I finally read “House of Blood and Earth,” by Sarah J. Maas. For those of you who don’t know, HOEAB is the first of Maas’ Crescent City Series, interspersed in the cultural phenomenon that is the A Court of Thorns and Roses series. (At least, it feels like a phenomenon. The thing about the TikTok is it makes everything catered to your liking feel like a phenomenon). I was ready to swan dive into an obsession and was met with the worst beginning to an otherwise great book that I have every experienced. I posted this video in despair, asking BookTok when the book would get interesting. I got over 60 responses. Almost every single one said either that it takes hundreds of pages but pays off in the end, or that the beginning was so agonizing that they couldn’t make it through. This SHOCKED me. Here’s one of the internet’s pretty prolific fantasy writers, adored by so many, and the fans almost unanimously that they had to force themselves through the beginning. All I could think was, “Who let her put this out this way?” I have my theories, and I have what I believe should have been the solution–this story would be infinitely better served as two books.
On reading for pleasure
But anyway, these books. Last year, I finally put away my literary snobbishness and read something fun for once. It felt like getting back to my roots. I am, at my heart of hearts, a fangirl. I grew up, like most readers, perpetually stuck down the rabbit hole of some dystopian series or Nicholas Sparks novel. I have my own theories of how, yes, reading what you write is so important but, also, reading at all is the primary objective. Maybe there will be another blog post about this down the road, somewhere to the tune of Sheryl Crow wailing, “If it MAKES YOU HAPPYYYYY, it can’t be that BAAAA-A-A-AD.”
So, as it always does, BookTok got me. I was commuting 12ish hours a week and I started listening to ACOTAR on Scribd. It only took a few days before I was immediately sucked in. The books suited the audiobook form perfectly because Maas is primarily a storyteller. And sure, there were things a little cringe, but mostly, this experience was delightful. I’d be pulling up to my faculty parking spot at a private christian university with essentially faerie smut blasting through my speakers. I begged a reader friend to read them and she surpassed me, reading basically everything Maas has ever created. And it’s a LOT. Since then, she’s been pushing me to read Crescent City. Finally, I obliged. I crept up the library hold list and finally got my hands on the Norton Anthology sized book. (Seriously, this thing is massive). I lugged it along in my carry-on on a flight, expecting to be so immersed that I read hundreds on pages. And then? I was hit in the face with the agonizing first 200 pages of this book.
My first thought was, Was the beginning of ACOTAR this bad?! I remember it being a little slow, but I was listening to it, mostly on two hour drives. It is entirely possible that my experience with HOEAB would have been different had I listened to it. Several of the comments on the video suggested this. But as a writer, this bothers me. Books are primarily written forms. They should be written for the authentic reading experience! I don’t think I would have stuck with ACOTAR if it started like this.
My problems with the HOEAB are: the infodumping in the first several chapters, the insane pacing, and that we don’t get enough time with the characters to really care about what happens to them.
The world of Crescent City is much more complex than that of ACOTAR, even though I know from a certain spoiler that these worlds will coincide in some way down the road. The opening chapters of HOEAB are like a textbook about an unknown fantasy world. We have to learn about countless species, a whole new government and power structure, and brand new characters and dynamics all at once. HOEAB is in third person omniscient, mostly focused on a new character, a half-fae half-human named Bryce Quinlan, and her best friend Danika, the soon to be alpha of a pack of wolf shifters. We are learning about this world from Bryce’s perspective within the world. She’s used to it. In ACOTAR, the story is told in first person by a human entering the unknown fae realm. Because of that, we learn as she learns. We are deceived as she is deceived. The starting point is a world not as foreign as that of Crescent City. Because we are thrust into Bryce’s world, she does a LOT of explaining to us. Not just about the world, but about her life situation as well. All of the moments that would make us invested in her life and her friendship happen in retrospect. Here is the story of Danika and I becoming friends, she says, rather than us watching her live in those moments. Here’s these big important events that will be key to the story. They’ve already happened off scene.
Then, immediately, Maas destroys the world she’s just attempted to get us sucked into. Danika, the wolves, the love interest she’s set up for Bryce, all of them are murdered. Reader, we are only like 50 pages in. Most of those pages were clearly just a frantic, sloppy set up for this moment. We just barely got oriented, but we’re not truly invested in these characters because so little of it happened in scene. Of these 50 pages, the actual on scene action could be described in two pages: Danika visits Bryce at work, Danika leaves for a trial while Bryce goes to look for a horn, all of them are in the apartment for like 10 minutes, Bryce goes on a date and then a bender, everybody dies. Everything else is exposition. And then what? We switch perspectives to a fallen angel named Hunt who is enslaved by the governor.
At this point, I’m like, who the fuck are all these people? What species is he again? Simple scenes take pages and pages of explanation just to set up the basic knowledge required to understand the interaction. What little investment Maas builds in Bryce is ripped away. We have to see her go through this massive, traumatic event through the eyes of a new character.
Then, it’s two years later. We spend the next hundred or so pages switching perspectives between Hunt and Bryce as they are forced to work together to investigate the murder. They both have pre-conceived notions that have to be pulled back, layer by layer. There’s a lot they don’t know about each other. The problem is that we don’t know these things either, and we’re mostly seeing these characters through the eyes of the other. Bryce seems apathetic when really she’s just traumatized. Hunt seems judgey when really he just has a lot on the line and thinks Bryce isn’t taking it seriously. They see each other as the outside world would see them. The things we learn are revealed to us as well. It’s an interesting technique, but when the reader doesn’t have much to go on about these characters already, what’s going to keep them reading?
If I didn’t have someone to text when I was bored, encouraging me to hold on because it’s going to pay off, I would have put the book down before it could suck me in. From the comments on my TikTok, I think that’s exactly what a lot of these people did. To feel lukewarm about characters and still have 650 pages to go is a LOT to ask of the reader. It’s not until they start to get a better read for one another (and, let’s be honest, start fantasizing about ripping each other’s clothes off) that the reader starts to give a shit. I just checked my texts with my reader friend, and the first positive text I sent was about a split second of him nuzzling her. NUZZLING. THESE ARE THE CRUMBS WE HAVE TO GO ON.
When they finally reveal enough about each other to care, we care too. Two hundred flipping pages in. I’ll admit, the rest does pay off! We’re fully invested as Maas pulls rug after rug out from under us. I fully sobbed for the last hundred pages. But does that make 200 pages of torture worth it?
Here’s what I think the problem is–Maas had an end goal in mind and she sacrificed the beginning to get there. I think she was excited about the possibilities of this new world, excited about the crossover possibilities into her most successful franchise, and excited for all these big reveals of things the characters are hiding from everyone, including the reader. But she was a slave to those big reveals. She wanted surprise more than she wanted full characters. She wanted flashy climax more than she wanted strong rising action. And, maybe the most important thing, she wanted to write it fast.
It bears mentioning that this is Maas’ 14th book, all her previous books published in a 6 year span. Her first series, Throne of Glass, she wrote at age 16, not to be published until much later. She first publicly talks of the Crescent City books in 2018, the same year she released 3 titles, each from a different series. She has said in interviews that publishing one book a year isn’t enough for her. I’m just gonna say it–she’s prolific. And she’s making Bloomsbury Publishing a ton of money.
I’ve always said that a main difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is often editing style. It’s not the only difference (not to get too rhet comp instructor, but the purpose and the intended audience dictates a lot of these differences as well), but I think you really see it in these hugely successful series. Sarah J Maas is an incredible storyteller, in a genre that prioritizes stories over all else. Her characters go through terrible things and we see how those things affect them. These are great qualities of a writer! But imagine how great this story could have been if we had time to get situated in the world? If someone told her this is off to a great start, but couldn’t more of this happen in scene? If someone had said, you’re doing a lot, here. let’s slow down a little.
This story feels like a very energized first draft. An exploration draft, where you let out what you want to happen and let the story show you where you need more. The next pass at the story, where you take bland exposition and carve them into scene, is so much work. It’s not nearly as fun as being exhilarated by the newness. Maas has plans beyond this story, and it feels perfectly clear that she is more interested in getting there. The readers who make it through are willing to do some work along the way, but if we’re devastated by characters we just started caring about, imagine how much more impactful this story could be if Maas just slowed down, dwelled in these characters, and let the reader in on some of her plans along the way?
And so, I present to you, my fan theory of how I wish this book was written (in two parts).
First book: We begin with Bryce and Danika living together. We see the city as she walks through it. We dwell in the moments that characterize their friendships. We see the wolves at work. We watch Bryce flirt with Connor. Maybe we alternate between Bryce and Danika POV? The hierarchy of the place is revealed to us slowly. We meet creatures of all species in a lower stakes setting, rather than breaking up climactic scenes with rushed explanations. We understand the world. We care about these characters. We see Danika take down Briggs, rather than learning about it in retrospect when he’s already about to be freed. We see the blackout and learn about the horn going missing. There are ways these things could happen in scene without revealing the mysteries that we’ll learn about them later. Maybe at this point, we learn about the fallen angels and the governor. They’re snooping around the missing horn. A hint at what’s to come. Then, the pack gets murdered. We are CRUSHED. Weeping. These characters we love are lost to us. We feel Bryce’s devastation. We stay in her mind, rather than jumping conveniently to the angels. It ends with a lost Bryce and a hint that someone is going to take care of her (maybe Ruhn?) and that she might be a suspect? I don’t know, Sarah could do something awesome here to keep us hooked. We can’t wait for book two.
Second book: We start off two years later when Hunt gets assigned the case, rather than throwing in an insane time jump. We already care about Bryce, so we know we like her even when she comes off as apathetic. We are so relieved as we watch her come back to life, instead of having to be told that she is coming back to life. When mysteries are revealed, we’re even more hooked. The rest ensues and our hearts are ripped out of our chests. We can’t wait for book three.
Listen. It’s so convenient for me, as a reader, to take what this author has painstakingly crafted and poke holes in it. I’m not trying to jump in after she’s done all the work and claim I could have done it better. It’s just that, as a fan, I can’t help but look at this book and think, what if she wasn’t juggling 2 other series when she wrote this? What if she wasn’t already famous and making the publisher millions? How might this work have been different?
But who am I to criticize a giant in the publishing world?! No one. What I write is nothing like this. Because of that, it has basically no chance for this kind of commercial success. But I’m realizing that the time I spent reading what I considered “fun books,” which I’d been taught to view as separate from what I was trying to create, mirrored back to me some of the hardest feedback I’ve been given on my own work. It’s okay to fill your gaps with exposition to get to where the heart of the story lives. That’s how you find out where you’re going. But this exploration of where I felt disengaged and how I would change it if this were my story felt so instructive. And more than that, it felt fun. Imaginative. That’s the kind of thing that I have to do to keep writing my stories. It’s all a lesson in revision.