It’s been a while since I first read these books — longer than I’d thought, even! I’m not entirely sure what tempted me to revisit, since I generally think of Snyder’s work as light entertainment. I’m not so keen on the romance elements, especially where they come across as kind of creepy (there’s an age and power dynamic between Valek and Yelena which is completely weighted toward Valek the entire time), and I didn’t think that much of the fantasy setting. But… I think I’ve actually changed my mind. The relationship is signalled better than I remembered, even though on Yelena’s side I’m still a little concerned about Stockholm Syndrome, and Valek’s not off the hook for being an assassin and playing mind games.
And the world is more interesting than I remembered, too: what I remembered as a fairly run of the mill dystopian post-revolution world was not so simple. Commander Ambrose has done horrifying things, particularly in the cause of getting into power, but there’s a flexibility there — for example, when a teacher brings a girl to him wanting her to be punished because she’s found a different (actually better) way of doing things than he’s taught her, and the Commander sends him away and gives the girl a job doing something she wants to do. The characters are better drawn than I remembered, with a lot of shades of grey.
The Commander is particularly interesting because he’s a transgendered character, and that’s dealt with pretty well: the character and narrator believe that he’s male, full stop. There are a couple of slip-ups where he treats his ‘female self’ as contemptible or is controlled because he sees that self as weak, but otherwise neither the characters nor the plot lean on gender stereotypes. He’s not male because he can do male-coded activities; he’s male because he just is, and he doesn’t see women as any less capable. Women can be soldiers as easily as men, in his world; it’s not about gender, but ability.
There were a lot of difficult topics explored here other than that, too — rape, coercion, conflicts between liking someone and betraying them, good people doing bad things, or people doing bad things to achieve a good result… Most of it is handled pretty well, without prurient detail. My main issue is the whole shortcut evil=rape=evil thing. It happens with a couple of different characters and it’s lazy, lazy stuff.
This really wasn’t quite the bubblegum I remembered; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy attentively too.