I know I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve read some less-than-amazing books recently. So now I’m going to go and rant about some of the books I’ve ditched.
Number one is Cruel Beauty, by Rosamund Hodge. I ditched Ms. Hodge’s book very early on due to, firstly, the unadulterated mess that constitutes the world-building and, secondly, the forced personalities of “characters.”
What the jacket-flap indicated:
A princess, Nyx, was promised at birth to wed the tyrant king who killed her mother. All her life, she has been trained to kill him, avenge her mother, and free her country. Her plan is to seduce him, disarm him, and kill him—thereby breaking the curse he has placed on her country.
But when she meets this tyrant king, “Ignifex,” she discovers that he’s pretty charming and not half bad and his castle’s pretty awesome to boot.
This I figured meant that she would hesitate to kill him just long enough to figure out something important about What’s really Going On. And then she would be forced to find a new way to save her world and Set Things Right.
But what I got (that is in the first couple chapters before I ditched the book) was definitely NOT that.
First off, Nyx’s screwed-up family. And not in a dysfunctional-family kind of way, but in a ‘the author didn’t quite think this through’ kind of way.
Nyx has a little sister, Astraia. It was implied, at least to me, that Astraia was just two or three years younger than Nyx. But she acted like she was around eight or ten years younger. Astraia has also been coddled and loved her entire life, and is not betrothed to anyone.
Nyx feels a little resentful of this because she has not been coddled or loved her entire life. In fact, quite the opposite. Nobody loves her whatsoever. Let me explain.
Nyx’s father vehemently wants revenge for the death of his wife (despite the fact that he’s now sleeping with his wife’s sister), and sees Nyx as nothing but a way to get this. He is hard and distant and pretty much without personality or emotion; he’s a flat cut-out onto which the author has pasted scripted lines to move the plot and scenes forward. He plans to train Nyx and send her into the tyrant king’s arms, knowing that whether she kills him or not she’ll never escape alive. It’s basically a death sentence.
In theory, it works: the grief-stricken father—who I assume is a displaced king, because why else would the tyrant consent to marrying his daughter?—forced to betroth one of his infant daughters to the tyrant, decides to train her as an assassin; someone who will avenge his wife’s death and set free their country. But because he knows she will eventually leave and most likely die, he tries to force himself not to love her and holds her at arms length. Meanwhile, he has no such boundary keeping him from his other, younger daughter.
But in practice, it’s not like that at all. There’s no evidence that Nyx’s father sees her as anything but a means to an end. In fact, there’s no evidence he has any personality at all. This lackingness is shared with Nyx’s aunt, Aunt Telomache, who (thus far) serves no purpose except to interact with Nyx so her father doesn’t have to. This is probably where he lack of personality derives from: she is nothing but a mouthpiece for Nyx’s cardboard father.
Then there’s this line: “You are the hope of our people.” Aunt Telomache says this to Nyx every evening, right after she’s finished telling an inspirational tale about a heroine who, in most cases, dies heroically at the end of the story.
And now we get to Nyx herself. I’d think that by this point she’d have internalized all this stuff people are telling her. She’d believe she really is the hope of her people, she is the blade that will bring vengeance, she is the heroine who will save her country.
I’d think she would fear for her future, that she would partially resent being forced into a suicide mission and partially resent her sister for not having that same weight or doom hanging over her.
But I also think she’d be determined, proud. I think she’d aspire to kill the tyrant and make it out alive. I think she’d love to come back afterwards and stand before her father, alive and successful, and she’d think that then, finally, her father would love and respect her.
But, in actuality, Nyx is not that complex or deep a character. She doesn’t seem to feel anything towards her father—though it’s true he has very little page-time. Mostly she interacts with her father’s stand-in, Aunt Telomache. Nyx doesn’t like Aunt Telomache, but she doesn’t seem to hate her.
While she does resent her sister a little, she keeps her resentment bottled up inside and wears a fake face to preserve her sister’s feelings. Which is admirable, I suppose. It’s also overly perfect (The author’s like, oh, I’ll give her a “flaw” and have her resent her sister, but I don’t actually want her to be anything less than unwaveringly kind and compassionate always, so she won’t actually act on this resentment in any permanent way). Nyx also seems to have a lot of trouble hiding her feelings, which is strange considering her plan to fake-seduce the tyrant king.
Nyx’s one other feeling thus far is her fear of the tyrant. But she hasn’t shown any of this supposed assassin-training. I mean, I’d think she’d try to reassure herself it will go okay by giving a brief self-assessment of her skills or something. But she doesn’t. The only indication that any training has taken place is telling us about how she’s expected to kill the tyrant and has been trained with that purpose in mind.
Now onto the world-building. The crappy, crappy world-building. Going in, I thought this was a fantasy, other-world book. So I wasn’t particularly surprised or jolted to learn that a) there are demons and b) the tyrant is the demon king (with the interesting title of “Gentle Lord”—I like that. It has that whole I-may-be-oppressing-you-but-it’s-for-your-own-good undertone).
I wasn’t pushed out of the experience to find out that this Gentle Lord took over the kingdom, Arcadia, and literally tore Arcadia out of the real world. The sky is not the real sky, and the land is flat and honest-to-goodness at some point it just STOPS and bam writhing demonic hellpit of doom.
Nor was I shocked to learn about the “Hermetic” arts—implied to be science but works like magic. It’s based on the four elements and works by writing certain runes.
HOWEVER, I am VERY VERY confused about the world Arcadia was torn out of. Like, was it in ancient Greece or something? They reference Greek myths, and their gods seem to be Greek gods (which in of itself is weird, because I don’t believe the Greeks were in the habit of naming themselves after gods and “Nyx” is a goddess), and they have names like Telomache and Thisbe and Astraia and Adamastos and Leonidas, which all sound like they could be Greek.
At the very beginning of chapter two, we get a history infodump that tells us before the demons came along and ripped Arcadia off to wherever-the-hell, it was a minor province in the Romana-Graecia empire. But then the empire fell when the “Athena Parthenos” (familiar to all of us Percy Jackson fans) was destroyed and suddenly the only unravaged place was Arcadia.
The prince of the Romana-Graecia empire, Claudius, fled to Arcadia, rallied the people—imperial soldiers and pagans—and “created a shining kingdom.” He was so awesome, in fact, that Hermes came down and showed him how to do the Hermetic arts stuff. But eventually the demons took over and “sundered” Arcadia from the rest of the world.
So is this land sundered from our, real-world ancient Greece or something? It doesn’t seem like it. They live in a castle. But they have wallpaper, claw-foot tubs, a library, and a grandfather clock. And their clothes seem to be Victorian; Nyx’s dad wears a red silk waistcoat, the women wear corsets, and the sister has a ruffled dress with five petticoats. Ancient Greeks didn’t wear that stuff. And the winding staircase on the cover looks anything but ancient medieval-era or pre-medieval-era.
Speaking of culture-clash, remember that list of names? They all sound kind of Greek, right? Well there’s also characters called Ivy, Elspeth, and Edwin. Presumably they are pagan-stock (remember, Arcadia is made of the descendants of imperial soldiers and pagans). They are referenced to believe in “hedge-gods,” which the other characters don’t believe are real. One of these is Brigit, another is her son Tom-a-Lone. The imperial-stock maintain that Brigit is Aphrodite by another name and Tom-a-Lone Adonis.
I know that Brigit is a Celtic goddess, but I don’t believe Tom-a-Lone is. And Elspeth is the Scottish version of Elizabeth, while Edwin comes from Old English. And I don’t remember any Romana-Graecia empire taking over the British isles. So is the “real world” that Arcadia was sundered from some sort of alternate history? Perhaps Romana-Graecia is based on Greco-Roman? I don’t know. I can’t tell. This book is a mish-mash of epic proportions. I mean, they even have teatime.
Plus, going back to the plot, I’m confused about where women stand in this society and what training Nyx has. Because she mentions longing to attend a university called Lyceum, which is in the capitol city (Sardis) and contains an organization of scholars called the Resurgandi who are secretly dedicated to defeating the Gentle Lord and undoing the Sundering. Nyx says she wants to go there because she wants to discover and achieve something besides the fate picked for her by her father.
Interestingly, she could be done at the academy before she would have to wed the Gentle Lord. The “explanation” for her not being allowed to go wasn’t really an explanation at all. Basically Aunt Telomache, in yet another father-stand-in moment, said it would be a waste of time. Nyx had better things to do.
Like what, exactly? Presumably being trained to fight, but we don’t really know. And her asking to go to Lyceum implies that women are allowed there, which is decidedly NOT Medieval/Pre-Medieval.
One last thing. About Nyx’s father: he’s not actually king and she isn’t a princess. Her father is the leader of their village, and who knows why or how this deal came to exist. Apparently he “bargained with the Gentle Lord like any common fool, and now, like any common fool, he must pay.” Still, seems a strange payment. If he was a king, it would make sense. Take Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker: king stops other nation from invading and crushing his people by offering up one of his daughter’s to wed the god-king. But he’s no king. He’s a high level Hermetic Arts guy, but nothing else.
Why, in a society implied to be monogamous, would the tyrant king ask for a wife as payment? Wouldn’t he then have many, many wives? And if not, and this is a special case, why isn’t anyone treating it like so?
Who knows. Certainly not me.