Throne of Glass
by Sarah J. Maas
2013 (originally published 2012) • 406 pages • Bloomsbury
When Sarah J. Maas mentions that she got the idea for Throne of Glass in high school, inspired by dark music in Disney’s Cinderella, in the supplemental material in the paperback edition of said book, I thought—well, that makes perfect sense.
I do not say this to be shady, or, more correctly, needlessly shady. (Shade is being cast, is what I’m trying to say.) But it made sense to me that Maas has spent years and years with these characters. The overall effect of reading Throne of Glass is a bit like wandering into somebody else’s high school reunion and finding yourself bewildered, simply because you don’t have access to the connective tissue between in-jokes, knowing looks, and old stories told in laughter and dropped phrases.
Throne of Glass tells the story of Celaena Sardothien, the infamous Adarlan’s Assassin. Considered the greatest living assassin, Celaena’s failed assassination attempt on the tyrant king of Adarlan sent her to Endovier, a work camp expressly designed to work its prisoners to death. A year into her life sentence, she’s approached by the crown prince of Adarlan, Dorian, with an offer. His father is holding a tournament to determine the King’s Champion—essentially, the King’s Assassin. If Celaena wins, she will serve as King’s Champion for four years before earning her freedom. If she loses–well, she’ll be dead or near enough. Calaena accepts the offer, but something other than the other competitors is threatening the halls of the castle…
Honestly, the plot and story of Throne of Glass are perfectly fine. While I think there are too many competitors in the tournament at first and security seems incredibly light at the castle for having twenty-four of the kingdom’s worst hanging out on the grounds, it works. And in a genre where book structure can sometimes be treated as an afterthought (I have so many feelings about this), it is important to point this out and praise it.
My faults with Throne of Glass lie largely in the characterization and, shockingly (she snarked), the love triangle.
Celaena just never coalesced to me as a cohesive woman instead of a collection of traits. Again, I don’t think that’s because the character isn’t well-rounded in some way, but because it can be difficult to draw all the dots together. She cares deeply about slavery, but doesn’t seem to spare a thought for servants. She won’t let anybody hurt a puppy that’s going to be drowned, but she doesn’t exactly treat the puppy great either, locking it in her dining room and threatening to turn into slippers if it pees on her stuff. She’s murdered enough people to get a reputation for it, but gets upset when other women mistake her for the prince’s latest conquest. These contradictions aren’t inherently bad. Exploring the tension between each of these things would be interesting and make Celaena more interesting. As is, she’s plenty engaging, but… I just wish I could hook into her better.
That tension is neglected in order to spend more time on action (yeah!), magic (heck yeah!), and the love triangle (BOO!). Straight love triangles are always a hard sell for me, which I recognize as personal preference, but the problem here is that the deck is definitely stacked in the favor of Chaol, the captain of Dorian’s guard, and not Dorian. This is largely because Chaol is an engaging character (although he suffers from the same lack of cohesion as Celaena) who has scenes with Celaena where we see them having a good time together against their better judgment, needling each other about morality, and make a good team. Dorian, on the other hand, spends most of his time with Celaena saying pretty basic innuendo, making her upset, and generally being overpowering. On the basis of this and a handful of scenes where we are told they’re having a good time but don’t see it, he decides that he would give up everything for her, which is… wow. Even Celaena is only largely interested in him for his looks, which is… refreshing, I guess. But there’s still a scene where both Chaol and Dorian walk into her rooms to watch her sleep, which is just creepy.
Much more successful than the love triangle is Celaena’s friendship with Nehemia, a visiting princess from a country recently conquered by Adarlan. There’s a common theory in fandom that slash ships are so popular because male relationships are written without the assumption that these two men will be friends. Conversely, female-male relationships are written with the assumption that a man and a woman in contact with each other will be dating or married, because… I dunno, straight people have magnets in their crotches or something? Therefore, creators will often show two male characters enjoying each other’s company to establish their relationship in a way that they won’t establish straight couples, which can make the latter relationship feel hollow and perfunctory. Celaena and Nehemia’s relationship reminded me of that piece of fannish wisdom, because their friendship is so sweet and charmingly present that it immediately feels more real than either of Celaena’s relationships with her designated boytoys. I have never encountered this with female characters before, so I am grateful to Throne of Glass for this novel experience.
And just because Caelana wails about how awful corsets are, I feel a mighty need to say the following: a corset is a support garment. I have had it up to here with corsets as shorthand for oppressive beauty norms, because I feel like the nuance is completely lost these days. Before we invented bras, we wore corsets. If it’s too tight, you’re wearing it wrong. The problem with corsets isn’t the garment itself, it’s the patriarchy literally twisting a support garment beyond its purpose to make it serve oppressive ideas of feminine beauty instead of literally supporting women’s bodies. In short: don’t hate the player, hate the game.
Lastly—if you have only one named character who is explicitly of color (Nehemia), using the phrase she “was one of the good ones” (308) isn’t the best idea.
Of course, all of this comes with the caveat that I am now an “old” whose romantic notions no longer note (and possibly never did) the appeal of a love triangle. Ultimately, I think Throne of Glass is no worse than, say, the Dungeons and Dragons movie. It’s a fleet read and it’s got a strong female friendship. But I’d still very much steer any kiddo taking my advice towards Graceling or Stray instead.
I rented this book from the public library.