Maas and Masculinity: a few thoughts on Empire of Storms

eos-cover I've been a big fan of Sarah J Maas's novels since her debut, Throne of Glass, came out in 2012. Since then, she's only gotten stronger and more addictive as a writer, and so the fifth novel in the Throne of Glass series, Empire of Storms, was probably my most anticipated read of the year.

But while Empire of Storms was highly readable and plot-twisty and all the things you might expect from a Sarah J Maas novel, the book's approach to romance left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth. Like Maas's May release, A Court of Mist and Fury, Empire of Storms is obsessed with hyper-masculinity, and while in one novels that's just a theme, two novels back-to-back present a more concerning pattern. In these stories about badass female characters saving the world, almost all the male love interests end up being possessive, aggressive and controlling.

Both series have a similar conception of "fae," with extremely territorial males that get aggressive whenever anyone else male is even in the same room as "their" female.

Rowan bit down against the sight of other males near his queen, reminding himself that they were his friends, but--

Or:

The savage, wild snarl that ripped out of Rhys was like nothing I'd heard, and I gripped his arm as he whirled on Cassian.

The badass female characters roll their eyes at the guys' stupidity, but it happens again and again, and no one is ever more than mildly irritated at their displays of possessive aggression. In fact, any effort to step away from violent possessiveness is treated as a sign of how great a guy he really is.

"Males get so volatile that it can be dangerous for them to be in public, anyway. I've seen males of reason and education shatter a room because another male looked too long in their mate's direction."

I hissed out a breath. Another shattered room flashed in my memory.

Rhys said softly, knowing what haunted me, "I'd like to believe I have more restraint than the average male, but... Be patient with me, Feyre, if I'm a little on edge."

That he'd even admit that much....

The male fae are always referred to as "males," as though to emphasize their somewhat feral masculinity, and they "snarl," "growl" and "roar" their way through conversations. Despite the fact that the female characters have strong enough magic to face pretty much anything, the males are still violently protective of them, with this aggression becoming the defining characteristic of any male protagonist once he's paired off with the heroine.

Still he did not move, did not stop staring at her, searching for signs of harm.... Aelin grasped his shoulder, digging in her nails at the violence rampant on every line of his body, as if he'd loosed whatever leashes he kept on himself in anticipation of fighting.... "Calm down. Now."

He did no such thing.... "I am fine," she said, enunciating each word. "You saw to that. Now get me some water. I'm thirsty."

A basic, easy command. To serve, in the way he'd explained that Fae males liked to be needed, to fulfill some part of them that wanted to fuss and dote.... Rowan's face was still harsh with feral wrath -- and the insidious terror running beneath it.

Or:

"Aelin," he snarled, debating how long until it was socially acceptable for him to break down the door.

And while this is presented as romantic -- irritating, but attractive -- the idea of powerful female fae is presented as a violent perversion. Both books have a fae queen as a major villain, and both of those queens have male thralls who they rape over decades or centuries. Meanwhile, there's only one regular female fae among the heroes in either series -- the other female characters are all half-fae, human, or other beings. We see male fae warriors for miles, but the most prominent female ones are evil and controlling.

Both series also embrace "fated love," with the idea of fae mates. In both A Court of Mist and Fury and Empire of Storms, the protagonist is "mated" with their male love interest, a fact that the more knowledgable male hides from them for the majority of the novel, until they're forced to reveal it. In Empire of Storms, this idea of fated possessiveness even erases past plot points and character development, like the deep platonic friendship between Aelin and Rowan in Heir of Fire. Now, instead of them building that connection between one another before the romance began, Rowan basically wanted to bite and possess her from the very beginning.

Empire of Storms is also an aggressively heterosexual book. Every male perspective character is paired with one female perspective character, making for four neat couples in all. Mentions are made of one main male character being bisexual, but there's no sign of that in the plot itself.

The weirdest part of all this, perhaps, is the pairing of the witch Manon with Prince (now King) Dorian. They begin with an interesting connection, as Manon puts herself at risk to save Dorian's life thanks to a life debt between them, and ends up stuck with the other main characters when the consequences of this mercy nearly kill her. Any development of this connection is then immediately abandoned in favor of a strange new dynamic, where Dorian has a character transplant and becomes weirdly dominant and cruel, while Manon turns submissive and relishes this opportunity to finally relinquish the murderous level of control she maintains over everything else in her life. The shift in both characters, especially considering Manon's previous disdain for pretty much anything male, seems to suggest that they have to switch -- he has to become controlling, she has to become submissive -- in order for their romance to be worth reading.

Of course, "controlling" and "dismissive" are presented as virtues for the protagonist too. Aelin is a badass leader, and the book contorts itself to allow her to keep huge, important secrets about her plans from not only all her allies but from the reader as well. Her ultimate plan - to have her shapeshifting friend pretend to be her for life, while her boyfriend keeps up the pretence and her cousin gets involved in order to provide realistic heirs -- is put into motion without even informing any of the male characters involved of her intentions, let alone asking for their agreement.

But this almost feels like the book's version of feminism. Badass female character acts independently, with no regard for anyone else's feelings, until her heterosexual love interest gets involved and is incredibly possessive around this otherwise uncontrollable protagonist. She rejects and dismisses it, of course, because she's Strong and Cool, but that aggression is brought up as part of their romance again and again. She gets to be Strong, he gets to be like a stereotypical romantic lead, and everyone is, apparently, happy. Because what could be more romantic than that?