Throne of Glass: Teenage escapism and wish-fulfilment

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThrone of Glass by Sarah J. Maas fantasy book reviewsThrone of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

There are two main storylines in Throne of Glass. In one, a deadly assassin is unleashed from prison to travel to the capital and take part in a royal tournament for hired killers where the competitors often meet mysterious and gruesome ends (because, you know, assassin tournament). In the other, an extremely flaky girl tries on lots of expensive dresses, goes to parties, gushes over how pretty she looks today, and flirts with attractive men who like to pamper her with expensive presents. In a brighter universe, the novel would end with the assassin murdering the Popular Girl before she had the chance to complete her dude-harem. Alas, the assassin and the girl are of course the same person, and consequently neither plotline feels fully realized. It’s as if author Sarah J. Maas really wanted to write a courtly romance/mystery book before someone put a gun to her head and demanded she instead write about the most badass assassin ever.

The result, unfortunately, plays into one of my oddly specific pet peeves about fantasy: there are lots of books about assassins, but very few of these characters seem to do much actual assassinating. Celaena (our protagonist) is constantly touted as the most badass assassin ever, but for the vast majority of Throne of Glass, it’s all just so much hype without substance. It’s like going to see a very famous singer in concert, only to have the performer walk out onstage and ignore the audience completely so she can text with her various boyfriends. So one just sort of sits there, drumming fingers and wondering nervously when the music is going to start, while everyone around whispers “Oh my God, that’s so-and-so, who is such a great singer! You know, I heard she won all these awards and was praised to the skies, and such-and-such a figure of authority called her voice a revelation!”

I mean, yes, Celaena’s career as a contract killer sounds exciting and blood-curdling and all that good stuff. I just kind of wish we were reading it.

The plot we do get isn’t awful, but it does feel as though it could have done with a bit more care and attention. A lot of weight is given to Celaena’s social life at the expense of the “assassin tournament” thing, forcing Maas to tell more than show in regard to Celaena’s combat skills and the whys and wherefores of the tournament. This raises a lot of questions that never get answers. Ahem. Just for a few… What is Celaena’s actual style of fighting? In which ways do her abilities differ from run-of-the-mill soldiers? How is it that she’s deeply disturbed by the king causing some military casualties but never seems to lose a moment’s sleep over all the people she’s apparently stabbed to death? Why does the king pick his Royal Champion from among criminals? How does he imagine he can trust the victor at all when the candidates are chosen by his various lords and not himself? Which idiot thought making a 14-year-old boy a Champion of the Realm was somehow feasible? Why on earth do the tests to pick out a professional duelist include a climbing wall and a footrace?

The “popular girl” stuff gets more focus, but the tournament and murder mystery are just prominent enough that we can never quite forget what Celaena does for a living. This is a problem, as the specter of “Celaena the big, bad assassin” always feels a bit out of place in the other 70% of the novel. That is, when Celaena is in romantic comedy mode, she really does not act like a trained killer. People are perpetually barging into her bedroom without her noticing, for one thing, and it’s hard to hold onto Celaena’s mystique as an unconquerable Queen of the Underworld when so many scenes involve her gleefully stuffing her face with candy (could it be poisoned? She couldn’t care less), cooing at a puppy, obsessing over her wardrobe, or enduring a series of wacky hijinks as a result of both her love interests walking in on her while she’s having her period (she kind of forgets about the cramps when one of them mentions a masquerade ball and the most badass assassin ever commences whining about how she wants to go to the party because she loves going to parties and the prince should take her to the party, nyeh nyeh nyeh). This is a girl who — in the midst of a death tournament — spends practically all her free time sleeping or flirting, then complaining to the Crown Prince that she’s bored and he should do something about it. I found it increasingly difficult to mesh the image of the world-weary assassin with that of the petulant, airheaded teenager whose biggest worry about the effects of starvation (certainly the only one that warranted an exclamation point) was that it reduced her breast size.

I get what Maas was trying to do here — the whole Jaime Lannister “I’m so unkillable that I can act however I like” attitude is fine and dandy if well-played — but the two strands of Throne of Glass are so different in tone and in importance (on the one hand, not going to a ball; on the other, the possibility of someone murdering you and feasting on your innards) that Celaena inevitably strays beyond “whimsical and arrogant” and into “vapid and spoiled” territory. Some clunky dialogue doesn’t help matters, and though the prose is generally okay the imagery can get a bit cringe-worthy at times. Too much of it tends to be focused on Celaena looking pretty (generally silhouetted against the stars or what-have-you), and I for one was sick of hearing about her good looks by about chapter three.

The supporting cast is solid enough but not terribly impressive. Prince Dorian Havilliard (aka the Hot Guy) and Captain Chaol Westfall (aka the Cool Guy) form two points of the obligatory YA Love Triangle, but neither of them is very well fleshed out. Both receive brief point-of-view interjections now and again, but it’s hard to say why (neither of them has much to add beyond more reminders that Celaena is all that and a bag of chips). Princess Nehemia is a little more interesting, but at the end of the day Nehemia is more of a plot spur than a complex personality in her own right.

Perhaps I’m judging a children’s fantasy a bit too harshly. I’m sure that teenagers will find something to like in Throne of Glass, whether in the safely PG romance scenes or in the safely PG-13 fight sequences. On the other hand, I have to be honest that the protagonist feels like a bit of a Mary Sue, and I don’t think that the plot threads complemented each other very well. Here’s hoping for better things to come.

~Tim Scheidler


Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas fantasy book reviewsIt occurred to me halfway through Throne of Glass that I am no longer the target audience of YA novels. Though it’s still a relatively new genre in the grand scheme of things, it has several staple components that often don’t resonant with anyone over the age of twenty: a love triangle between a girl and two distinctively handsome guys, a heroine with a tragic backstory and a “unique” name that a twelve-year-old reader might pick for herself, a beautiful dark-skinned best friend, an equally beautiful but incredibly bitchy rival, an evil male patriarch whose main characteristic is that he’s evil, a party that requires the heroine to wear a magnificent dress, and a competition (could be anything from a fight to the death to who gets to be prom queen) in which our protagonist emerges victorious. Optional: a doggie companion.

Throne of Glass has all of these things, and it’s a testimony to the versatility of YA that it’s not a dystopian adventure or a high school drama, but High Fantasy. Celaena Sardothien is a famed assassin before the age of eighteen, has spent a year doing hard slave labour without any serious psychological scars, and has just been hand-picked by the Prince of Adarlan to participate in a tournament that will makes its winner the King’s Champion.

Celaena isn’t interested in working for the tyrant who killed her parents and conquered her homeland — but she does like the sound of winning her freedom after four years of service. That’s if she can beat the other competitors for title…

So she’s whisked from enslavement in the Salt Mines to the glass palace of Rifthold, where she begins to compete against twenty-three other thieves, murderers, mercenaries and assassins. This involves a range of ability-gauging tests, but also secretly exploring the castle, making friends and enemies among the court, gaining access to books, food and clothes, and being wooed from two directions: not only from the Crown Prince Dorian Havilliard, but also the Captain of the Guard, Chaol Westfall.

I think the underlying problem to Throne of Glass is that I simply didn’t believe in Celaena as a character. For a girl who has gone through so many traumatic experiences (including the aforementioned slave labour, which included whippings and food deprivation) she doesn’t for a moment demonstrate any of the psychological toll you’d expect from such a past. Right from the start she’s bright and alert and — heck, practically cheerful. Far from behaving like a feral animal that’s had her humanity stripped away and must slowly learn to trust again, she regularly grins, flirts, banters and blushes.

Other things rang false. On finding a bag of sweets by her bed, Celaena immediately scoffs them down. Wouldn’t a trained assassin in a deeply risky situation be a bit more cautious? Later at a duel she laments the fact that she has to fight second, even though it gives her the opportunity to study her opponent’s moves. Shouldn’t an assassin know that?

An easy comparison to make is with The Hunger Games, which also deals with a young woman in a life-or-death scenario, but with much more realistic responses to her experiences. And I’m not just referring to PTSD or survivor’s guilt — on reaching the wealth of the Capital, Katniss is largely indifferent to the clothing she’s dressed in, but (coming from a district where food is scarce) hyper-aware of the meals now available to her. Celaena, on the other hand, who should be focused entirely on her longed-for freedom, spends copious amounts of time reading romance novels, wearing opulent dresses, and admiring the cute boys that surround her.

Ultimately, the book feels like an odd hybrid: one half is a pretty serious action/fantasy in which Celaena starts to investigate the gruesome deaths of her fellow competitors by supernatural means; the other half is pure escapist fluff. The uneven balance is best exemplified a chapter in which Celaena decides to go to a masked ball: ostensibly it’s to keep an eye on the guests so they’re not harmed by the shadowy threat lurking in the castle, but really the entire chapter has no purpose beyond putting Celaena in a glorious dress, having her flirt and dance with her love interests, and making her rival stew over how she’s the centre of everyone’s attention.

It feels as though I’m laying the snark on pretty thickly, and so it’s important to remember that — as I said at the start of this review — this book clearly isn’t aimed at me. There are in fact plenty of things to recommend Throne of Glass — I liked that its heroine was confident-bordering-on-arrogant (makes a nice change from the usual shrinking violets of YA), the prose is strong and descriptive, and the story itself bounces along at a good pace.

And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with a book that contains a heavy dose of escapism and wish-fulfilment — it was simply just not for me. As it happens the afterword mentions that Maas “wrote the first incarnation of the series when she was just sixteen.” Yeah, I believe it.

~Rebecca Fisher

Published on August 7, 2012. After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin. Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her… but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best. Then one of the other contestants turns up dead… quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.

SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail  FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

TIM SCHEIDLER, who's been with us since June 2011, holds a Master's Degree in Popular Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Tim enjoys many authors, but particularly loves J.R.R. Tolkien, Robin Hobb, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. When he’s not reading, Tim enjoys traveling, playing music, writing in any shape or form, and pretending he's an athlete.

View all posts by

REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

View all posts by

6 comments

  1. Since assassins usually work undercover, I was stumped by the idea of a national Assassins’ Tournament, myself.

    Assassins are tricky territory because, you know, they’re cool and all, but generally speaking we frown on killing people. I think The Covenant series by Ari Marmell skirted this fundamental problem by making his MC a thief. Plenty of people were killed, many by her, but it was never her primary function and thus, slightly more comfortable.

    • Yeah, the most common method I’ve seen is the Noble Cause. As you say, I think that we’re much more forgiving of assassins so long as the assassinations seem incidental to some other goal.

      That said, the whole thing has always felt a little disingenuous to me. Assassins are sort of like vampires imo: an innately horrific idea that we’ve made palatable by giving them cool hairdos and love interests. I’d almost rather we just gritted our teeth and wrote a contract killer novel already. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but it might be more memorable.

      • “Cool hairdos and love interests!”

        I think you’re on to something. Something like The Eiger Sanction, from so long ago, where he was a genuine hit man.

      • Therein lies my issue with “famous assassin” or “famous spy” novels–if you’re famous, and everyone knows you on sight, you can’t be very good at your job.

        I guess it’s useful for other assassins/spies who know enough to keep their heads down and their actions secretive. It’s probably easier to perform contract killings when everyone around you is paying attention to the person with the cool hairdo.

  2. I am a teenager and I am the target audience of this series, and I absolutely hate it. I think I have heard someone compared this series to GoT and I have to say that whoever said that is a complete idiot. You can call it a good wish-fulfilment romance but don’t compare it to GoT because the two of them are not the same thing and they’re not in the same class. ToG is a romance story with fantasy sub-plot not the other way around.

    • Gabriela, thanks for this — it is great to hear an opinion from the target audience! I hope you’ll give your ratings and opinions on more YA books at our site. We need your input!

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *