House of Earth and Blood

Recommendation: Fuck no, unless you failed to download sufficient reading material for an international flight

Where to read: Maybe not the best idea if you have anyone sitting next to you

Read with: So much vodka, ideally to the point you can no longer see straight and have to put the book down

In brief: If you are a fan of Maas’ previous work you will probably enjoy this. If you are not, this is not the book for you. It is allegedly an adult novel but I’m afraid this comes through in the language rather than any kind of thematic sophistication and it is SO CURSED LONG. That said, to give credit where it is due, she does actually pace it well and could sensibly consider a genre shift towards thrillers and mystery novels.

Sarah J Maas’ latest outing appears to be a response to a Tumblr post asking for mythology and magic interacting with a modern setting and a vague sense that a contemporary, “gritty” setting is more adult. Accordingly, House of Earth and Blood is set in the seedy “Crescent City”, a modern metropolis inhabited largely by magical beings and plenty of “alphaholes”, a portmanteau which is infuriatingly overused and also stupid because making controlling, borderline abusive “alphaholes” sexy is Maas’ whole fucking schtick. That said, the urban setting is a fantastic choice for Maas because world building is not her forte and she struggles with grand scale scenes – she is on much stronger ground writing small-scale interpersonal drama and, funnily enough, turns out to be a decent mystery novelist.

Our heroine is a seemingly brainless party girl who, it turns out, is actually a real person. She’s half-fae and half-human, apparently insanely attractive and spends most of the book waltzing around in Hervé Léger style skin-tight dresses and “fuck me heels”. She also faces all kinds of discrimination, by which I mean all the “pure bloods” see her as a whore. There is probably some kind of “don’t slut shame” lesson here but it gets a bit lost in the wash. Her enemies-to-lovers alphahole of choice is a tall, broody, dark, handsome and enslaved angel assassin with a tragic backstory (no, I’m not fucking with you) assigned to guard her from a rampaging demon by the archangel in charge of the city, who also makes a pass at her. Potentially interestingly, our love interest is a slave because he supported his previous flame, who is Lucifer-but-female, in a previous, unsuccessful rebellion against the “Gods”.

There is plenty of, for want of a better phrase, character work, but the narrative really gets going when whats-her-face is tasked with finding the person responsible for the murder of her best friend, who was, wait for it, a werewolf. As one would expect, the investigation leads our heroine into murky political waters, which she navigates with precisely as much tact and political nous as you would expect from a deliberate vulgarian. She also cultivates an “inner circle” who clash entertainingly with each other and provide plenty of witty banter, also something of a Maas trope.

This is allegedly Maas’ first adult, as opposed to YA novel, and she makes this point not by exploring complex themes or writing characters with rich emotional lives, but through incessant swearing, drug use and sexual references (and the odd casual orgy). I am no prude but it is so overwhelming crude it becomes both boring and off-putting to the point you kind of end up hating everyone – I kept reading but I really had fallen into a kind of punch-drunk stupor by the end. This is a particular shame because she actually manages the pace of the novel well, with plenty of twists and turns and minor incidents that keep things moving along at quite a clip. Of course, cutting out about 400 largely pointless pages would have been preferable but if you have to write a long book, this is not a bad to go about it.

It seems fairly clear where this series will go, with our heroes getting involved in the resistance against the tyrants who rule the continent (planet?) and there are plenty of interesting things Maas could do with this. The angel angle could go in interesting theological Phillip Pullman-esque directions or she could go with a more secular narrative about tyranny and resistance. Discrimination, slavery and female power are also themes she could explore in more depth. Given how darned long each book is, however, I do not think I will be able to summon the emotional energy to find out.

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