Throne of Glass
by Sarah J. Maas
From Goodreads: After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.
Her opponents are men-thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king’s council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she’ll serve the kingdom for four years and then be granted her freedom. Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilarating. But she’s bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her … but it’s the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.
Then one of the other contestants turns up dead … quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.
I don’t like to dismiss things out of hand just because they’re popular. That’s lame, and I don’t like to be That Guy over in the corner, whingeing about how Such-And-Such thing was great before it was popular, but now it’s been ruined by fame. No one likes That Guy.
So after seeing Sarah J Mass’s books pretty much everywhere online and in bookstores, I decided to give it a shot. It couldn’t be worse than Grave Mercy, after all, and I thought I might be pleasantly surprised, though the synopsis didn’t give me much confidence- a royal competition involving assassins and thieves, after all, doesn’t sound terribly likely as a premise, and I tend to despise love triangles.
Still, I carried on. Perhaps the characters were super interesting, or the world building allowed for a competition between assassins to make perfect sense. And the love triangle, people said, was not a major part of the story. So off I went into the world of Adarlan.
And I have to say, I was not impressed with the place or its people.
Let’s start with the main character, Calaena Sardothien. At seventeen, she was the most feared assassin in Erilea until she was betrayed and sent to the salt mines of Endovier. After a year in a place where most people die within a month or two, she’s dragged out of it in order to compete against a bunch of assassins and thieves so Adarlan’s king can find himself an assassin to do his dirty work. Calaena emerges from a year in a salt mine bony and dirty, but otherwise healthy. And perfectly capable of drawing a bow, wielding a sword, throwing knives, and climbing sheer walls after resting up a little. The part of my brain that cries out for reality went off a hundred times, but I ignored it and carried on only to discover that, not only is Calaena young, feared, the very best at what she does, and able to recover from deadly situations in record time, she is also exquisitely beautiful, loved by animals, can pick up pretty much any weapon and use it expertly, and, oh yeah, the Crown Prince and his Captain of the Guard are both in love with her.
Now, the big problem I have with flawless characters like this is that they’re boring. If they’re accomplished at everything, then what can they learn? How can they grow? What is it about them that’s going to change by the end of the book? If they’re already flawless, then where’s the tension? I knew going into Throne of Glass that Calaena was going to win the competition. How could she not? No one else could hold a candle to her abilities, and no one had a snowball’s chance in hell of beating her, because she was the novel’s wish-fulfilling Mary Sue.
So I looked to the other characters for interest. Crown Prince Dorian, for example, for Captain Chaol Westfall. Neither of them were the male equivalent of the Mary Sue character (a Marty Stu, if you will), but their interesting qualities waned at exactly the same time that they fell for Calaena. Suddenly they were no longer players in a larger game. They served only to be Characters Who Adored Calaena.
The one who proved to be the most interesting was Princess Nehemia, a resident ex-royal from a kingdom recently conquered by Adarlan. She is smart and beautiful, too (because everyone in Adarlan is, apparently, smart and beautiful, except for the thieves and assassins Calaena competes against), but she has a head for politics and it is difficult to tell how, exactly, she is serving her people. Is she merely a political representative/hostage from her homeland of Eyllwe? Or is she quietly aiding a rebellion against Adarlan? It’s hard to tell, and while Maas devotes some ink to the subject, she only touches on it now and then. Perhaps it’s fleshed out in the next book. I don’t know. I haven’t read that one.
The characters aren’t the only disappointing element of Throne of Glass. The prose is clumsy and often awkward, with many words and phrases used in such as way that I would stop reading mid-sentence and think, ‘is that how that phrase is supposed to go?’ or ‘I wonder if Maas knew the meaning of that word, because that’s not how it’s normally used’. I don’t demand that every sentence be graceful and perfect in every grammatical way, but if the prose itself knocks me out of the story, then that’s a problem.
I can understand the appeal of Throne of Glass. Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves in Calaena’s shoes and be fearless, young and accomplished, as well as beautiful and beloved by two handsome and accomplished men? But ultimately, I found the characters to be uninteresting, the story predictable, and the world building to be lackluster at best. Maas’s writing did improve as the book went on, but in the acknowledgements at the end she says she spent ten years working on this book. For all that time spent on the writing, I would expect Throne of Glass to be far better than it is.
If you’re looking for a fantasy trilogy about a teenaged assassin, I would recommend Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, by now a classic fantasy story about a prince’s bastard son taken into the palace and given to the royal assassin and spymaster. Hobb’s writing is excellent, the story is tightly knit and believable within its well-crafted world, and for all his flaws and mistakes FitzChivalry Farseer is a far more interesting and sympathetic young assassin than Calaena Sardothien.