Hello all and welcome to an extremely belated edition of Your Mileage May Vary, the blog series where I talk about books I actually finished. This week, after many long weeks of toiling, I will be discussing Throne of the Five Winds by S.C. Emmett.
But, before we get started, as always:
Okay, so first and foremost, as much as I whined all these last months about how dense this book is and how I struggled to get through it at times: I loved it. Honestly. I loved it. This book is very much My Lane. I love low fantasy palace intrigue and though it was dense as hell, and at times even slow, there was never a single moment when I actively disengaged from the story. This book isn’t for everyone, to be sure, but it is definitely for me.
Our heroine is Yala, the lone lady-in-waiting to a princess sent off to a conquering country to be married. Her job is not only to guide her princess through her new life in a new country and the new socio-political rules she is expected to adhere to, but to physically protect her as well. Because, hoo boy, there are an absurd number of assassination attempts in this honker.
Yala is insanely good at her job. She is well read, speaks the new language, and knows how to stay out of sight while also providing a most welcome helping hand to a soft-hearted princess in a cold-hearted country. The story largely revolves around how Yala navigates her new life in the palace of a hostile foreign entity. It also goes into the political games of the emperor’s large family (two wives, two concubines, six sons, one favored head general turned adoptive son, and two daughters).
Again, I was very into it. If palace intrigue is your bag, you might be too.
That said, it’s not perfect, not even for someone like me who loves this kind of book.
Emmett pays an extraordinary amount of attention to detail in this novel, which actually makes sense to a degree. In a narrative where every character’s smallest action could be misconstrued or considered a breach of etiquette, taking care to note what they were wearing that day or where they were holding their hands, you know, jives. But, oh my god. Rare was the scene that we were not informed how the male characters dressed their topknots, or what sort of decorations the ladies had on their fingernails, or whether or not someone’s bow was correctly deep enough (extraneous spoiler alert: it was, every single time, because these are seasoned courtiers we are talking about, of course they know how to bow correctly, but it’s important that we are informed that is correct, every. single. time). The kindle edition of this book clocked in at nearly 700 pages and I genuinely think you could eliminate about 50 pages of that just by limiting those kinds of details to infrequent reminders that attention to etiquette is being paid rather than constantly insisting we know.
I also was extremely dissatisfied with the ending. As I was hurtling toward the end, I felt absolutely certain I was going to pick up the sequel immediately, [book reading schedule] be damned, but Mahara’s death blunted that enthusiasm HARD. In a way, it felt inevitable. She’d been so mercilessly hounded since the beginning, of course Yala, or the princess’s other myriad protectors, couldn’t be perfect 100% of the time, but it also… just felt so… stupid. Like… why, after assassins had proved capable of first getting inside the palace, then inside a banquet at the palace, then inside Mahara’s very bedchamber, then inside the throne room in the middle of the day surrounded by guards, would Yala of all people, but literally anyone else, think it was perfectly safe for Mahara and her royal husband (also suspected to be a target of the many attacks) to just take a joy ride outside the city? After the assassins had already succeeded in a RANGED ASSAULT (resulting in Yala’s temporary kidnapping) JUST, LIKE, A WEEK AGO????
Like I said, I don’t think I’m mad that Mahara died. I mean, I am. She was sweet and had survived against so many odds, had entered into a political marriage that actually had a chance at being happy, was probably pregnant, and was Yala’s only anchor to her new home. Again, I know, the assassins were so determined and relentless, it was going to happen eventually. I get that. But it just felt… like so inevitable that the author gave up on justifying it.
The book also had some serious head hopping issues. I don’t think Emmett actually strayed from whatever POV character she was in at the time, but came very close, especially early on the in novel when we are still learning who the many characters are and what their voices are like. If a character has a name (and even one that doesn’t) you’re bound to get a POV chapter from them. Which contextualizes the political landscape beyond Yala’s ability to see, but also can be very jarring when we start a new chapter and the author does not make it immediately clear whose head we are in.
And, of course, this wouldn’t be a Kerry Share book review if I didn’t nitpick the hell out of something: the book opens with a “translator’s note” that says many terms in the novel’s fictional languages are impossible to translate into English. Footnotes are littered throughout the novel to explain these terms. The thing is, dude, those terms are perfectly translatable. Sure maybe “rai” isn’t exactly like rice and “jewelwings” aren’t exactly like butterflies, and “sohju” isn’t quite saki, but… seriously. Let’s be fucking real here. That is, in fact, exactly what all of those things are. And the thing is, I don’t mind them!!! This is ostensibly a fantasy novel, and fantasy terms for perfectly real-world things is fine with me. Just own them! The translator’s note just felt so completely obnoxious and pretentious that I lost respect for the author just a little bit right off the bat.
Alright. Now for the elephant in the room. S.C. Emmett is a pseudonym for Lillith Saintcrow, a white author from the US. Throne of the Five Winds is very heavily Asian inspired and Asian coded. I didn’t learn the identity of the author until I was about a third of the way through the book, when there was a Twitter discourse going around about white authors having leeway to write “Asian-inspired” stories, while actual Asian authors struggle to get their own stories published at all. Part of the reason I took so long to read this book is because I struggled with supporting this insidious practice. In the end, I decided to finish it. I had already paid for it, was already invested in it, and had already seen it as a way to inspire my own political/palace-intrigue novel. That said, while I loved the story and the writing itself, it is impossible to divorce them from the appropriation from which they stemmed. Therefore, I will not be continuing this series, nor giving this book a rating.
So, like, if anyone could recommend some books like this one but without all the cultural appropriation that would be super awesome.
I’m so glad I finally got to write this review (and finish this doorstopper). It’s gonna take some reading overtime to get myself back on track. Luckily, the next book on my schedule is A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab. Has anyone heard of it?
Until next time, my friends, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few.