Book Review

House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

Perhaps unsurprisingly, after reading House of Earth and Blood, I posit that the best barometer of whether or not you will enjoy this book is whether or not you have enjoyed Sarah J. Maas’ other books. All the hallmarks of Maas are here: a beautiful, semi-outcast heroine hiding an incredible power; a super-powerful, much older hero with a dark past; a jam-packed cast of intriguing secondary characters; loads of snarky and sassy dialogue, and nonstop, high-stakes action in the latter sections of the book. (Side note: buckle up, bitchery! I got a long-ass review for a long-ass book coming your way!!)

The main difference in feel here comes from the setting, which is a modern-ish city called Lunathion (or Crescent City) where all kinds of supernatural beings and humans live together in non-harmony. The trappings of modernity (cell phones, e-mail, high-rises, clubs) mesh well with Maas’ snappy writing style. I think it would be fair to call this an urban fantasy, for all of its complex lore and high stakes and door stopper length.

As we open the book, the half-human, half-fae heroine Bryce is 23, a hedonist with little direction but with several close friendships anchoring her into her early adult life. Her best friend is a powerful young wolf shifter named Danika. After a horribly violent murder by a demon that kills most of her friends, including Danika, the book skips ahead two years. Now Bryce is 25 and is no longer a hedonist but instead a masochist, out of grief and terrible survivor’s guilt. She denies herself most of the things she used to enjoy (like dancing), won’t go to therapy, won’t get her poorly-healed wound from the night of the murder fixed, and has pushed everyone in her life away except her pet, a tiny chimera. She is in stasis, and she can’t bear that other people are starting to move on.

I found the initial chapters set when Bryce was 23 to be awkwardly weighted down with inelegantly-delivered set-up. In fact, I was seriously worried I was going to have to DNF because every time I was fed a declarative nugget of information about the world I was yelling, I DON’T CARE!!!! Show me, don’t tell me! For example, in the very first chapter:

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 cafes 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.

If any of this information is truly important, I should be able to figure it out from context e.g. what the Pack of Devils actually do in the story. Instead, paragraphs like this break up the flow of the narrative, giving the initial pages a jerky feeling of stopping and starting over and over.

But once the two-year time-skip happened, I was pulled fully into the story. The Archangel governor of the entire continent, Micah, orders Bryce to help one of his enslaved angels, Hunt, with an investigation (I have more to say on angel slavery later, don’t you worry!!). Bryce is tapped for this because the same demon that murdered her friends two years ago is running amok again, and she’s the only person who has seen it with her own eyes and lived. Of course, Hunt and Bryce start out hating each other and gradually warm up (and then some) throughout the course of the investigation.

While the ultimate messages of the narrative are hopeful, I want to warn people that this book is violent and very dark. There’s graphically described dismemberment, there’s torture, there’s slavery. There’s repeated, hateful, misogynistic public shaming of Bryce’s sex life by shitty secondary characters.This book was a lot and if you do not feel up to any of the upsetting things I mentioned, this is not the book for you right now.

I was intrigued by the world, in spite of the clunky infodumping in the first couple of sections. This setting is basically what you would get if the Roman Empire was founded by godlike beings in the year 10,000 BC with an army of angels, and those godlike beings were still alive and running everything in the modern era. And there are also Fae and witches and vampires, etc.

There’s also a fascinating mechanic to immortality. Young supernatural beings are not immortal, but once they reach adulthood they can undergo something called the Drop, where they basically die, go on a journey to the depths of their true power, and have to spiritually catapult back into their bodies before they die for real. Once they complete the Drop, then they are basically immortal. People have to be “anchored” for the Drop by someone who has made it or they won’t be able to come back up to life. This may be more information than you needed for the purposes of this review, but I think it illustrates that there are neat things about the worldbuilding.

Now, on to the main characters. For the most part, I found Bryce to be a well-drawn, dynamic heroine. She grows so much from the beginning of the book, when she’s an aimless partier, through the middle, when she’s struggling through her intense grief and trauma, to the end, when she’s finally starting to heal, and it feels hard-won and satisfying. While I was often frustrated with her streak of self-punishment, I appreciated how it fit into her character arc. And I enjoyed that she’s prickly and kind of mean, wildly audacious, impulsive, loyal, and stubborn.

Bryce also seems quite aware of the misogynistic standards of her world. She’s obviously frustrated that women who seem to like to party and dress up are considered vacuous airheads, but she also uses these perceptions to her advantage. It was enjoyable to see Bryce turn the tables on the various tools of Lunathion.

I liked Bryce, but I loved the hero, Hunt. In spite of a certain amount of alpha-style posturing (which Bryce calls him on), he is a caretaking, loving person at his core, an idealist who will fight for a just world. He is able to easily attune to the emotional needs of other people. He is also the Archangel Micah’s personal assassin, known as the “Shadow of Death.” He knows it is eating him from the inside out, but he can’t do anything about it. The scenes of him washing blood off after he completes a “job” for Micah are some of the most moving and heartbreaking in the book:

Naked, he stepped into the shower, the white tiles already sweating with steam.

The scalding water blasted his skin like acid.

He swallowed his scream, his sob, his whimper, and didn’t balk from the boiling torrent.

Didn’t do anything as he let it burn everything away.

Honestly, I just wanted to put Hunt down for a nap, turn on an aromatherapy diffuser, and bake him some muffins.

I also found him to have incredible compassion for Bryce as he encourages her to take care of herself, which was impressive seeing as how he has basically been enduring nonstop emotional torment for 200 years (whereas Bryce had only been enduring nonstop emotional torment for…2 years). Overall, this book had a sensitive, tender touch with Bryce and Hunt’s respective traumas that I appreciated.

I enjoyed Hunt and Bryce’s romance, although I had a few qualms that I will get to later. I liked that they challenged each other. I liked that a big component of their romance was just doing the trappings of domestic normalcy together, which is somewhat unusual for a fantasy novel. And I have a real soft spot for stories where characters discover that taking care of each other can be a route to learning to care for themselves again, which is a primary way the relationship develops here.

It didn’t hurt that the banter (both between Bryce and Hunt and with other characters) was off the charts. Truly, A+ banter, would banter again.

She rolled her eyes. “This sunball-watching person doesn’t fit with my mental image of the Shadow of Death.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Hunt’s turn to lift a brow. “What do you think I do with my spare time?”

“I don’t know. I assumed you cursed at the stars and brooded and plotted revenge on all your enemies.”

Lol. Warriors have hobbies too!

In addition to a (mostly solid) romance, House of Earth and Blood is also populated with a dizzying array of fun secondary characters. Bryce’s brother, Ruhn, the punk-styled prince of the Autumn Court, was my personal favorite, but there were lots of other standouts: Bryce’s mercurial boss, Jesiba, who supposedly turns her enemies into reptiles; Bryce’s mysterious world-travelling assassin friend Fury; good-guy gay angel (gayngel?) Isaiah; terrifying snake shifter and criminal kingpin the Viper Queen, and many others. I hope we get to see more relationships between the secondary characters develop in later books in the series.

I also must give plaudits to this book for its action sequences. The sweeping action that dominates the last third or so of the book manages to feel tight and momentously epic at the same time. I am frequently bored by book battles, but I physically could not bring myself to put my Kindle down for my last two hours of reading as Bryce and co. faced nonstop threats one after the other.

So, I’m awarding points here for the interesting world, the hero and heroine, the banter-filled romance, the cast of characters, and the compelling action that propels the latter part of the book. But other than the clunky beginning, what am I deducting points for? There are three things I want to highlight.

First, the middle of this book drags, which significantly hinders the overall tightness of the plot. Certain sub-threads of Bryce and Hunt’s investigation seem to serve no purpose other than highlighting Bryce’s past and continued suffering without providing new information, which was not my favorite thing in the world. There’s a solid 100-150 pages in the first two thirds of the book consisting of fairly repetitive dead-end investigating, Bryce and Hunt flirting, and Bryce punishing herself out of guilt, and the book would have improved for me at least half a letter grade without this lather-rinse-repeat cycle.

Second, I found that the way slavery was handled was just not quite on the mark, especially the implactions of slavery for Hunt and Bryce’s relationship. Slavery in this book seems to map closely on the Roman model, which I’m not going to describe super in-depth here, but basically a premise of Roman slavery was that it was theoretically possible for some enslaved people to buy their own freedom via either wages they were paid by their so-called masters or in recognition of services rendered. Hunt has been enslaved by the ruling angels and Asteri (the godlike beings who govern the world) for his role in a failed rebellion, and he has been enslaved for something like almost two centuries when he meets Bryce. The Archangel Micah is having him work towards his freedom by killing people; every death gets him closer to freedom. And Micah is considered a “merciful” master compared to the sadists who spent 20 years just torturing Hunt when he was first enslaved.

I felt like the text did not do quite enough work to acknowledge that in spite of them both having trauma, the fact of Hunt’s enslavement remained a fundamental difference in circumstance between Bryce and Hunt. For example, at one point, Bryce says that Hunt is her “mirror.” This is in relation to how they both lost people who were very significant to them; Bryce lost Danika, her best friend, and he lost Shahar, his lover and leader in the rebellion. And Hunt…agrees with her?

I have to say that this exchange completely took me out of the story because I was immediately like, girl, you are not his mirror. You are sad that your friend died and you were very traumatized, but he is an enslaved person. You cannot imagine his experience. None of this is to invalidate the validity of Bryce’s trauma and pain, but she has parents who love her deeply and at least 2 genuine friends and, uh, the rights of a citizen. Hunt has been enslaved with magic and is by the design of his “masters” totally isolated from even the possibility of warm human connection before he is assigned to work with Bryce. Any freedom or agency he has with Bryce is limited to that which he can eke out within the parameters of his servitude. I did not feel that this base-level mismatch in their experiences was sufficiently addressed.

This feeling was compounded for me when

Plot spoilers ahead

Late-ish in the book, Hunt plots with two of his other enslaved comrades to try to rebel again, and is caught and punished. When Bryce finds out, she is angry that he didn’t think their relationship was worth trying to slowly work towards his freedom for. She’s also angry at him for other reasons related to information withholding, but being angry that the relationships wasn’t “worth” enduring continued slavery for had me going excuse me, what?! Why the ever-loving f*ck would you expect or want an enslaved person to not prioritize their own possible freedom over everything? Especially seeing as how she is supposed to care for him deeply, this aspect of her reaction seemed like a huge failure of empathy, and was an area where Bryce showed minimal to no growth throughout the book.

It didn’t just seem like Bryce didn’t understand the reality of Hunt’s enslavement; it felt like the book did not adequately reckon with the ramifications of what it meant that Hunt was enslaved and Bryce was not. So that felt uncomfortable, and I wish it had been addressed in some way in the text.

Thirdly, I have to flag one last thing that is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things but incredibly annoying to me as a reader, and that is the constant deployment of “males” and “females” instead of “men” and “women” in this book. It feels cisnormative and weirdly gender essentialist. There are plenty of queer characters in this book, and their queerness is portrayed in such a way to suggest that it is no big deal in this fantasy society. But there are no trans characters, and the constant use of “males” and “females” over “men” and “women” and even just “people” seems to suggest there is no room for anyone who falls outside of a strict cisgender binary in this fantasy world. Which is disappointing. It’s hard not to feel frustrated when presented with a world where there are characters with wings or faun legs or snake eyes or magic powers, and yet gender is somehow much narrower and more restricted than in our current reality.

When I started this book, I was expecting a jam-packed, over-the top fantasy with a lot of snark and heart. And House of Earth and Blood did deliver that, even if there were some missteps in execution. If you’ve enjoyed Maas’ other books, and if you can handle all the violence and slavery and slut-shaming, it’s worth it to push through the awkward beginning and the dragging bits in the middle for big payoff at the end. If you thought “ew, no thanks” about the aforementioned elements, or if you cannot handle hearing men and women referred to only as “males” and “females” for 800 pages, skip it.

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House of Earth and Blood by Sarah Maas

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  1. 1
    Amy M. says:
    +1

    Do the words “male” and “female” really suggest exclusively cis identity? If the society is accepting of queer identity, wouldn’t a trans man or woman just be considered male or female?

  2. 2
    k says:
    +4

    @Amy M. but then there is no room for non-binary people. It doesn’t reflect that gender is a spectrum. And I for one am another reader that is getting more and more annoyed at books using “female” as a noun. I like sci-fi/alien/paranormal romance a lot, but this word choice always takes me out of the book and makes me roll my eyes. It just feels so dehumanizing and dismissive.

  3. 3
    Jessica Werner says:
    +2

    The world-building is really fantastic in this– I literally squealed out loud at the messenger otters.

  4. 4
    fran says:
    +5

    @Amy M. “Male”/”female” are used because the characters aren’t human.

  5. 5
    Nicole says:
    +2

    Ugh, the males thing is just right out of her previous books, where the Fae characters in both series take offense to being called men, because they’re not human. I don’t know what the answer is (those books don’t have queer characters either) but SJM’s clear decision for like 10 books is “males” and “females” to refer to gendered members of non-human species.

  6. 6
    sb says:
    +2

    It’s a shame that a writer with the imagination to pen these stories can’t push it far enough creatively where her non-human species are concerned.

    Also have to say I found the banter excerpt predictable and not particularly sharp or funny.
    Thank you for the thorough review.

  7. 7
    aicha says:
    +1

    Maas has got a lot of criticism in the past for having mainly white characters and little to no diversity. Is that improved this book?

  8. 8
    Denise says:
    +1

    I think you captured a lot of my frustrations with the book perfectly, i.e. great ideas; rather poor execution. And the whole Bryce thing really, really bothered me. Not the whole self-loathing as I thought that was rather realistic, but it was such a weird juxtaposition to set up that she’s alone yet have a great support with her parents & brother (doesnt take away her feelings ofc) and then compared to someone who is *truly* alone and enslaved on top of it. It just didnt sit right with me (along with some other things) and was a C+ for me. It definitely hooked me for the next book, but yet I’m wary at the same time.

  9. 9
    Denise says:
    +3

    @aicha There’s a lot of “golden-brown” skins in this book, which I’m not sure what it meant besides trying to seem liken they’re not white, yet they totally are? There’s two characters that I can think of that were just brown/dark-brown. (However, I’m not confident in my memory here). I definitely was sick & tired if everyone having great bodies & amazing asses. Like I get it, okay? Lol

  10. 10
    Ellen says:
    +2

    @Aicha – very late response, but I would say there were two characters (the main dude Hunter and one of the heroine’s friends, the faun ballet dancer) who I would be confident saying are meant to be characters of color. Otherwise agree with Denise that nearly everyone else depends on what is meant by “golden-brown.” Definitely some improvement from previous books though.

  11. 11
    June says:
    0

    I agree with you in that the book was a drag until 400 pages. Part 4 really got good, and I couldn’t keep the book down. I absolutely loved Bryce’s character development, and how loyal she is to everyone she loves.——
    .SPOILERS!!! Maas’ one liner reveals always made my heart ache, like when Bryce reveals to Lebahah that she freed her right when she sacrifices herself. That made me sob so hard … And also when we find out that Hunt was “trading” with the sniper queen… wtf. Hunt realizing that Bryce was nothing like he assumed always gets me too. But I agree when you say that Bryce seemed to undermine Hunt’s struggle. I would’ve enjoyed diving more into Ruhn and Hypaxia’s relationship, but now there’s more anticipation for the next book! Overall, I LOVED it, and will now have high expectations for my second fantasy romance novel 🙂

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