This post is long, but it was a lot longer – because I wanted to talk about each book individually, as well discussing the series as a whole. Therefore, I’ve split it into two – this one will be mini(ish) reviews of each book, and the next post on 11th June will be my reflections on the series as a whole. The length held me up by a day, so I’ve again broken my Wednesday/ Saturday routine… I’ll keep trying to get better at that, promise! I’m also the other side of tired this week, having oversubscribed myself to bookish events/ hospital appointments etc, so if there are ridiculous typos or weird sentences, please humour me….
I picked this series up primarily because I was intrigued by the protagonist: Celaena Sardothien is a notorious assassin in the kingdom of Adarlan – trained by Arobynn Hamel, King of the Assassins, she is the most skilled killer for hire around. I started with Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight, then went back to the prequel novellas in The Assassin’s Blade while I was waiting for copies of books three and four to arrive. I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Maas’ characters and the surprises she brings, and I can’t wait for Empire of Storms in September.
The Assassin’s Blade
Prequel novellas bind up, containing:
The Assassin and the Pirate Lord
The Assassin and the Healer
The Assassin and the Desert
The Assassin and the Underworld
The Assassin and the Empire
Sarah J Maas says on her website that she ‘like[s] to think of it as book zero and recommend[s] reading it before Throne of Glass’, but personally, I don’t agree. You could read it first, but my recommendation would be after books 1 or 2. I really enjoyed the novellas, but largely as backstory to a character I already knew – throughout ToG and CoM there are little references to the things we see here, and I enjoyed them as expansions. Granted though, there were lots of little references in Throne of Glass which I noticed more on a second read after TAB, and reading it first would make these more noticeable. Since the stories are separate though, and a bit disconnected, I think I would have found it jarring without knowing the endpoint that it was working towards.
[spoilers this para]
I also enjoyed in ToG that Maas left who betrayed Celaena ambiguous – it was guessable, but still open-ended. There was something to be confirmed there, because Celaena doesn’t want to think about it, and this collection makes it explicit. While that is important information, I preferred having it confirmed later on, rather than knowing from the start something Celaena didn’t.
As stories in themselves, I really loved the further characters that Maas introduces. Going in, I was mostly interested in meeting Arobynn Hamel in-text for the first time, and to understand more about the Assassin’s Keep and how Celaena’s life before ToG was, and this is brilliantly done. These stories give brilliant context to why the King of Adarlan is so feared and despicable a figure – what he has done, and the culture of cruelty and fear that he has created.
This one was a really quick read for me, because the five stories give it clear ‘chunks’, setting a really easy pace for reading in a few sittings. The stories do relate to each other strongly, but they sit independently as whole narratives. While they’re all very good, and The Assassin and the Empire broke my heart a little (as I was expecting), my favourite was The Assassin and the Healer – Celaena taking a little time out of her crappy life to teach another woman something that she can’t imagine not having, in the basic skills to defend herself physically.
I found this exchange , and the examination of the fundamentally different principals on which they live, really interesting. All of this is influenced by the circumstances they’ve grown up in, which were in turn created by the King of Adarlan. I also found the deconstruction of female power in this story particularly fascinating. The power that Arobynn gave Celaena by training her saves her from the life Yrene lives, and yet simultaneously her debt to him means she is as financially trapped as the bar maid. The ways women gain and lose power – and the ways in which they must exercise it – revolve around the violence of men.
These themes of female power and place in a heavy-handedly patriarchal kingdom are continued throughout the series, and are built on wonderfully, especially with the presence of characters like Nehemia, Kaltain, Manon and Elide.
Book 1: Throne of Glass
This was the first of the series I read and, while as a standalone I might not have enjoyed it so much, with the story that follows I have no desire to fault it. I know people find it frustrating to be told to keep reading until a series will ‘get good’, but the problems I know people to have with this book are answered by the following instalments.
This book had me fall in love with its characters and their potential. I picked the series up because I was intrigued by Celaena, and while her skills as an assassin aren’t fully ‘showcased’ in this book, and occasionally I was frustrated by her, I actually fell a little in love with her for that reason. She is simultaneously a notorious criminal and an eighteen year old girl. She is a weapon, and she is a child who has experienced several lifetimes of trauma and abuse. She is clever, and strong, and principled, but not invincible – not one-hundred-percent clear on who she is, where she should be and what she should be doing, because since she was eight years old, she has had no choice. What drew me to Celaena as a character, and maintained my interest throughout all the books, is the choices of someone coming of age in circumstances that she did not ordain, with a huge amount of history already behind her.
[spoilers this para]
Initially, I found the supernatural element to this book a little jarring, but I’m not sure why I wasn’t actually expecting it, since this is a world where magic exists – just not in Erilea, at the moment. I did figure out where the plot was going before the end, but this is the only book in which that was the case, in part because the competition lends a predictable structure. In the way that a rom-com opening with one male and one female character is predictable, the outcome of the competition, however complicated by murders and monsters, was only going one way. I also admit to sighing a little at Celaena’s discovery of the passage on Samhuinn – it was a little cliche, although still exciting.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the character of Kaltain Rompier. She would be so easy to write as a villain and a hateful character – it is easy to initially share in the irritation felt by Celaena, Nehemia and many other characters. But the scenes Maas gives us between Kaltain and the Duke give us a different perspective on Kaltain’s situation, and while I certainly wasn’t fond of her, I was incredibly angry on her behalf for the way she is used and then betrayed. Maas representation of women in a violent patriarchal world delivers this kind of reluctant pathos again and again.
Book 2: Crown of Midnight
This is the book which kept me up until 5:30 am, listening to the birds, because I just couldn’t put it down. From about halfway through, there was no point at which I could stand to pause and sleep – I tried a couple of times and couldn’t settle at all. This was the book which for me kicked the series from ‘nice fantasy which I’m enjoying’ to ‘series I will squeal about to anyone who asks’.
CoM also broke my heart into several million tiny little pieces which refused to be glued back together again. But in the course all of that, my interest in Celaena as a character became outright adoration. The full extent of her skills as an assassin are fully displayed in this book – having recovered from her time at Endovier and the demands of the competition, she is restored to the level of practice and fitness which she relied on before. We start to see what kind of power Celaena really has – why she is so notorious as an assassin, besides Arobynn’s PR campaigns.
[spoilers this para]
Her grief propels also propels Celaena into territory she hasn’t chartered before – while we’ve seen her motivated by her morals, her actions in Skull’s Bay were not on behalf of someone she loved. Her actions after Sam’s death were manipulated by others, information laid out for her to follow to its end – whereas this time, Celaena is at the middle of a web with her grief casting about for who she can blame, and landing on every target possible. And yet, as with Sam’s death, Nehemia’s is still intended to control Celaena’s actions – to push her into a defence of Terrasen, of Eyllwe, of all those in need of defence against Adarlan.
[spoilers this para]
I have a lot of feelings about the romantic part of this book, which I will expand on in my whole-series-review post, but for now I just want to note that the end of Chaolena hurt. I mean. A lot.
I really loved the sense of ambiguity that Maas introduces within Celaena’s moral character here – we have known before that she is an assassin, and we know from the prequels that she has a conscience, but this is the first time we see Celaena making her own rules for what is right and wrong. Here, she is scaring the people closest to her with her decisions, and it makes very clear the gaps of experience between her, Chaol and Dorian which are apparently impassable. The life Celaena has had is in evidence from the first scenes, where the men have their stomachs turned by the evidence of her committing murder, and their sheltered upbringing perhaps underlines some of their shared fascination with her.
Bonus Pro-tip: don’t search for fan art until you’ve read all of the published books, because things might change and you might find spoilers.
Book 3: Heir of Fire
I tried to read HoF and QoS more slowly, to make the series last a little longer, but it just wasn’t happening. I had a major book hangover from CoM, which was not alleviated by reading TAB, and when this book finally arrived I started reading pretty much immediately. For the record I don’t recommend reading books you’re super-invested in on your lunch break, as it makes you an unreliable judge of time.
Crown of Midnight took the series to a different level than Throne of Glass, expanding the scope of what Celaena was facing and where she wanted to position herself within her world. Heir of Fire took it another huge step further, although the pace slows down again.
[spoilers this para]
I know some people found the pace of this book frustrating, but I really enjoyed it, because throughout the book we are reintroducing ourselves to Celaena as Aelin. Her identity reveal at the end of CoM was brilliantly done, and the events that place her in Wendlyn move incredibly fast – so for me, it made perfect sense that once there, she would be standing still for a while. Giving Chaol that clue about who she was is one of the first times she has acknowledged her old identity in a decade, and she still doesn’t speak her own name aloud.
This book also introduced a whole host of new fantastic characters – Aedion, Manon and her witches, the friends Celaena makes in Mistward, Maeve and Rowan. All of these characters bring their own kind of power to bear, and I love how Maas weaves so many separate strands together here, holding them ready to bring together.
Book 4: Queen of Shadows
Once I got to Queen of Shadows, I had settled into things a little bit. I was prepared (I thought) for almost everything to change and shift again over the course of the book, but as it turns out, I wasn’t prepared enough.
[spoilers this para]
QoS sees Aelin return to Erilea, and all of the time Maas spent in HoF slowly persuading us to think of her both as Celaena and as Aelin are incredibly effective once she is just Aelin. Switching names for your protagonist partway through a series is risky, and could be incredibly jarring, but it’s impressively pulled off here.
This book kept me completely enthralled, because even with all of the things the series before has been developing previously, this book still had surprises, without them being contrived. My favourite thing about it was the development not only of individual characters, but of the relationships between them. This is also the book where all of Aelin’s skill, not only as an assassin and a fighter, but as a strategist, come into play. Even the reader is unaware of her plans for most of the book, only to have them revealed when necessary.
This book draws on the huge amounts of preparation Maas put in place with all the previous books, and for that reason I’m not going to expand on it as as I have the others, because a lot of my thoughts play into the other post I’m writing.
I don’t think it’s remotely necessary to actually mention in as many words, but: I really love this series. I has its flaws, and I completely understand why some others weren’t won over and didn’t continue to the later and longer books. But for me? I’m in love with the plot, with the characters, with the fantastic women who keep getting stronger and stronger, who turn up to save the day when the boys mess it up, who I want to rule the world, and fix all the things the men have got wrong.