Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Had I not been as morbidly fond of stories about assassins as I happen to be, I may have ditched this book after the first three chapters. The main character, the 18 year old Celaena Sardothien, appeared to be insufferably shallow and haughty, and I had a hard time believing that someone, who has just spent an entire year in a death camp, would register, let alone care, whether her wardens are handsome or not.
Chaol Westfall was not excessively handsome, but she couldn’t help finding the ruggedness of his face and the clarity of his golden-brown eyes rather appealing. She cocked her head, now keenly aware of her wretched dirtiness.
She’s even moping about her own gritty looks, as compared to the immaculate appearance of the incredibly charming and handsome crown prince, while at the same time worrying if she’s about to be executed. Although I’ve never been in a similar situation – for which I’m hella grateful, byt the way – I am pretty sure I wouldn’t give a damn about my looks. However, Celaena does:
She looked at her rags and stained skin, and she couldn’t suppress the twinge of shame. What a miserable state for a girl of former beauty!
I kept reading, though, and the story began to captivate me.
Celaena, a former assassin, who has been sentenced to spend the rest of her life slaving in the salt mines of Endovier, is brought before the crown prince of Adarlan, Dorian Havilliard, and presented with an offer to become his champion in a contest arranged by his father, the king of Adarlan (whose name shall apparently remain forever a secret …). If she wins, Celaena will serve as the King’s private hench(wo)man for a period of 4 years, eventually regaining her freedom. If she loses, she will be sent back to Endovier.
Although the first option is obviously the most appealing, the fact remains that the King is nothing short of a monster wearing the face of a human, and Celaena has her reasons to fear and loathe him. Going back to Endovier equals being worked to death, sooner rather than later, so she engages in the contest with every ounce of her strength and willpower.
At first, I found it bit odd that the King would want to issue a contest, pitting murderers, thieves and other shades of riffraff against each other, in order to have the winner become his personal champion. I get that the winner would have proven his or her worth as a fighter, but personally, I would be somewhat reluctant to have a fellow with decidedly questionable morals flipping daggers in my general direction. But Maas has the King address this issue, arguing that the winner is going to have much to gain and too much to lose, and although the King’s arrogance is infinitely more obnoxious than Celaena’s, he does have a point.
So, I decided to buy into the premise – if not for the sophistication and credibility of the storyline, then for the entertainment. To my surprise, I became hooked, and in spite of small episodes which were borderline cheesy (the scene with Celaena and the bag of mixed candy is one of them), my overall appreciation of Maas’ dedication to her characters is undeniable.
There’s nothing more boring than an oh-so-unique main character – the worst example I’ve come across so far being the absurdly powerful Jaenelle from Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels-series. Although the point of Celaena’s epic awesomeness is reiterated ad nauseam, Maas has made a serious effort to counter it with a healthy dose of anti-heroism, making Celaena much more approachable as a character.
When it becomes obvious that someone is meticulously slaughtering their way through the other contestants, Celaena begins to realize that truly sinister forces are at work beneath the glittering surface of the court. While she engages head-on in her training sessions with the adorably gruff Captain of the Guard, Chaol Westfall, she does her best to avoid being wrapped up in the mysteries surrounding the murders, at least until she realizes that she does not have much of a choice. However, what initially seemed to me to be an unappealing apathetic attitude, turns out to be a vulnerable young woman’s futile attempt at shielding herself from a dark and troubled past.
Maas picks apart her main character in a slow and steady manner, revealing a lonely, scared, and in many ways insecure young woman, who is simultaneously strong, kind, and caring. And although Maas is often drawing upon well worn tropes, I find that the mix of Celaena’s heroic and anti-heroic traits turns her into a very relatable and interesting character.
With beautiful writing and wonderful dialogue, Maas has managed to create an atmosphere which I found compelling and surprisingly unique. The story is filled with action, danger and (to my immense satisfaction!) plenty of sexual tension, and as the competition progresses, it becomes clear that this part of the story is only a small aspect of an overarching plot with a much wider scope.
As for the world-building, Maas has created a recognizable, yet in some ways original, universe from elements of traditional high fantasy, while blending it with a solid touch of chick lit. The story is set in a medieval-like world, where magic exists. The prime antagonist is The King, the fearsome ruler of Adarlan and almost all of the continent of Erilea, which he conquered 10 years prior. No one living in Erilea is currently able to tap into their magical abilities, as all magic was stifled on the continent a short while before the onset of the conquest, but some are able to call upon an ancient power called The Wyrd, although the knowledge is far from common and a rather closely guarded secret. The wyrd-magic is explored in greater detail in the following installments in the series, and compared to many other magical systems, I’ve encountered in fantasy so far, this is actually quite original – to my best knowledge, at least.
The touch of chick lit is visible in the way Celaena unabashedly bends the social conventions governing life at court, treating the crown prince with a liberatingly cheeky attitude, which he in turn appreciates immensely. While staying at the castle, Celaena is basking in luxuries like fancy clothes, delicious food and the assistance of servants, but her love of luxury is contrasted by her complete lack of vanity where her training is concerned, and it all serves to illustrate that Celaena is a person with many talents, secrets, and faces. Although she’s too simplistically portrayed to be considered anything like a deep and complex character, sheis much more dark and morally flawed than your regular YA-fantasy heroine.
As for the other characters, I’m only going to mention Chaol and Dorian, although the Eyllwe princess, Nehemia, plays a large part, too. I’m going to describe her more thoroughly in my review of the sequel, Crown of Midnight, though, so I’ll leave her be for now.
Chaol – oh, is he ever the sweetheart! He’s such an honest, decent guy, who would do anything to protect his best friend, Dorian, and he has a hard time wrapping his stubborn mind around the fact that Celaena – despite her former occupation – isn’t the monster he’d imagined her to be. Chaol is the kind of person who values honor, friendship and loyalty above anything else. His steadfast character serves to balance Celaena, who’s much more impulsive and driven by an often wild and violent temper, but Chaol is – in turn – also inspired by her qualities, and the two of them make an adorable team.
Dorian is something of a cookie-cutter prince: black hair, blue eyes, charming and flirtatious. He’s also very endearing, being much more concerned for the well-being of his friends than himself, and he’s on the verge of breaking through a rather paralyzing fear of his father, as his injustice and general reign of terror stuns Dorian on several accounts. He’s not quite there yet, but as there are clear signs of him developing from careless to considerate, from oblivious to sentient, Dorian is a character, I enjoyed following.
I’ll recommend Throne of Glass to everyone who enjoys an action-packed adventure, which is also an enjoyable mix of fantasy and romance. The worldbuilding could be more thorough, and the characters (especially the King) could be more complex, but in the end, it didn’t matter all that much to me – I fell in love with Maas’ universe regardless.