Review: ‘Empire of Storms’ by Sarah J Maas

Out of the fifty-one books I’ve read this year so far, eight have been by Sarah J Maas, one I’ve already re-read. When I finished reading the Throne of Glass series in May, I immediately pre-ordered Empire of Storms. Since then, I read her other series A Court of Thorns and Roses and loved them just as much. It’s fair to say I was very excited for this book, and Empire of Storms was not a disappointment.

This review will contain spoilers for all books in the series preceding Empire of Storms – for posts about the other books, see my previous reviews here and here. A lot of this review also contains EoS specific spoilers, so I’ve organised all of these into the end of the post, so the beginning is still spoiler-free!

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I loved the continued character development of most characters. Elide in particular has come incredibly far and proves herself entirely capable – she is given the chance to come into her own in this book and to show she deserves a place as a noble of Terrasen when the time comes. Aelin of course continues to be impressive, but I enjoyed that the pace of her development has changed – Aelin has been settling into herself and understanding who she is as an adult, having spent so many years as Celaena, and this book continues this process. She used to take great leaps of growth, but now her arc moves more steadily as she is shaped by her experiences. Rowan’s development is something I hadn’t consciously acknowledged as I read Queen of Shadows, but after revisiting a few passages of Heir of Fire I was struck by how he and Aelin have grown into each other. Even Lorcan has organic change to his temperament, without suffering a personality transplant – he is still a bit of a prick. Personally, I felt that Dorian’s development and storyline was the standout for not flowing in this book. A lot can be excused over his experiences over the past two books, but I felt his characterisation was a bit patchy.

A major issue with this book that needs mentioning is complete and utter absence of Chaol Westfall. I need more Chaol. I want a big dramatic Chaol re-entrance to the story within the first hundred pages of ToG 6 or I will be very upset. Chaol was always a key element at the heart of these books – one of the original trio of protagonists, among the many the series has grown to accommodate. We have Aelin, Rowan, Aedion, Lysandra, Evangeline, Manon, Lorcan, Dorian and so on, but once upon a time there was just Celaena, Dorian and Chaol, and one third of those posts was missing here. Aelin is the outrageousness of this series, the bravery and audacious spirit. Dorian is (was?) the careful, considered morality between them – the conscientious prince (king) with masses of love to give and a sense of mischief which thought it pushed boundaries until Celaena waltzed into that glass castle. And Chaol is the third pillar that balances this mix – he is reason, and honour and clear-thinking. He is honest and democratic – in terms of leadership, he does things very differently to Aelin.

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I almost wonder if that’s why Maas needed to exclude Chaol from this particular part of the story – while he can bring allies from the southern continent, while he needs to visit the Torre Cesme (couldn’t we have had a disabled protagonist?), mostly I think his presence would throw a spanner in the works. Dorian, because of who he innately is and the situation he’s in at his point, will mould himself to fit among Aelin’s court, to an extent. Chaol, as he has become, would not do that anymore. Chaol the rebel leader was hard-edged and determined, and never took well to Aelin crashing his plans. Useful as she was to him, he couldn’t ameliorate himself to her presence because he knew she had her own goals. In this narrative where Aelin has so many plans but doesn’t disclose them, Chaol – a leader who still always included others in his decisions, even if they went down differing paths – would not fit on that ship.

Equally, I’m disappointed to have had no Nesryn in this book. This series has had three characters of colour, and with two of them killed to give white characters motivating grief, the absence of the last one  leaves a palpable gap.

Having read the A Court of Thorn and Roses books since Queen of Shadows, this was the first time I read and was able to make a comparison between the writing of the two series. The major difference is that ACOTAR uses the first person, while ToG remains in third person throughout, to take in more viewpoints. This works very well for each series, and the only reason I noticed it being jarring after ACOTAR was that I found Maas’ sex scenes in third person. In Empire of Storms, I felt the third person nature of these made it read slightly awkwardly – as a series of actions rather than incredibly intimate moments.

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spoilers from here on
I also loved the returning characters from The Assassin’s Blade. Rolfe and Ansel playing against Aelin as herself, rather than as Celaena, is fantastic and brilliantly comic. Rolfe’s realisation of who he was humiliated by all those years ago took me back to the end of Crown of Midnight – in all that’s taken place since, I liked the reminder of how revolutionary that news actually is. While I cackled at Rolfe, Ansel’s entrance had me whooping – I loved that reunion, and the sudden barrage of evidence of Aelin’s plans, all those breadcrumbs she’s been dropping even since Rifthold. Aelin pulled off a brilliant coup in Queen of Shadows, and Empire of Storms lives up to that skill. She also maintains the habit of not relinquishing her leadership by sharing – although we have more acknowledgement of how hard her retinue find that. Aelin got away with it in Rifthold because her companions didn’t know what to expect of her, but once they have an idea of what she can do, it is there to be disappointed before she shows her hand. While Aedion’s despair for his impatience tugged on my heartstrings, I liked that we have reason for Aelin arranging things this way – we realise how much is on her shoulders. That expectation is precisely why she keeps things quiet, for fear of disappointing them more by promising armies and not delivering them. She couldn’t bear to fail them – especially Aedion.

In terms of the romantic side of the story, my thoughts are the same as they were for A Court of Mist and Fury in that Maas is too keen to pair off all of her characters. I was disappointed that this is the direction Elide and Lorcan have been taken in. I feel this would have been a fantastic friendship – it needed no romantic element adding, and could be equally as affecting to their lives. It’s the way Nehemia was important to Celaena. When they started kissing, I just felt confused – Elide has spent the last ten years with pretty much no physical affection in her life, so it all felt jarring to me.

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I also can’t wrap my mind around Manon and Dorian – while ‘romance’ might be a loose term for their, cough, interactions. Honestly, it makes no sense to me – Manon is and always has been a literal man-eater, while Dorian gives puppies as birthday presents. I know a lot of people ship Manon with Elide, and while I can see where that comes from, for me it has too much of a power imbalance, and falls straight again into the incredibly young woman falling for incredibly old and powerful supernatural being trope (see: Twilight, The Bone Season, many of SJM’s other relationships). Personally, I think the only relationship that makes sense for Manon is to be with Asterin, and I swear Maas has already pointed to this – at Temis’ temple, Aelin saves Manon because Asterin’s sound of despair matched hers at seeing Rowan hurt. Their bond is equivocated to the most important one in the series, which I think speaks for itself. The arc of their relationship through three books so far would absolutely be considered groundwork for romance if these characters were of different genders, and I have to agree with those disappointed Maas won’t commit to an LGB+ pairing among her main cast. I’m on board with Aedion and Lysandra, but I wish that everyone in this fantastic cast wasn’t getting paired up in neat heterosexual couples.

The things I enjoyed outnumber those I didn’t, though. I squealed to have the Rowaelin mating bond confirmed, though I hated the circumstances – for entirely emotional reasons, not critical ones. Their relationship has become one that makes me happy to read, which given how it began is a pleasant surprise.

I had so many favourite moments in this book – Elide escaping the Ilken, Aelin’s vow of protection for Evangeline, cleansing the temple at Ilium, Lysandra’s enjoyment of her powers and excusions as the sea dragon. The whole arc between Aedion and Gavriel was, ironically, executed with beautiful humanity. Mostly, I loved the feeling of things coming together – what Celaena was avoiding and Aelin has been working towards for so long is all happening, and I’m not sure my heart was ready.

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The ending was heart-poundingly fantastic, but I admit to bells going off in the back of my mind reminding me of another high-profile young adult fantasy series published by Bloomsbury. It makes perfect sense – critically I have absolutely no issue with this turn of the plot. In all fairness, Aelin takes the knowledge that she must die to save the world far better than Harry Potter did. Aelin exercising her power is brilliantly and beautifully done – the joy at her control of that strength becomes bittersweet as we realise Maeve is now afraid of her. Maeve knows that Aelin could now pose a threat to her rule.

What made the whole experience fun for me is that while the series has covered a lot of ground, it has not lost the sense of what it is about, which is the woman at the centre of it. While the series absolutely has some issues with diversity, it does very well for female characters – women who are everywhere and doing everything. Women are experts in fighting, in magic, unending reservoirs of power, they are politicians and tacticians, fighters and lovers, heartless and selfless, soulless and lustful, clandestine and honest. There is no single mould for womanhood in these stories, and that makes it a lot of fun to read.

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