Throne of Glass, currently consisting of Throne of Glass (2012) and Crown of Midnight (2013) [plus four prequel novellas available as e-books], may just be my favorite teen fantasy series so far. Seriously, I’m very excited about this series. Throne of Glass opens with 18-year-old female assassin Celaena Sardothien forced into slavery working mines in a prison camp when Prince Dorian and his Guard Captain Westfall arrive with an offer: complete in a series of challenges to become the King’s Champion and she will earn her freedom. Of course being the King’s “Champion” means doing the blackest of deeds serving the man who conquest ruined her life and sent her into the slavery. But the carrot of freedom is too tempting, particularly given the brutal conditions of the camp, and Celaena enters the competition. Over the course of the novel Calaena, whose life has been far from easy even before being exiled to a labor camp, steps into the quagmire of court life and a deadly competition. If competing for the title of Champion isn’t enough the palace, much of made of strange glass, is also plagued by a series of mysterious murders targeting the competitors.
What makes this series so interesting to me is that Maas has infused the tale with a touch of weirdness that reminds me in many ways of C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry. Maas doesn’t shy away from horror either in the form of outright violence or otherworldly entities and there is a pleasing dark streak that runs through her work. While the list of teen fiction I’ve read isn’t enormously long I can think of few character’s as vividly drawn as Celaena Sardothien and Maas does a brilliant job of showcasing both her deadly competence and endearing vulnerabilities. Maas’ aptitude with characterization extends to both Prince Dorian and Captain Westfall. I’m particularly fond of Dorian’s characterization and Maas does a particularly excellent job, especially in Crown of Midnight, of humanizing the Dorian’s brash, arrogant, swagger with some very real vulnerabilities.
It might be easy to toss the complaint that Celaena the “world’s best assassin” does very little assassinating in Throne of Glass. This is a valid complaint but I found it to be an interesting choice rather than a weak plot point. I thought Celaena’s understated abilities in Throne of Glass fell perfectly in line with a malnourished young woman who has spent the last year serving in a forced mining camp. In Throne of Glass you see glimpses of the woman she was but Celaena’s characterization, both physically and emotionally, rings true to me because it doesn’t easily shrug off the conditions she lived in at the mining camp. The Celaena seen in Throne of Glass is far from the peak of her abilities. In something of a clever twist Celaena’s diminished abilities in Throne of Glass seem to serve as an additional layer of cover for who and what she is. While the truth of Celaena’s identity becomes easy for readers to suss out, likely before the first book is over, it isn’t revealed to the other protagonists until the end of Crown of Midnight. This stretched credulity is some regards but I didn’t really find myself bothered by it.
Both Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight offer up interesting settings and while the vision isn’t perfect Maas has manages to imbue many of her set pieces with a touch of the fantastic. I love when my fiction is grounded in a specific and tangible sense of place and Maas succeeds in most regards when it comes to this. The strange palace, and it’s weird clocktower, crafted of glass; and the catacombs beneath it serve well to seriously ground both novels in a vivid and original setting.
I seriously enjoyed Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight and the series as a whole feels like a well-drawn swords and sorcery affair aimed at a teen audience.The romance, while choreographed from the moment all three protagonists are on the page, manages to feel a bit more grounded and less emotionally overwrought that others that I’ve read in teen novels. While Throne of Glass has drawn comparisons to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire the series lacks the complexity in plot and characters when compared to Martin’s work. Maas’ work has an earthier sort of feel coming off as less epic and more personal. The strong, competent female protagonist and darker tone to the supernatural elements of the novel reminded me strongly of C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry novels and I think Throne of Glass makes for a fair stronger comparison to works of sword and sorcery rather than epic or traditional quest-based fantasy. If you’re looking for a series featuring a strong, competent, female lead with a solid sense of place than I can’t recommend Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series enough. Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight are available now and the prequel novellas, while available alone, will also be available as a collection called The Assassin’s Blade in March.