As half-Fae go, Bryce Quinlan seems fairly normal. She works as an assistant at a gallery, and if some of her errands are a little weird, well, so are most things in gritty Crescent City (also known as Lunathion), where otter messengers run side by side with werewolves, witches, angels (fallen and otherwise), vampires, and other supernatural beings.
Bryce works during the day and goes out with her friends at night—friends that include Danika, the leader of a werewolf pack; Fury, whose work is mysterious; and Juniper, a ballerina faun. She dates; she rebuffs the interest of one of Danika’s wolf-bros; she’s in her early twenties and she mostly does what she wants.
Until Danika and her entire pack are gruesomely murdered.
House of Earth and Blood is Sarah J. Maas’s first venture into fiction for grown adults, not young adults, but if you were expecting that to mean more sexytimes, you will be disappointed. Mostly it means that the heroine has a job and some responsibilities, that the violence is more detailed, and that everyone swears a lot more than in the Throne of Glass or A Court of Thorns and Roses series.
But much else is the same, despite the urban fantasy setting and assorted analogs to modern technology. A little more self-awareness about “alphaholes” (a term that could apply to most of Maas’s male characters across series) doesn’t change the fact that the extremely fit, cocky male characters tend to want to protect our heroine, but also are all totally into her. The males tend to be dominant alphas, sort of like supernatural jocks, but a capacity for violence is a primary desirable character trait pretty much across the board. When it appears in males, their physical prowess is lovingly described; when in females, not so much. (Though the witches in Crescent City, unlike those in Throne of Glass, are more interested in healing than murder.)
There are exceptions, of course, but the ballerina faun largely vanishes from the narrative, and Bryce’s sweet fire sprite colleague is lovely but a bit one-note. The important characters are the physically powerful ones: Danika and her pack of wolves; her vicious, heartless mother; a whole passel of enslaved, deadly fallen angels and their even-more-powerful keepers; a muscled merman; a Viper Queen; Bryce’s half-brother and his gang of Fae frat boys; and, of course, Hunt Athalar, the sexy fallen angel assassin with whom Bryce is eventually paired up.
They’re not a terrible pair, Bryce and Hunt: They’re both putting on fronts in order to protect themselves, playing a certain role for the world because it’s easier to be what people expect. They’re pushed together when, two years after Danika’s murder, another body is found, killed in the same awful way. Obviously, the human doing time for Danika’s murder isn’t the real guilty party. The city’s governor, an archangel named Micah, wants Bryce, who has connections to Danika and the newly dead vampire, to look into it—and tasks Hunt to work with and protect her.
Their investigation (which Bryce is immediately good at) is full of twists and turns, and Maas’s plotting has never been more intricate. Some clues are laid early and overtly, but the payoff is slow and effective, and the finale more explosive than any in Maas’s previous books. Hunt and Bryce are quickly drawn to each other, but their relationship has a satisfyingly slow build that Maas neatly depicts through sweetly mundane moments like the way Bryce messes with Hunt’s phone, taking pictures of herself or changing her name in his contacts.
But it’s still hard to shake the sense that a lot of this is familiar, from the way supernatural beings make a “Drop” into their power and immortality when they come of age (reminiscent of Aelin’s delving into her power) to the way that Bryce starts out seeming like a normal(ish) person only to become and/or be revealed as much more than that. It’s about character growth to a degree, but it’s also about prophecies and power—the specific kinds of power that are most valued in Maas’s worlds. No one is anything less than beautiful; almost no one is less than deadly.
Refreshingly, Bryce is driven less by romantic love than by love for Danika, her fierce dead friend. Maas can write female friendship (or sisterhood) quite well, but it tends to take a backseat to romance, or come out later in her stories. Here, it’s front and center at the start. (For a minute, Maas seems to hint that this is more than friendship, but it’s not.) Bryce’s bond with Danika is what sustains her and what hurts her, as time passes—both emotionally and physically, as she hangs onto the scars from the night Danika was murdered. It’s disappointing that Bryce’s other female friends don’t play larger roles in the story. Danika was her best friend, but it feels rather narratively convenient that her other friends are somewhat distant after Danika’s death; that way, there’s more room in her life for Hunt to fill.
But when push comes to shove, Danika’s love is even more vital than the feelings Bryce develops for Hunt, and nothing in House of Earth and Blood is as affecting as the way that love functions in Bryce’s tale. It’s enough to make you wish there were more story before the murders—that we got more time with this friendship.
Maas’s focus on overcoming trauma remains admirable; for the most part, terrible things aren’t easy to get over, and Bryce’s arc reiterates that that’s okay. People—even magical ones—need time to heal, and sometimes the process isn’t pretty. But it’s a process, and one that heroes and heroines go through. Bryce has Danika’s death to deal with (she’s the first person on the scene); Hunt has centuries of enslavement, and the dirty work he is forced to do to earn his freedom, not to mention the crush of the angels’ long-ago failed rebellion.
Running under Bryce and Hunt’s story is a thread about freedom and equality that will likely expand in subsequent books. Humans in Crescent City are second-class citizens to the supernatural beings, most of whom could probably end a human life without breaking a sweat. And the archangels are above all: powerful, creepy, and seemingly not beholden to any gods (though there are gods; their mythology just seems separate from the angels). With great power comes great arrogance, apparently.
In another city across the sea, a human rebellion seeks to change their world for the better—and after the events of House of Earth and Blood, that rebellion seems likely to come looking for Bryce and Hunt. A tantalizing coda suggests more barely-seen forces at work in this world, and some of the supernatural species that make brief appearances here seem likely to move front and center as the series goes on. (I’m always here for the witches.)
House of Earth and Blood would probably be an interesting place to start if you’ve not read Maas before; its 800+ pages pass at a steady clip, and there’s much to admire in the setting and plotting. If you’re a hardcore Maas fan, this is obviously for you. If you’re on the fence, as I was after the Thorns and Roses books, the similarities in her storytelling may make this one less appealing.
That said, I still want to know what happens next.
House of Earth and Blood is available from Bloomsbury.
Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of Tor.com, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.