Magic, murder, intrigue, and a young woman as charming as she is deadly. Throne of Glass has them all. The world of Sarah J. Maas’ debut novel contains every trope you expect in a high fantasy novel (with varying levels of success and innovation) while maintaining enough teenage wish fulfillment to place it firmly on the Young Adult shelf of your local bookstore.
Set in the land of Erilea in the kingdom of Adarlan, Throne of Glass follows Celaena Sardothien at her release from the brutal salt mine and prison camp, Endovier. The reason behind Adarlan’s deadliest assassin’s pardon? Naturally, a competition between fellow skilled fighters and murderers for the title of King’s Champion – and the freedom that attends it. Celaena leaves dank and desperate Endovier for Rifthold’s famous glass castle, the seat of Adarlan’s brutal king. While she gets back into shape and proves her fighting skills under a new alias, Celaena encounters love, friendship, and murder most foul while simultaneously buffeted by court politics, personal demons, and an encroaching magical world.
Maas’ prose is clear and descriptive. In keeping the language simple, but not dumbing it down, the narrative demands the most focus and avoids semantic distractions. Unfortunately, one of the fantasy genre’s greatest achievements is the creation of awe inspiring settings through words alone. And Throne of Glass lacks the inspiration and lushness of other second world novels. Not to say the imagery is dull or lacking, but some literary eye candy would have been nice. The defining marker of Rifthold, the glass castle, doesn’t read like a wonder of the world. Feeling Celaena’s eclipsing awe and fear when she beholds Rifthold would have been a welcome bridge between protagonist and reader.
Character/reader relations are possibly the greatest flaw of the novel. Celaena comes across as unrealistic and over the top. She’s young. She’s beautiful. She’s deadly – the deadliest. But don’t forget intuitive, sensitive, bilingual, unbreakably stout of mind, a burgeoning revolutionary, accomplished pianist, charming conversationalist, charismatic jokester, and by the way she’s a voracious reader and animal lover. At one point she even enters the role of Sherlockian detective. While nothing is wrong with a complicated protagonist (it’s actually preferable), Celaena borders on the unrelatable. A woman who can be both strong and feminine is excellent, a woman who does everything perfectly is nearly impossible.
Maas saves her hero from an insurmountable lack of relatability with intriguing snippets from Celaena’s past, making her more sympathetic. Humor also clears the gap between experienced assassin and assumingly “normal” teenage reader. Two such instances stick out most: Celaena’s fury at being bad at billiards (and subsequent shouting at inanimate objects) and a completely relatable instance around her…cycle (“She clutched her belly and bent over. Sometimes she hated being a woman”). Despite Celaena’s perfectly engineered talents, at least her personality is fairly well developed. In the end she’s the one to root for and owns her place in the novel better than some of her literary peers.
Then there is the romance. While the love triangle that develops between Celaena, Crown Prince Dorian Havilliard, and Captain of the Royal Guard Chaol Westfall feels formulaic, it is entertaining. Her role as Dorian’s contestant and Chaol’s responsibility, as well as their own male-male camaraderie, makes for a fun dynamic. Both boys are likable and fit into their character type admirably. They deserve their dreamboat status within a fandom. The Dorian-Celaena-Chaol dilemma, however, is predictable as far as love triangles go, clear to a genre-familiar reader within the first ten pages – a bit early for most tastes. On the other hand, it was fun to watch the relationships grow, like watching a cheesy romantic comedy expecting to laugh ironically, but instead leaving with a smile you conceal from your cool film-snob friends. Lastly, the triangle is delightfully open ended, making room for more fluffy romantic fun in the sequels.
Narratively, the novel introduces excellent moments of magic and secret dimensions. However, none of them are fully fleshed out and can feel jarring against some of the less fantastical elements of certain chapters. Interest is piqued, but never fully rewarded. Most notable is the illegality of magic. Banned by the king, magic became a forbidden thing and in return fled from the kingdom, like a sentient force. This was something definitely worth exploring, but there are no real returns on it, making it more like a curio than a complex plot complication. The revolutionary elements share a similar feeling. Slave and rebel fates are bemoaned, but in the end they’re merely set-up for a future installment. A lot of promise, no actual delivery. Throne of Glass certainly creates a world, but it only tentatively explores it.
The lack of delivery affects more than just moments of magic. Unfortunately, the conclusion was fairly unrewarding. The mystery was not all that mysterious or difficult for the protagonist to overcome. The brutal murders and fear struck castle could have been drummed up into serious drama, but fell rather short. The final duel between champions should have been spectacular and climactic, but instead introduced more questions and lacked satisfactory style. In other words, it didn’t end with the bang it had the potential for.
That being said, it didn’t end with a whimper. Celaena’s final decisions reflected real character, not just model behavior. Her thirst for freedom and what she would pay for it refreshed her characterization as well as the novel’s conclusion. Despite so many unanswered questions, the cliffhanger resolutions show real promise for the series’ continuation.
For those who like fun, light-handed fantasy, Throne of Glass delivers. It was a page-turner and easy read, as long as you don’t mind a few clichés and can easily suspend disbelief. For those who want a little more substance, the novel is littered with heavy subject matter (slavery, conquest, even racism and abuse), the less adroit and imprecisely nuanced handling notwithstanding. The novel is like Celaena – capable of so much more substance than is actually shown, leaving the reader to seek out the undercurrents. Maas’ debut novel is perfect junk food literature: it gives you what you want, but not necessarily what you need.