Book Review: Disability Representation in “Tower of Dawn” by Sarah J. Maas

“Using the chair is not a punishment. It is not a prison,” he said. “It never was. And I am as much of a man in that chair, or with that cane, as I am standing on my feet.”

Chaol Westfall, Tower of Dawn

If there is one word that sums up my reaction to Tower of Dawn, it’s “wow”.

I went into this book with very low expectations, due to the fact that so many bestsellers featuring disabled characters romanticize illness and are just an overall terrible representation of it. Sadly, they’re bestsellers for just that reason; authors with no firsthand experience or knowledge about disabilities write them, and the same type of people buy them and review them. Authors and filmmakers continue to profit off of tragic disabled love stories, while simultaneously misinforming the public about the reality of living with an illness/disability. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the U.S. and the world, yet we still lack realistic representation in the media and our basic accessibility needs are not met. Our voices are constantly silenced and ignored when we speak up against ableism. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I was wary of this book.

In addition to being concerned about disability representation, I was also not pleased with Sarah J Maas as of late due to her portrayal of POC and queer characters in her other books, as well as the continuation of problematic relationships between certain characters. These issues weren’t all resolved in this book- she is making some improvements, but still has a long way to go, both in this series (Throne of Glass) and A Court of Thorns and Roses. However, I can confidently say that disability representation in Tower of Dawn is something she has excelled at.

At the beginning of the book, Chaol is struggling both physically and emotionally. He has come to resent his injury and the loss of independence that comes with it. From people moving his wheelchair without his consent and lack of accessibility to pitying and demeaning looks and attitudes, Sarah J. Maas presents a detailed, accurate portrayal of a day in the life of a wheelchair user. Although I am just a part-time wheelchair user, I am familiar with these struggles. My illnesses are very unpredictable in nature (I have chronic pain, decreased pulmonary function, and low muscle tone due to Marfan syndrome and fatigue, dizziness, and irregular heart rate and blood pressure due to POTS) so I can be walking one day and dependent on a wheelchair for mobility the next. Chaol, on the other hand, was extremely active and completely healthy before his spinal injury. As Captain of the Royal Guard, his duties were heavily dependent upon his fitness and mobility. In just one moment, his physical abilities are taken away from him and his sense of purpose along with them. The world as he knows it is turned upside down. Chaol’s emotional decline is just as significant as his physical one. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it is to have such a vast array of capabilities one day and lose almost all of them the next- with my illnesses, I’ve had limitations since I was young and my health has been a slow decline, not a sudden one. Chaol has to unexpectedly reevaluate who he is at the core and what determines that, coming to terms with his disability with no warning whatsoever.

“You would be surprised by how closely the healing of physical wounds is tied to the healing of emotional ones.”

Yrene Towers, Tower of Dawn

This quote is one that can easily be misinterpreted, but it sums up Chaol’s emotional journey and growth throughout the entire book. Since Chaol was injured by dark magic- it is a fantasy novel, after all- the nature of the injury itself and the healing process don’t resemble typical spinal injuries. The dark magic festers off of his insecurity and self-loathing, resisting attempts at treating and healing his body. Learning to accept his emotions and himself as a person ends up being the determining factor in Chaol’s recovery. Yrene helps him immensely with this; she provides support every step of the way, but doesn’t pity him or coddle him. She gives Chaol the resources he needs to recover, but emphasizes that it’s ultimately up to him, due to the emotional aspect of his recovery. In my opinion, Maas handled this very well. I don’t get the impression that Chaol’s illness is “all in his head”, like many of us with illnesses/disabilities are told. Magical injury or no, physical illness and disability can be very stressful and isolating, and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression aren’t uncommon. Chaol’s path to acceptance of both his disability and his emotions is a very realistic one. I applaud Sarah J. Maas for the sensitivity which she handled this with and the empathy required to do so. She definitely did her research and put a lot of careful consideration into the storyline.

In conclusion, this book was a breath of fresh air in a genre that is severely lacking realistic portrayals of disabled characters (and the inclusion of them at all). Although Maas definitely has separate issues with minority representation/diversity that need to be addressed in her other books, Tower of Dawn left me surprisingly optimistic about the possibility of overall improvement. If she was able to tackle disability in such a genuine manner, I’d hope she can take the time to listen to the concerns of her readers regarding the aforementioned issues. As for the character of Chaol himself, the personal growth he was lacking in previous books takes center stage in this one. When combined with the introduction of Yrene, an incredibly authentic and empathetic character, as well as the positive aspects of the book unrelated to disability, Tower of Dawn is undoubtedly some of Maas’s best work.

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