Sunday, September 14, 2014

Series Review: Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, Heir of Fire

Prepare yourself for a Maas-ive review. (Hur hur hur.) It's hard to fathom that author Sarah J. Maas has only been on the scene for two years.  She's published four fat books, made it to the NYT Bestseller List, and is being buzzed about all over the book blogosphere.  Readers are in love with her novels and novellas.  I'm so glad that I finally got to reading all of them — not just Throne of Glass and The Assassin's Blade — because I was getting really tired of being out of the loop.

I will say that I do not adore the series.  I feel a mixture of mild favor, sparse admiration, and punctuated disregard.  That being said, I do think that Maas is improving as a writer, significantly, with each book she writes, and I will most definitely be reading the final three installments when they come out.  By the time book six is released, I may have no complaints!

The series follows a young woman named Celaena Sardothien.  Classic fantasy name, right?  It makes me think of a scene from Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca:
“I’d read fantasy if they had simple names like Jane and Bob from Wagga,” I say. “Why does it have to be Tehrana and Bihaad from the World of Sceehina?” 
Jimmy looks at my mother and rolls his eyes. “No wonder they call her a bimbo behind her back.”
 We meet Celaena in Throne of Glass, when she is a slave in the salt mines of Endovier.  She is taken from the mine by the crown prince, Dorian, who has selected Celaena to be his candidate in his father's competitive search for a court assassin.  Why on Fantasy Planet would he choose an eighteen-year-old girl for this task? Because Celaena, before being tossed into the mine, was a notorious and deadly assassin!

This sounds like a pretty indulgent character and plot, right?  The first novel is highly indulgent, and frequently cheesy. (I heap the lion's share of my contempt on the scene where Celaena plays the piano with aching emotion and is witnessed by her love interests, who react with infatuation and awe. Yuck.)

In fact, Throne of Glass earns most of my negative criticism. Maas's writing is noticeably immature, which is understandable, as this is her first novel.  There is quite a bit of repetition, of both sentiment and style. Characters will think the same things over and over again. There is a despicably contrived love triangle. Celaena's character is inconsistent — wavering between a psychologically damaged killer and a flirty, frivolous teenager.  It's a little bit of a mess.

Basically, it's widely acknowledged by reviewers that readers need to make it through the imperfect Throne of Glass in order to read the much improved Crown of Midnight, where things start to get really good.


I did not think that things got really good in Crown of Midnight.  In the second installment, we witness how Celaena handles being the enslaved assassin of the nasty King of Adarlan.  There's a lot of intrigue, romance, and bloodshed. Maas's writing improves a good deal, but it still suffers from unrelenting cheesiness.  (Note: many readers really enjoy the lighthearted elements of these books.  I may just be a scrooge; I don't know.)  One thing that I will admit is impressive in Crown of Midnight is how Maas very skillfully turns the series in a more epic direction.  Book two is a very successful transition book.

There's also a huge romantic element in the first half of the book, between Celaena and fan-favorite Chaol.  I have to admit, I don't particularly appreciate Chaol as a character. (Ducks rotten tomatoes) Yes! I think he's unbelievable as the Captain of the King's Guard, because he isn't given much to do besides moon over and react to Celaena.  His personality is sweet and loving, which seems more in lieu with, I don't know, a farm boy than with a warrior. However, I do think he's sympathetic and the ending of Crown of Midnight sets him up for potential development.


Book three, Heir of Fire, I found myself liking! (Although there were still plenty of cheesy moments to keep my scorn furnace buring.) We are treated to refreshing new locations and characters.  There is split narration — we get to experience the story through returning characters Celaena, Chaol, Dorian, and through new characters Rowan, Manon, Aedion, and Sorscha. This seems like a George R. R. Martin-level of split-narration, but I thought that Maas handled the transitions pretty smoothly.

I particularly enjoyed meeting two new, badass characters Rowan (fae) and Manon (witch).  Maas develops her own magic systems and politics for both the fae and witches.  Regarding the former, I think fae are massively over-used in pop literature these days.  I kind of wish Maas had called her "fae" by a different name, and distanced her interpretation from the celtic folklore.  But, her fae weren't too objectionable.

What really impressed me was Maas's witches.  They were very unique and totally compelling — not quite like any witches I've encountered in my reading before.  Manon is a young witch, and an heir to her bloodline, the Blackbeaks.  She undergoes a really good character development arc, and I can't wait to see what happens with her for the rest of the series.  She's right on the borderline of villain and hero.

Manon's storyline is basically Marley and Me. Only Marley is a dragon wyvern. And John and Jenny Grogan are a cabal of bloodthirsty witches. I thought that this storyline was hugely imaginative.  It reminded me of something Laini Taylor would dream up.  It was unpredictable as well. Around the early middle of Manon's story, there is a bait-and-switch I didn't see coming, regarding the wyvern Titus, but it turned out to be a totally successful decision on Maas's part.

As for the ending of Heir of Fire, it leaves so much potential for the next three books.  I'm actually pretty excited to read book four.  So, in recap, my esteem for Maas's series grows with each book she publishes.  I'm still pretty derisive over many of the cheesier, indulgent moments in the books, but the good is gradually outweighing the bad. I do, genuinely look forward to reading Maas's future offerings.

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