The three books reviewed below are the beginning of a series by an author who started out writing fan fiction, and the favorable response to her posts led to getting signed with a publisher. Her work is popular for good reason.
This young adult fantasy series has the usual mishmash of familiar themes from other fantasies and dystopias, ranging from Harry Potter to the Divergent series to Hunger Games. But Maas takes these elements and adds remarkably original additional plotting, great characters who actually grow as the series progresses, and epic themes – in short, all elements of stand-out fantasy.
Celaena Sardothien is 18 when we first meet her in Throne of Glass, and the most notorious assassin of Adarlan. She has served for a year as a slave in the salt mines after being betrayed and captured. Now she has been released by order of Crown Prince Dorian, but only in order to compete against 23 other notorious killers for the position of King’s Champion, an assassin who works for the King. If she wins the competition and serves for four years, she can have her freedom back. Chaol Westfall, Captain of the Royal Guard and Dorian’s best friend, has been assigned to help Celaena train.
During the time Celaena trains and becomes stronger, she makes some allies in the castle, including not only Dorian and Chaol, but also Nehemia, the visiting princess from the kingdom of Eyllwe, as well as the spirit of Elena, the first princess of Terrasen (the city from which Celaena came).
Elena warns Celaena of something evil in the castle, “something wicked enough to make the stars quake.” She implores Celaena to find out what it is and destroy it, before it is too late. The evil has something to do with wyrdgates, which open the way into other unearthly realms, and wyrdmarks, which can control access to these gates.
As the competition for champion goes on, it is clear that the evil pervading the castle extends to this contest, and that Celaena may not even survive. But Elena has faith in this young woman who is idealistic and brash, telling her:
“You could be great. . . . You could rattle the stars… You could do anything, if you only dared.”
Note: Spoilers Ahead for Book One
In Crown of Midnight, Celaena, who managed to survive against all odds to become the King’s Champion, must regularly present the King with the heads of those he has (by some mysterious process) identified as enemies. She and Prince Dorian had become very close before, but after she won the contest, Celaena broke off the relationship; she knew she could not be with Dorian as well as serve as the King’s minion. In any event, both Dorian and Chaol are appalled at what Celaena has been doing.
Nevertheless, Celaena becomes closer to Chaol and feels safe with him; with Chaol, Celaena feels like she is “home.” Furthermore, in Chaol she sees honor and integrity that is emblematic of what both she and her friend Princess Nehemia dream of for the future: a world in which the brutality and terror marking the reign of the King of Adarlan is a thing of the past, with both lands and hearts restored.
But then a horrific act of treachery destroys everything Celaena thought she had, as well as her relationship with Chaol. Chaol is devastated, but knows that in order to protect Celaena, he must take steps that will seem like an even greater betrayal.
Note: Spoilers Ahead for Books One and Two
Book Three adds a couple of new plot threads to the series with the introduction of some additional main characters. One is Aedion Ashryver, the infamous General of the North for the King of Adarlan, and cousin to the mysterious heir to the throne of Terrasen, Aelin Ashryver Galathynius. We know from the previous book that Celaena is actually Aelin, but she has disavowed her identity and legacy, at least, thus far.
We also get to know Manon Blackbeak, heir to the Blackbeak Witch-Clan, who was raised to respect only obedience, discipline, and brutality. Emotions like friendship, love, sympathy and empathy were considered anathema, so much so that the witches were taught they did not even have hearts. The witches have all been summoned to the Ferian Gap to learn to ride the wyverns – huge and deadly dragon-like winged beasts created by the King of Adarlan to help him conquer the rest of the kingdoms. The witches and wyverns were to be the King’s aerial cavalry. When they completed their task, he said he would let them reclaim their ancestral homeland.
Each witch gets to select a wyvern, and Manon picks Abraxos, for whom she forms an attachment, even though she is reluctant to admit it.
Celaena, now at the fortress of Mistward to seek out Fae Queen Maeve, is met by Fae Prince Rowan Whitethorn, a nephew of Maeve’s who has sworn a blood oath to serve Maeve. Celaena, now called Aelin, wants to know from Maeve more about the wyrdgates and wyrdmarks, but Maeve refuses to answer until Aelin is deemed “worthy.” To that end, Rowan is charged with training Aelin to master her magic. Only then can Aelin enter Doranelle, Maeve’s home, and get answers.
Back at the Glass Palace, we meet Sorscha, a healer who helps repair Dorian’s heart. And we follow Chaol on his quest to become a man, by resolving his ethical ambivalence and choosing to work for what is right, no matter what that entails with respect to his previous commitments.
Meanwhile, the King has gotten even stronger with the aid of evil beings from beyond the wyrdgates, and it takes the combined efforts of Aelin, now 19, and Rowan (very, very old but, like all Fae, eternally young-looking and beautiful) to make a stand, an effort that reveals new truths to each of them. They also solve some mysteries about Maeve. But is it too late? Even Dorian can no longer hold back the King, and as the book ends, a heartbreaking turn of events ensues, and all of the remaining good characters are in incredible danger.
Evaluation: Maas impresses me a great deal. Each of her books has shown better writing than the one before, and a realistic treatment of character development. Unlike so many YA books, the characters don’t undergo sudden personality changes, but when they do evolve, they do so thoughtfully and after undergoing trials and tribulations.
Another impressive aspect of the series is that rather than triangles, the main heroine has a series of relationships with different people. She approaches each new possible liaison with good feelings from previous relationships, and with a nice mix of wariness and eagerness.
Friendships between members of each sex, with the opposite sex, and even between members of different species, play a large role – another welcome feature.
Finally, the world-building is excellent, and is well-integrated into the plot.
Throne of Glass published by Bloomsbury, 2012
Crown of Midnight published by Bloomsbury, 2013
Heir of Fire published by Bloomsbury, 2014