like her in here,” Bryce amended, her amber eyes narrowing toward the archives door and the tiny fire sprite she knew was hovering just on the other side, eavesdropping as she always did whenever someone stood out front. “Go back to work.”
Lehabah didn’t answer, presumably drifting back downstairs to guard the books below.
So now in addition to Bryce and Danika, Maas wants us to learn the names of Lehabah and Jesiba. Lehabah appears in the scene for the sole purpose of saying something snippy and leaving again. Jesiba is not even present. Look, sorting out the essentials of an opening scene is hard enough; don’t introduce readers to people they don’t need to meet yet. Even delaying Lehabah’s entrance by another page could help.
On top of that, Maas’s wordcraft continues to make learning all of this harder. What is a “deceptively simple” metal door? It could be a door that looks simple but is complicated or a door that looks complicated but is simple. Then there’s the second to last paragraph, which is mostly one long sentence. I adore the image of a tiny fire sprite eavesdropping, but it would have been more helpful to learn that when Lehabah first spoke. It feels crammed in here.
Next, Bryce opens up the door for Danika.
Danika didn’t just look like she’d been rootling through the garbage. She smelled like it, too.
Wisps of her silvery blond hair—normally a straight, silken sheet—curled from her tight, long braid, the streaks of amethyst, sapphire, and rose splattered with some dark, oily substance that reeked of metal and ammonia.
Well, that certainly doesn’t sound like a werewolf. It’s also confusing to hear that Danika’s hair is a sheet of silvery blond, and then after another clause, learn it has purple, blue, and pink. I stared at this sentence for a bit to be sure Maas was really describing streaks in her silvery hair and not the oily substance or some gemstones Danika is wearing.
After this, we find out that Danika is wearing a sword and a leather jacket. She puts her sword and sheath in a supply closet.
Bryce leaned against the lip of the desk and crossed her arms, fingers brushing against the stretchy black fabric of her skintight dress. “Your gym bag’s already stinking up the place. Jesiba’s due back later this afternoon—she’ll throw your shit in the dumpster again if it’s still here.”
It was the mildest Hel Jesiba Roga could unleash if provoked.
A four-hundred-year-old enchantress who’d been born a witch and defected, Jesiba had joined the House of Flame and Shadow and now answered only to the Under-King himself. Flame and Shadow suited her well—she possessed an arsenal of spells to rival any sorcerer or necromancer in the darkest of the Houses. She’d been known to change people into animals when irritated enough. Bryce had never dared ask if the small animals in the dozen tanks and terrariums had always been animals.
Whoa, exposition alert! Why are we learning about Jesiba’s backstory and some Under-King? Do we really need to understand that somehow witches defect to being enchantresses right now? Also, are sorcerers a distinct group from both witches and enchantresses or is “sorcerer” a catchall term for spellcasters? There’s no way readers will keep all these magic workers straight when it’s not even relevant to the plot yet.
By the way… where is the plot? Should we go look in that supply closet?
I do love the line about Bryce not daring to ask if the animals in the terrariums had always been animals. Maas has some clever jokes; no doubt that’s one reason she’s such a big bestseller. However, she seems to think the threat of Jesiba is a big enough problem for the opening, and it’s not. Who cares if she throws out Danika’s stuff? And the jokes only reinforce that Jesiba isn’t a villain who will actually do anything bad. If she was, Bryce wouldn’t work for her or Danika wouldn’t keep using the “gallery” to store her things.
Also, when I first read this, I thought “Hel Jesiba Roga” was Jesiba’s full name. Maas is actually using “Hel” in place of “hell.” This refers to a specific goddess and place in Norse mythology, so it probably fits the setting. Even so, it’s weird to see a proper noun used in places where a more generic “hell” should go.
And Bryce tried never to irritate her. Not that there were any safe sides when the Vanir were involved. Even the least powerful of the Vanir—a group that covered every being on Midgard aside from humans and ordinary animals—could be deadly.
Who wants to bet that Maas’s editor told her to put that definition of the Vanir in there? Or perhaps she later inserted this entire paragraph to try to work in the definition, because it doesn’t make much sense. How is not irritating Jesiba the same thing as taking a side?
While Maas’s introduction to her world needs improvement, I find the world itself interesting. It has the aesthetic of an urban fantasy, with a huge variety of magical people using modern tech and language. However, it’s on an invented planet with high fantasy trappings, and there’s no masquerade. This is a rare combination that allows Maas to use her real-world sassy jokes with a completely different setting. I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers find the combination jarring, but for me, the urban fantasy aesthetic succeeded in making it feel natural.
Put Your Energy Into Your Main Character
“I’ll get it later,” Danika promised, pushing on the hidden panel to spring it open. Bryce had warned her three times now that the showroom supply closet wasn’t her personal locker. Yet Danika always countered that the gallery, located in the heart of the Old Square, was more centrally located than the wolves’ Den over in Moonwood. And that was that.
Danika comes from a wolves’ den? So… she’s a werewolf after all? Right? Also, Bryce is apparently a pushover. This isn’t a great sign for a main character, but you never know.
Let’s skip forward several paragraphs to get some banter.
“Never mind that,” Bryce said. “I have a bone to pick with you.”
Danika rearranged the crap in the closet to make space for her own. “I told you I was sorry I ate your leftover noodles. I’ll buy you more tonight.”
“It’s not that, dumbass, though again: fuck you. That was my lunch for today.” Danika chuckled. “This tattoo hurts like Hel,” Bryce complained. “I can’t even lean against my chair.”
Maas is so far doing a good job at characterization. Bryce is a little bland, but this banter shows how strong the friendship between Bryce and Danika is. Calling each other names like this, combined with positive body language, is a sign of trust. They both know they don’t mean it because they’re close. I also appreciate that while Bryce has super feminine getup including a tight dress and high heels, Danika wears a leather jacket and needs a manicure. Unlike many other novels, this one isn’t pretending women who are into masculine versus feminine things are at war with each other or something.
However, the intrusion of “Danika chuckled” into Bryce’s dialogue makes me want to tear out this page and eat it. Because Danika isn’t speaking, Maas probably thought she didn’t need to start a new paragraph there. But having the name there makes it look like Danika’s line. Plus, this kind of body language fills the same role as dialogue. Danika is responding to what Bryce said. Put lines like this in their own paragraph… or die.*
Danika, who’d gotten a matching tattoo of the text now scrolling down Bryce’s back, had already healed. One of the benefits to being a full-blooded Vanir: swift recovery time compared to humans—or a half-human like Bryce.
Maas is pretty bad at explaining things – except Bryce. Information about Bryce has been carefully worked into the narration continuously. If only that much thought was used in introducing everything. Or just Danika. Maas, tell me whether Danika’s a werewolf, and no one gets hurt.
After this, we learn that Danika was just out on patrol, and she’s a mess because she had to break up a fight with a nightstalker that spewed juices on her. Unsurprisingly, Danika asks to use the shower. Bryce points her to the shower down in the archives.
Danika’s filthy fingers began pulling the handle of the archives door. Her jaw tightened, the older tattoo on her neck—the horned, grinning wolf that served as the sigil for the Pack of Devils—rippling with tension.
Not from the effort, Bryce realized as she noted Danika’s stiff back. Bryce glanced to the supply closet, which Danika had not bothered to shut. The sword, famed both in this city and far beyond it, leaned against the push broom and mop, its ancient leather scabbard nearly obscured by the full container of gasoline used to fuel the electric generator out back.
Bryce had always wondered why Jesiba bothered with an old-fashioned generator—until the citywide firstlight outage last week. When the power had failed, only the generator had kept the mechanical locks in place during the looting that followed, when creeps had rushed in from the Meat Market, bombarding the gallery’s front door with counterspells to break through the enchantments.
So is the Pack of Devils a werewolf motorcycle gang? Inquiring bloggers want to know.
Then, oh boy, it’s time for Chekhov’s gasoline tank! I assume this tank is going to explode at some point because why else would Maas suddenly veer into tank exposition land? Even so, does this really need to be in chapter 1? Will it explode in the very next scene?
I’m also concerned about this city. All it takes is a power outage for people to start looting everything. Instead of a heavily populated city, have the Vanir considered living in fortresses? An urban lifestyle does not seem sustainable for them. If they’re going to stay here, they should consider making their mechanical locks actually mechanical, rather than something that unlocks itself as soon as the power goes out.
Next, Bryce figures out Danika has a stiff back because she’s getting ready for a meeting with the city heads. Then we get another unnecessary exposition dump, because of course we do. Here it is.
In the five years since they’d met as freshmen at Crescent City University, Bryce could count on one hand the number of times Danika had been called in for a meeting with the seven people important enough to merit a shower and change of clothes. Even while delivering reports to Danika’s grandfather, the Prime of the Valbaran wolves, and to Sabine, her mother, Danika usually wore that leather jacket, jeans, and whatever vintage band T-shirt wasn’t dirty.
Of course, it pissed off Sabine to no end, but everything about Danika—and Bryce—pissed off the Alpha of the Scythe Moon Pack, chief among the shifter units in the city’s Auxiliary.
It didn’t matter that Sabine was the Prime Apparent of the Valbaran wolves and had been her aging father’s heir for centuries, or that Danika was officially second in line to the title. Not when whispers had swirled for years that Danika should be tapped to be the Prime Apparent, bypassing her mother. Not when the old wolf had given his granddaughter their family’s heirloom sword after centuries of promising it to Sabine only upon his death. The blade had called to Danika on her eighteenth birthday like a howl on a moonlit night, the Prime had said to explain his unexpected decision.
We’ve got a whole bunch more names to memorize! Yaaaaay. So far, that’s a total of six named characters we’ve been introduced to in the first scene of this book, half of which aren’t present. Then we have to learn all the other proper nouns of this world like the Valbaran wolves or the Scythe Moon Pack. Is the Scythe Moon Pack a unit of city guards? Who are the Valbaran wolves? At first, I thought the Alpha title had something to do with being the heir to the Prime, but on second examination they seem unrelated. The title Prime Apparent is also strange, because that would be like saying King Apparent instead of saying Heir Apparent. Is Sabine a regent?
To make this all worse, many of Maas’s transitions into her exposition dumps defy logic. This time, she says “it didn’t matter that” and then describes something that would make Sabine more likely to hate Danika, not less.
Given that, I’m sure you can understand why the first time I read this, I missed how Danika’s mother is referred to as a shifter in passing. This means Danika can turn into a wolf – probably. Why didn’t Maas start with her as an actual wolf and describe her transformation into a woman over the video feed? That way, her first sentence wouldn’t feel like a lie, and we would know how Danika qualifies as a wolf right away.
I’m starting to wonder if Bryce is really the main character. Not only do we now know way more about Danika, but Danika is doing something while Bryce is only watching Danika do it. Danika also has interpersonal conflict with Jesiba and that fire sprite whose name I haven’t bothered to remember. Bryce has no problems so far. You’d think Bryce’s job would be at risk if she keeps letting her friend in despite her boss’s wishes, but apparently not?
Danika paused in the gaping archway, atop the green carpeted steps that led down to the archives beneath the gallery…
So all of the exposition we just read, Chekhov’s gasoline and wolf politics, happened after Danika grabbed the door handle but before she got through the doorway.* Does this gallery also have a time dilation feature?
It could be worse – we could be in the middle of an action scene. Even so, exposition should happen when it’s okay for time to pass, especially in a limited viewpoint like this one. It suggests the viewpoint character’s mind is wandering.
The Plot Should Happen Onscreen
Danika turned, her caramel eyes shuttered. “Philip Briggs is being released today.”
Bryce started. “What?”
“They’re letting him go on some gods-damned technicality. Someone fucked up the paperwork. […]”
Bryce’s stomach churned. The human rebellion remained confined to the northern reaches of Pangera, the sprawling territory across the Haldren Sea, but Philip Briggs had done his best to bring it over to Valbara. “You and the pack busted him right in his little rebel bomb lab, though.”
We have a plot! But a human rebellion leader is the villain? I don’t think so. While it’s always possible for rebellions to be bad, that’s rarely true in stories. Everyone wants to root for the underdog.
Instead, it looks like we’ve been introduced to the love interest – who also isn’t here, of course. Why should things be happening when we can sit in a tricked-out gallery and talk about how things might happen?
Also, we gotta learn about Pangera and the Haldren Sea. Very important.
“He was going to blow up a club. You literally found his blueprints for blowing up the White Raven.” As one of the most popular nightclubs in the city, the loss of life would have been catastrophic. Briggs’s previous bombings had been smaller, but no less deadly, all designed to trigger a war between the humans and Vanir to match the one raging in Pangera’s colder climes. Briggs made no secret of his goal: a global conflict that would cost the lives of millions on either side. Lives that were expendable if it meant a possibility for humans to overthrow those who oppressed them—the magically gifted and long-lived Vanir and, above them, the Asteri, who ruled the planet Midgard from the Eternal City in Pangera.
Oh man is it refreshing to find a setting where the magical people are oppressing the humans instead of the other way around. And it’s so much more realistic! The problem, of course, is how you make your main character an oppressed underdog while also giving them the wish fulfillment of magic powers. Maas’s answer is Bryce, the half human/half Vanir.
Maybe Bryce really is the main character, and this is setup to put Bryce and Danika at odds. But if Danika turns into an antagonist, I don’t know why Maas would establish that Danika’s mother hates her. With the lopsided focus between these two friends, it comes off like Maas loves Danika and feels meh about Bryce.
As for Briggs’s supposed crimes, that description of a specific blueprint suggests it will turn out to be fake later. I also don’t know why Briggs would want to start an open war that humans would almost certainly lose. Hopefully, Bryce is just wrong about that, but maybe Maas doesn’t understand how asymmetrical warfare works. She also wants us to believe that someone bombing nightclubs could be released because of a bureaucratic mistake.
However, I have a new theory about Chekhov’s gasoline and this fortress of a gallery. Maybe Bryce and Briggs are going to hole up here later, get close and personal as they face an entire city of witches, enchantresses, sorcerers, necromancers, and also why not wizards and warlocks while we’re at it.
But Danika and the Pack of Devils had stopped the plot. She’d busted Briggs and his top supporters, all part of the Keres rebels, and spared innocents from their brand of fanaticism.
As one of the most elite shifter units in Crescent City’s Auxiliary, the Pack of Devils patrolled the Old Square, making sure drunken, handsy tourists didn’t become drunken, dead tourists when they approached the wrong person. Making sure the bars and cafés and music halls and shops stayed safe from whatever lowlife had crawled into town that day. And making sure people like Briggs were in prison.
Wait – the Pack of Devils is a unit of the city guard? They’re cool with calling some of their guards that? Well, considering that all the dead tourists haven’t killed off the city’s tourism industry, I guess maybe they figure it doesn’t matter.
And of course Danika is the one who stopped Briggs. It’s almost as if this story should be about her. It could open when she arrests Briggs or finds out at her meeting that he’s being released. Granted, if Maas opened her story during the meeting with the city heads, she would probably decide to introduce every one of them.
Next, Maas tells us:
- The 33rd Legion is made of Angels. This is the governor’s personal army.
- Micah Domitus is the Archangel of Crescent City and also the Archangel of Valbara and answerable only to the six Asteri of the Eternal City.
- Crescent City used to be called Lunathion. The Eternal City is the capital of Pangera. This is all on the planet of Midgard.
- There are seven city heads and six of them are “lower,” and each controls a specific section of the city. They are all listed.
- The humans have no representation in the city.
Holy crap, that last one actually matters.
A Hook Isn’t a Hook Without Tension
There are a few more lines with the fire sprite that I don’t care about, and the first chapter ends with this hook.
… the phone on the desk began ringing. [Bryce] had a good idea who it would be.
Heels sinking into the plush carpeting, Bryce reached the phone before it went to audiomail, sparing herself a five-minute lecture. “Hi, Jesiba.”
A beautiful, lilting female voice answered, “Please tell Danika Fendyr that if she continues to use the supply closet as her own personal locker, I will turn her into a lizard.”
No, you won’t, Jesiba.
Maas, you have an entire city that is apparently populated by magical murderers, plus a human rebellion, family drama, and some tense politics. You couldn’t do better than this for an opening problem?
The Edgy Twist in Chapter 5
Spoilers for an early twist coming up.
Out of curiosity, I scanned a few chapters ahead. The unnecessary worldbuilding exposition dumps continue, which makes me think Maas just writes like that. Figures. I always have some intent behind the passages I write, so it’s easy for me to forget that many other writers put whatever they feel like on the page.
Instead of following up on the big meeting or the Briggs plotline, the next few chapters focus on more slow interpersonal scenes. We see a lot more of Bryce and Danika’s friendship and hear a lot about Bryce’s love life. Bryce is a little more fleshed out, but there’s still nothing to recommend her as a main character. While Maas comments on how Bryce is half human, she doesn’t use it to generate sympathy. Bryce isn’t selfless, and she needs more agency.
Then after many pages focusing on Danika and her pack, Bryce comes home to find them all torn into pieces. Yep, Danika dies in chapter 5.
On paper, this twist isn’t bad. Danika comes off as a chosen one, so killing her is subversive. Since Danika is very powerful, her death establishes a huge threat. I assume it will also provide Bryce with the motivation to be more involved in events going forward. However, Maas’s implementation is leaning hard into the shock factor.
It’s better to kill a protagonist in the beginning because readers have less time to grow attached to them. While you want readers to care, you don’t want them to rage quit. But with all this emphasis on Danika and the friendship, some rage quitting is inevitable. For one thing, the first four chapters are incredibly boring if you don’t like those things. For another, the protagonist readers still have – Bryce – hasn’t been given the same royal treatment. She needs strong attachment to convince readers to stick around after an upsetting death.
How exactly does making this death so shocking improve the story? It isn’t necessary for the death to be subversive or establish a threat. All it does is make the twist more unpleasant for readers.
Information Management Is Critical
Maas’s writing has a lot going for it. She has a novel world, fun jokes, and engaging characters. She needs to get her scenes more lined up with her plot, but the plot can at least be detected in the first chapter. What’s really sabotaging this opening is something that’s quite common in manuscripts: terrible information management.
I’ve seen a lot of writing advice about whether to give readers exposition or work hints into the narration, but that’s not what matters the most. Nothing beats just thinking through what readers need to know and when they need to know it. Readers always have to learn a ton in the beginning, so it’s important to delay whatever you can. Carefully hand-feed your readers tidbits until they’re up to speed on the basics of the world, main characters, and the opening problem. After that, don’t take them for granted by dumping too much at once. Maas is not managing how much she shares, so her opening is confusing and dense as Hel.
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