One of my goals this year is to read more fantasy by female authors. I will not declare this to be an exclusive goal (if the next Martin or Rothfuss or Lynch or Staveley novel is punished I will devour it with no guilt whatsoever). But as a woman trying to write fantasy, I want to see more what is being published by my female peers. This also may lead to less obnoxious grim-dark fantasy, which sounds great to me. My reading choices are also currently limited to what I can find in my city’s libraries–and because I’m lazy, this is mostly e-books.
Which is how I ended up reading the entirety of the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. I’m not really sure how or why this happened. Some part laziness (all the books were available on Overdrive as e-books), some parts morbid curiosity tied to my frustration and increased eyerolls… and there was some genuine enjoyment as well. I don’t mind ‘fluff’. I also hate dismissing something as ‘fluff’, especially as this is a) very female-centric and b) very YA (in some ways… more on that later). I think it is too easy to dismiss both of those as somehow less worthy to read than other fantasy–and that’s not even getting into the disturbing oft-found perception of fantasy/genre fiction/YA fiction as being ‘less worthy’ than literary fiction.
N.B. While I’m reviewing the series of 7 books, I’m only counting it as 6 since I technically read Throne of Glass just before Christmas last year.
Spoiler warning: I will attempt to review the series as a whole without revealing too many spoilers, but if you are in the middle of reading these novels or if you hate being spoiled, I may accidentally reveal too much. There are some big twists that I sort of have to obliquely reference. Other statements I’ve whited out.
The first book starts out with Celaena Sardothian, a famous assassin who is rescued from slavery in a salt mine to join a competition to become the Champion for the King of Adarlan. It’s not really clear why this competition is happening aside from the fact that it is a great way to spring her from slavery. Anyway, her patron is Prince Doran, joined by his bodyguard Chaol Westfall, whose job it is to train Celaena (and make sure she doesn’t escape). But something worse than the King of Adarlan being a super evil tyrant threatens, and Celaena gets mixed up with some magic and evil demons when the spirit of a long-dead queen comes to her and tasks her with a magical quest that becomes tied to Celaena’s need to win the competition.
I enjoyed the competition/tyrant king parts more than the magical quest part, which is too bad because the magical quest becomes the important part of subsequent books. Actually, as the series went on, with a number of twists and turns and reveals that aren’t as shocking as Maas would like us to believe, the magical quest subsumes the tyrant king plot and becomes the main focus. There is actually very little similarity in the goals of Book 1 and Book 5. In some ways, this is fine–books evolve. But it does lead to some dissonance as the series grows in scope and adds a number of characters and plotlines that were not even hinted at in the first book.
If these novels were actually really good I would have less hesitation about defending them. For example, I wholeheartedly defend The Hunger Games because I really enjoyed them–even if the Collins’ writing style bugged me, the story was so engaging I usually didn’t notice. It’s the same with Harry Potter (don’t even try to say Rowling’s writing style is great–her characters and worldbuilding, however, are often fantastic). However, Maas’ writing annoyed me to the point where I was often pulled out of my enjoyment of the story. Again, I want to reiterate that I’m not trying to necessarily pass a value judgement–writing styles are entirely subjective and I try to avoid being snobbish. But goddamn, the incessant sentence fragments drove me mad. (I know I do them myself–I have one in the second paragraph of this review. Sometimes they are even what is best for the narrative. But I’m also not writing a novel right now, so I am not holding myself to such high standards as I normally would.)
Even worse than the sentence fragments is the choice of words at times–especially when these words are used constantly. The two main ones are “huffed” and “barked”. It got to the point where I twitched involuntarily every time one of these words was used, because they were always used in the same way: “huffed a laugh” and “knees (or another body part) barked with pain”.
[I keep trying to insert an Inigo Montoya gif here. You know the one I mean…]
“Huffed” usually implies annoyance. Why use it to mean “breathed” or “laughed” or anything else to do with breath? (It’s usually a laugh but sometimes it’s a romantic breathing on someone else and that was equally strange and annoying). And how can a body part “bark” with pain? I cannot emphasize how often these words are used and how much it annoyed me every single time they were.
The other thing that annoyed me to a ridiculous extent was the incessant POV shifts. I am a huge sucker for multi POV, suckled at G. R. R. Martin’s teats and nourished by the likes of much of modern fantasy. But Maas will jump between POVs in a number of tiny sections, weighing in on everyone’s thoughts for almost every goddamn scene, and it’s exhausting. And completely unnecessary. (Sentence fragment alert). Even more egregiously, it’s also used for the worst plot twists and deus ex machina. The excuse for these plot twists is that Celaena doesn’t trust her friends/other POVS so she doesn’t tell them everything, allowing Maas to pull things from bloody thin air.
The goddamn romance
Now, I’m a fan of romance in fantasy, especially YA. I don’t sneer at a good love triangle. But the love triangle in Books 1-2 was far more of an obtuse triangle than an equilateral (that’s my maths reference done for the week), as in, it’s really obvious that one of them has way more chemistry with Celaena than the other. How is this solved? By blaming the obvious love interest for something that really obviously wasn’t his fault and committing a character assassination that lasted until Book 6 and reducing an interesting character to someone who was so peripheral that (spoiler)she even manages to find an excuse to get rid of him (but still without the guts to kill him) for the fifth book(end spoiler).
Even worse, when Celaena undergoes a retcon and basically stops being the character that we followed for two books, Maas decided she needed something more in keeping with the new Celaena and the new huge magic world plot. The new love interest never grabbed me, even through pages and pages of painstakingly described sexual tension/desire. By the way, Maas can only ever write one type of romantic tension: “Oh we hate each other except we secretly want to hump like bunnies”. Possibly this is because Celaena is an ass so every relationship, even platonic ones, starts out this way. Of course, even after the characters admit to fancying each other, then there are about 2 1/2 books of “Oh no, we can’t have sex yet…” Because Maas can’t give up extending the “tension” into eyerolling lengths. And yet, when these characters do finally have sex, then there are pages and pages of it in eye-rolling detail. In some ways these books are painfully YA. In others, they are kind of eye-poppingly not.
Worst of all, EVERYONE IN THIS WHOLE SERIES HAS A LOVE STORY. Maybe not the villains. But literally everyone else. Have a single woman and a single man in the same room? Bam, they suddenly fancy each other. Sometimes this is done with a complete lack of chemistry. For example, (spoiler)Chaol, he of the character assassination, and the criminally underused Nesryn. BUT at least this was addressed and sorted in Book 6(end spoiler). The main problem with this proliferation of romance is that almost every single pair manages to be a million times more interesting than the main love story, even if they are always completely inevitable and you see them coming from a million miles away (again, see Book 6 for this).
Some positives, or, why I kept on reading
I’m kidding; I’m not really sure why I kept on reading. Morbid curiosity, as I suggest in the title, might be one factor. Another might be a sick determination to see it through. After all, when you’ve wasted time reading three books, might as well read the other four? (Actually, I thought there were only five in total when I started. Turns out there are six in the main series and one book of novellas, with one more coming out this autumn. Yes, I’ll probably read it, even if it’s just from morbid curiosity.)
However, I did keep on reading, even though I often wondered why (first half of book 2, almost all of book 3, EVERY PAGE OF INCESSANT SEX IN BOOK 5). The plots are generally well-constructed, when they don’t rely on POV abuse as detailed above. Celaena does evolve to be slightly less obnoxious and selfish, though she is remarkably dumb for a world-famous assassin (see especially: the prequel novellas).
The biggest positive is that there are pretty interesting female characters, and a wide range of them. Maas seems to have something for ‘innocent healers’ because there are two in the series. We have noble princesses (Nehemia), kick-ass evil bitches (Manon Blackbeak), and a variety of women of varying ability, function, and sex appeal (LOL, just kidding, all of them are SO BEAUTIFUL AND SEXY THAT EVERY MAN WANTS THEM. Or just, y’know, the man that is destined to be their match). However, some of them are actually very interesting, even the ones who are chronically underused (Nesryn). Almost all of them are less annoying than Celaena.
My favourite book of the series? Book 6, i.e. the one that took place in a largely different world than the rest of the series, and the one in which Celaena doesn’t feature at all. Apparently lots of other readers weren’t a fan of this one. I have no idea why. There was political intrigue of the sort that the first book promised (only to then largely drop), and–blessedly–a limited number of POV characters who didn’t switch madly back and forth during a single scene. I think Maas went back to her roots with this one and it is decidedly better, combining the grander scope that the books evolved into with less nonsense.
The characters still huffed and their body parts still barked though. Incessantly.
Oops, there’s another sentence fragment.