Book review: Queen of Shadows, Sarah J. Maas

Queen of Shadowsthe latest in Maas’ Throne of Glass series, is, honestly, the book where the series really starts to come into its own, and I say this as an adoring fan who rushes to the bookstore the minute each book comes out. I love a straight up badass femme, and you don’t see a lot of characters like Celaena Sardothien/Aelin Galathynius out there in fantasy. You just don’t, and her character is important for the representation of women in fantasy — even if people do sometimes write this series off as popcorn or trash.

Here’s what fascinates me about the lead: She might superficially read as the stereotyped ‘strong female character’ with her big sword, immense fighting skills, and impressive command of magic, but she’s more complicated than this. That character trope is starting to be a huge problem in fantasy and elsewhere, which is a pity, because it started out as a pushback against the damsel in distress, but it’s become an unfortunate victim of its own success, with one dimensional warrior women everywhere you look these days. I know that fiction can do better by women — it doesn’t have to be a binary, but can be a spectrum. Maas played the stereotype to her advantage, luring readers into thinking this would be another cookie cutter warrior queen before sideswiping them.

Which is why she’s important, because she’s super femmey. She likes beautiful things, enjoying gorgeous garments and fine jewelry and talking about fashion. She likes having glamorous furniture and an elegant home. Yes, she can rough it in the wilds and camp and hunt and support herself and be self-sufficient, and she can enjoy it, but she also has a deep appreciation for things that are often considered ‘frivolous’ or ‘pointless.’ There’s a deep anti-femininity in the way people talk about characters like her, as though they are lesser just because they like nice dresses and can tell the difference between various kinds of silk, and it’s really frustrating. How are we to develop diverse, complicated, interesting female characters if women are only allowed to be a certain way to be considered good examples of writing women?

I wouldn’t want to see every warrior princess invested in dresses and necklaces — Alanna is important too — but there’s nothing inherently wrong with characters like this one, and there shouldn’t be. The fact that people find her so off-putting by virtue of the fact that she’s a femme is…interesting. Especially since this series is getting darker and more complex book by book, and this is the best yet. We are seeing her grow into herself and she’s growing into a very, very interesting woman. Which is an important thing that many people seem invested in leaving out, because it allows them to ignore the value of the Throne of Glass series in the cultural landscape.

This is the book where she returns determined to reclaim her heritage and get revenge. I happen to be a huge fan of revenge, so I was pretty excited at that prospect, and I like that Maas doesn’t back down and turn this into a story about how she wants revenge but then changes her mind and decides to be the better person and blah blah blah. I like stories where characters unabashedly go for revenge, deserve it, get it, craft beautiful and elegant ways to get justice for themselves and the people they’ve lost. She’s unafraid when it comes to tracking people down and targeting them in ways calculated to hurt them the most, and the takedown of several key characters is important for her development (and that of the reader).

Side by side with that comes a deeper understanding of the people around her, which is also important. She gets a better sense of how she’s perhaps used people or underestimated them, a reflection of the way people have treated her in the past, and it’s intriguing to see that dynamic flipped as she’s forced to engage with some things in her past that she might not be super proud of. I especially like the moment where her dismissive attitude about sex workers really gets challenged and she’s forced to reconsider some of the key ways she views the world and the people around her. This is how characters develop — even as she’s getting darker and more complex as she exacts needed revenge, she’s also growing as a person as she interacts with the people in her life whom she cares about, who also care about her.

Over the course of the series, we’re seeing her open up from a very hardened, embittered character — who had every reason to be, given how she was abused and used — into a more complicated person who has acknowledged the value of other people in her life. She doesn’t see human beings under the dichotomous framework of tools or prospective abusers anymore, even as she loses many of the people she deeply comes to love and learns how painful it can be to care about people. I’m really curious to see what happens next as this series continues to develop, because Maas has a lot of potential and so does this character.