Review: The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas (2 of 2)

For previous mini-reviews on each book in the series, see this post. This time, I’m going to discuss general thoughts on the series as a whole.

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My previous post was mostly raving, but if there is something I vaguely don’t like about these books, it’s the titles. Their connections to the content of each book is tenuous, except perhaps for Heir of Fire. Yes, there is a glass throne in book one – in all of the books, actually – but a lot more is actually made of the glass castle it is inside. The titles of each novella have more connection to their subject matter (prominently featuring pirate lords, a healer, and the desert). Perhaps there’s something I’ve missed, but in particular I feel books one and two could have stronger titles. As complaints go though, it has very little to do with the content of the books, and is pretty minor.

Celaena Sardothien

Fantasy series are known for having large casts of characters, but Maas’ have a special place in my heart. They are good, bad and every shade in between, and their characterisation is never static – circumstance and experience change them repeatedly. I loved how even while the protagonist is well-introduced from the start, as Chaol walks her about the corridors of Endovier failing to disorient her, with every book we learn something more about Celaena – something about her skill, her personality, her needs and wants. She is never written as just one thing – she is simultaneously an eighteen year old young woman who loves books, who has a certain vanity about her appearance, a certain insecurity about how she will be perceived.

[spoilers this para]
In Throne of Glass, for a long while I sided with Chaol in being frustrated with how badly Celaena keeps her skills hidden from the other contestants. His tactic to keep her identity and genuine prowess secret is a good one, but Celaena is no good at it. But thinking about it, I realised this is the same part of Celaena that stands in front of the mirror preening in a gorgeous dress before she goes to a ball – she is not a perfect person, and one of her major flaws is her vanity. In the first scenes when she is presented to Dorian, she is conscious of how emaciated and dirty she is, and it bothers her – an eighteen year old who already lost her parents, her country, her freedom, her innocence and her partner. At first glance, it could be taken as shallowness, but in fact I think it’s part of something much broader that Maas is showing us about her character. Chaol asking Celaena to pretend to be less competent than she is in the competition immediately pushes on this weakness. Already she is a diminutive-looking girl in a line of male candidates, being sneered at, and she enjoys surprising people with her skill. It’s what she enjoys about beating Rolfe in The Assassin and the Pirate Lord – she loves to surpass people’s expectations. It’s also exactly the reason she doesn’t want to shift, doesn’t want to learn magic from Rowan in HoF – she never had any control over that power, and for her at that moment, it’s better to not engage than to be humiliated. Celaena is a very proud person, and that extends to every situation of her life. The moments where she has no pride left – the ride to Endovier, the first weeks in Wendlyn where she drinks and loses herself – are only when she is at her lowest, and usually when she is alone. She has very strong walls around herself, which are built of pride and vanity, be it real, affected or a mixture – and she doesn’t let those walls down in the presence of other people.

Romantic Relationships

Something I adore about this series is that Celaena has multiple romantic entanglements – and while the drama that comes with that is to be expected, she isn’t a hero who has to fall in love once and then it is forever. She has a romantic history, and the validity of one love affair isn’t over-ridden by a new one – there is an organic, genuine progression of her feelings.

[spoilers this para]
Her feelings for Sam are always important, and influence her actions. But it doesn’t devalue her being able to fall in love of varying shades again. Dorian becomes her very sincere friend, through all the different forms that their relationship takes, and their surviving all of that creates a far stronger bond. They are interested in each other, they both move on, but then they are both there when nobody else is. Dorian, through much fault of his own, has been desperately lacking in female friendship before he meets Celaena – and at that time, Celaena has experienced being robbed of the freedom for a romantic relationship. She has had one romance with Sam, and her punishment for it became his death and Endovier. She has never had the freedom of a little recklessness, and Dorian is always reckless with women, especially women he isn’t supposed to get involved with. They both learn a lesson from their entanglement, even if it takes a while to be clear to them.

[spoilers this para]
Chaol on the other hand – Chaol is perfect for Celaena. I love that the narrative acknowledges, in his realisation, that it would have worked, if she was just Celaena. Aelin, on the other hand…

[spoilers this para]
The end of Chaol-ena broke my heart in a lot of ways, and the pain of their separation echoes through all the books afterwards, because the manner of their breakup is so slow and unclear. The end of their relationship is not the end of their feelings, and as this is a YA series I think that’s a brilliant thing for Maas to portray. Of course it doesn’t help that the shift of Celaena giving way and accepting herself as Aelin only happens because of her trip to Wendlyn, which Chaol orchestrates. He acts out of love, and it is (eventually) for the best – but that moment when she boards the ship at the end of CoM symbolises her leaving in more senses than one. Celaena never comes back to Erilea. This being the moment that she chooses to give him the clue to who she is not only reinforces that extra element in their separation, which he is unaware of, but is her expression of trust in him.

[spoilers this para]
Rowan and Aelin initially, I was entirely opposed to. I am still not entirely on board, because it is another iteration of my least favourite trope – teenage human and ancient humanoid creature (vampire/ elf/ alien/ fae, take your pick) who is ancient, but it’s ok because she (almost always she) is very mature. I hate it in Twilight, I was frustrated by it in The Bone Season. And here, it’s weirder, because she isn’t only human – they aren’t some kind of ‘equivalent’ age, but she is demi-fae. She is a child to him. Yes, by their characters and their experiences, I do love them. They work brilliantly. But this trope exasperates me so much.

And Other Relationships, Too

Moving on from romance, though there so many other relationships within this text that are brilliantly written and full of complexity, and it is in the relationships that I find pull out a lot of the thematic ‘meat’ of the story.

[spoilers this para]
Celaena’s relationships with other women are fantastically developed throughout the series – and I love that there is essentially no character that Maas dismisses with her writing. She occasionally follows conventions only to turn them around later and challenge us – Kaltain is not shallow or unintelligent, Lysandra is a lot more than vain and self-involved, and Manon the witch is magnificently interesting.

The power dynamics at play amid all of these relationships are critically important to the world Maas creates – the political landscape, both existing and the one in development, is made of them. Power is always important, especially in Celaena’s life – QoS is the first time in her life she hasn’t been obliged to someone, and has acted only on her own orders. From her life in Terrasen, she went to Arobynn’s control, to the life of a slave in Endovier, to the King’s competition and contract. Power exerted by Arobynn, Clarisse, Rolfe, the King, Duke Perrington – they are all exploitative, and fundamentally refuse to acknowledge the personhood of others. This is why I love Celaena as a character – why I admire Dorian, Chaol, Lysandra, Aedion, Rowan and all those who work with her. They have all experienced having their agency taken away – by who they were working for, by the law, by the person who owned them, a person they were sworn to. They all have experienced being powerless, and their ultimate mission is to hand other people that stolen power back.

What’s it actually about?

This series has so much going for it – so much articulated about trust, protection and friendship, about freedom and property, about conquered people and diaspora, about the experience of loss and how it changes us, about identity and its connection to our histories and current situations, identity and our origins. I really enjoyed the story, but the resonance of what Maas writes about is what had me fall in love with the series.

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