This book has been on my to-read list for a while. So, like you do, when I saw the entire series on display in Chapters in paperback, I bought all of them despite having never read anything by Sarah J. Maas, secure in the knowledge that if I hated the first book, I could blame all of you, everyone on the Internet for leading me astray.
You are all safe.
Celaena Sardothien is a badass assassin, but prior to the start of Throne of Glass, she was caught and imprisoned in a forced labour camp. Against such odds she has survived long enough to be plucked from the camp by the Crown Prince of Adarlan. He chooses her to compete in a tournament-style competition among other convicts to become the next King’s Champion, i.e., the king’s own pet killer. While Celaena trains and competes, she calibrates herself to the political climate of the capital, and attempts to solve the mysterious, possibly supernatural killings of other Champion candidates.
Celaena intrigues me as a character. I’m not sure I like her that much. She is brash, and of course, there’s the whole “trained to kill in cold blood” aspect of her personality. 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 certainly didn’t want to see her sent back to Endovier, or killed, etc.
Whenever you have a character who is supposed to be legendary at their skill set, suddenly you have a problem. They have to be good enough on the page that they are worthy of the legend; yet you also need to create conflict and show their vulnerability. From the beginning, Maas walks this line very well. Celaena’s time in Endovier has weakened her, particularly from malnutrition, and Maas chronicles the road to recovery. She was a scary-good assassin prior to her imprisonment, but now she is somewhat reduced. Even as she recovers her strength and other skills, she finds herself deep in political intrigue and supernatural mysteries that are not necessarily things she has been trained to confront. Following Celaena’s recovery and watching her weigh the pros and cons of playing along with this stupid Champions contest versus fleeing and becoming a fugitive is one of the most interesting things about this book.
Maas also makes a very smart decision, one which would have been easy to overlook: she does not show us all the Tests the candidates undergo. It’s something like fourteen weeks of training/Tests leading up to the battles among the final four. Maas shows us one or two Tests, then they fade into the background, mentioned in various off hand ways while Celaena deals with things that are obviously more important. In books with this kind of plot structure (think Goblet of Fire), the temptation to have to show all of the competitions can be strong—and if they are truly relevant to the plot and character arcs, then there isn’t anything wrong. But Throne of Glass would have dragged on and on if Maas had done that.
Instead, we’re propelled into a world of darkness and shadows. The King of Adarlan has, while conquering the countries around him, attempted to stamp out magic everywhere. Someone or something knows how to use Wyrdmarks, though, to summon and sic demonic-like beings on Champion candidates. And this brings me back to Celaena’s characterization, and while I don’t like her personally, I really enjoy how Maas characterizes her.
Celaena is smart. She is street smart and book smart, and I like that Maas shows both aspects and also distinguishes between them. Celaena is equally at home killing someone with a sword or arrow as she is in a library, surrounded by books. In the same way that I have no frame of reference to relate to her experiences in Endovier or her attraction to various potential partners, her elation over entering the royal library is a scene I can really identify with. Celaena recognizes when to use physical methods to get what she wants and when to use her brain. There is no one tool or method that will get the job done.
Similarly, I love that Celaena is equally at home wearing functional, fight-ready attire or getting decked out in hair and makeup and corsets and dresses. All too often, the “strong woman” in fantasy books is idealized as a butch or non-femme character who wears pants and swears and eschews traditionally feminine attire and activities. It’s great that those characters exist, because butch and non-femme people deserve to see themselves portrayed in these roles—but femme people, or people like Celaena who find themselves enjoying all sorts of different types of clothing, need to see themselves too.
I also liked the positive female friendship between Celaena and Nehemia. It isn’t cloying or over the top but rather founded in a certain shared outsider status, not to mention the fact that both speak Ellywe. They each bring different knowledge and experiences to the table and respect each other, and while they occasionally discuss men, this book definitely passes the Bechdel test. I like that Nehemia aids Celaena, often in unseen ways, but that this doesn’t stop Celaena from questioning Nehemia’s motives while searching for answers to the murders.
As much as I liked the friendship, the romance part of the book did little for me. “Two men love her” the back of the book proudly proclaims, and it is immediately obvious which two men that would be. And the Crown Prince falling for a killer who hates his father and everything the monarchy stands for? Really? I get that star-crossed love is a popular story trope, and all that jazz, but that doesn’t stop it from seeming very contrived. If you like romance and want it in the books you read, then maybe you’ll like it here. For me, though, it seemed superfluous—you could have cropped out the romance elements here and still have a fine book.
I’m also not as thrilled by the antagonists here as I am by the protagonist. Cain, Perrington, and Kaltain just seem like fairly stock, flat attempts at injecting threats into the story. The exception, which surprised me, is Dorian’s father. During his first appearance he is a pretty clichéd Warlord of Toxic Masculinity type deal—but 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.