Review of Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
Crown of Midnight
by Sarah J. Maas
(To be read in Majel Barrett’s voice.)
Previously, on Kara’s reviews:
—Celaena intrigues me as a character. I’m not sure I like her that much…. I very much respect an author who can create an unlikable protagonist and make me enjoy their journey and their story, and that is the case here. I didn’t necessarily like Celaena as a person, but I cared what happened to her.—
—I also liked the positive female friendship between Celaena and Nehemia.—
—As much as I liked the friendship, the romance part of the book did little for me … it seemed superfluous—you could have cropped out the romance elements here and still have a fine book.—
—at the very end of the book, we learn he has a much deeper game. He’s much more involved in what is happening in Erilea and in the supernatural aspects of the story, and I really liked this glimpse. It leaves me even more excited to read the next book—I’m not picking it up right away, but obviously it’ll be sometime soon.
And now, the continuation.
(Switch back to your normal “I am reading Kara’s review” voice now.)
“Sometime soon” has arrived four months on, which is actually very fast in Ben reading terms for carrying on with your typical series. I have to say I started to hesitate. In the elapsed time I’ve seen some criticism of Sarah J. Maas and her handling of portrayals of sexuality, etc., more so in the latest books of her other fantasy series. Still, I did buy … all … the books … so I figured I should keep going, at least for now.
Crown of Midnight picks up a few months after Throne of Glass ends. Celaena Sardothien is now firmly entrenched as the King of Adarlan’s royal assassin, aka King’s Champion. She is supposed to be killing his enemies. Is she? Don’t be silly. She’s trying to figure out his endgame, trying to connect the dots between his successful conquest of most of Erilea and the disappearance of magic. She’s trying to be a scholar and a warrior and a mage and a rogue, like a one-person DnD party, and it’s not working out for her. Along the way, there is also some smooching and some murder. Maybe not in that order. And some fairly predictable high fantasy shenanigans.
Here’s a quick summary of how I feel about this sequel versus the first book. I still like Celaena a lot as the main character and protagonist. I still enjoy much of Maas’ writing and characterization. However, I am less excited by the overall story and its arc.
I’m starting to see why Maas and her protege Susan Dennard are building such a die-hard fanbase and taking parts of the fantasy readership by storm. They remind me a lot of Brandon Sanderson (to whose Mistborn series I also came late and have, to some extent, similarly soured upon). They’re writing in a way that recapitulates a lot of the high and epic fantasy tropes that are the bedrock of this corner of the genre. My first fantasy love was really Eddings’ Belgariad, chased with Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluce saga. While some newcomers to the field have sought to deconstruct, play with, and really innovate these tropes, plenty of newcomers, including heavyweights like Rothfuss, are trying to find new ways to tape into fantasy fans’ yearning for these faux-medieval fairytales.
I’m not here to pass a value judgement on these differing approaches, mind you. I’ve enjoyed books from both schools, and from the various schools elsewhere in the fantasy galaxy. As much as I love some of the clever and questioning work coming from avant-garde authors, I freely admit that I’m spending a lot of time trying to find new releases that chase that old-school fantasy dragon. Yet even when authors like Maas and Dennard give me something I like, there’s something holding me back from truly loving it. It just doesn’t necessarily ring new.
So, Crown of Midnight ticks so many boxes. Magic system? Check. Inter-kingdom warfare? Check. Complex plots involving a mixture of prophecy versus free will and a Big Bad playing a Xanatos Gambit with an unclear endgame? Hella check. If the first book felt a little too much like setting up the universe, this one pays off a lot in terms of transforming the story into a more epic adventure. Although Celaena doesn’t really live the capital in this book, her actions and the reactions to what she does have repercussions felt across the continent. The ending, too, demonstrates that Maas is not afraid to shake everything up in order to advance the plot and deliver something fresh for the next book.
And yet … I feel like I’ve seen this all before.
This is the main problem I had with Crown of Midnight. I feel like, if I were coming to this series much younger, as a very new fantasy fan, then I would be in love with it. This would be my Belgariad. It certainly has those elements to it. So it isn’t so much that these books are bad per se, as I am much more jaded. I’m not trying to sound hipster here, just pragmatic. We all come to a genre with certain stories that of our time, in the same way that a certain demographic grew up with Harry Potter and then discovered Narnia. I saw most of the twists here coming, whether it was what happened with Chaol, and his ultimate decisions regarding his father, or the secret of Celaena’s identity. The writing is (in the case of the Wyrdmarks, literally) on the wall. None of this detracts from the quality of the book, but it did detract from my personal enjoyment. Crown of Midnight is a very nice work of fantasy from a technical perspective, but as a reader I came away yawning.