Book Review: Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas

Celaena was once a feared and mighty assassin, despite her young age, thanks to her extensive training at the hand of a master. But she was betrayed and sent into slavery in the mines, until one day, a mysterious figure appeared to rescue her and she was thrown into a contest for the position of king’s champion in a corrupt court where no one, and no thing, seems to make any sense at all. Now, someone’s killing her fellow competitors, and she needs to find out who, before it’s too late…

Throne of Glass takes place in a richly imagined fantasy world, but it’s also a dystopian one, a place where a cruel king has set his sights on colonising the known world and he won’t stop at anything. Even his plan to appoint a king’s champion through a series of brutal contests is carefully calculated, serving not just as entertainment for favoured courtiers but also as a method of obtaining a ruthless killer who will be in his debt and on call to perform his dirty work.

Celaena Sardothien is a woman who has every reason to hate the king, between the unrest and violence of her childhood and her term in the mines, an experience so horrific that she’ll be living with the memories of her enslavement forever. Yet, she’s been placed in the uncomfortable position of having to fight for him in a performance much like that of a chained animal, an experience that only makes her more bitter and frustrated with the injustices of the kingdom.

Meanwhile, she’s balancing complex friendships with the prince and the Captain of the Guard, and she’s befriended a foreign princess visiting the court on missions of her own. Celaena’s life is certainly not boring, and danger seems to lurk around every turn as she stumbles into a plot to slowly take the lives of the competitors in the king’s series of trials. Throne of Glass brings together a web of action, conspiracy, and political intrigues that weave around and through the characters to snare them in a plot that carries them inexorably toward an explosive finish.

This book has been compared to The Hunger Games, thanks to the contest that lies at its heart, as well as Graceling, and it definitely bears some similarities to these books, but it also stands on its own as a piece of complex, interesting fantasy. It has all the elements you might expect of a corrupt king convinced he can control the world with his power, for example, including a glass castle and a kingdom-wide ban on magic, along with dark, complicated, tangled characters who are often forced to make choices that conflict with their values in the interest of protecting other people or achieving various social goals.

This is one of the things that makes Throne of Glass stand out, as fantasy sometimes depicts choices as easy and suggests that characters don’t have to struggle over decisions, always choosing what is right even when it is more difficult. However, sometimes people in the real world are forced to make the wrong choice for the right reasons, or because there are no other choices, or because all choices are wrong, and they are forced to live with the consequences of those decisions. Exploring those situations in Throne of Glass made the book much more engaging and intellectually complex than some fantasy, creating a world with very real stakes and consequences.

How can a woman with the scars of vicious floggings against her back agree to compete to serve as champion for the king who put them there? Because she knows that going back to the mines will kill her, and she’d rather be alive than dead, not least because a dead woman cannot exact revenge. How can a woman who knows that she will probably be ordered to do horrific and terrible things if she wins agree not only to compete, but to compete to win? Because the alternative is being sent back to the mines, where she will do no one any good at all.

Throne of Glass sets up very real and complicated moral and ethical situations for its characters, creating a world with multiple dimensions. It’s also a world where a woman can hold her own as an assassin, although she struggles to be treated with respect by men who look down upon her. Celaena herself is a complicated and interesting character, not just because of her backstory, but because of who she is: she’s skilled with the weapons of death, for example, but she also loves fashion and takes pride in her appearance, something that some authors seem to struggle with when it comes to the depiction of warrior women.

There are many ways to be an interesting and dynamic female character, and the extremist idea that women in fiction must either be tough girls or delicate flowers isn’t really helpful for anyone, as it doesn’t reflect the real-world experiences of women. Celaena shakes ideas about women and the real world on their head and forces people to acknowledge, yet again, that there’s nothing wrong with being femme, that you can appreciate a fine silk and still kick ass, that you can love fancy dresses and still be an excellent military strategist, that you can be a scholar and a warrior.