BY: LEWIS MEDEIROS
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (2012)
Throne of Glass series (Book 1)
Also related: The Assassin’s Blade (novella collection, prequel)
Also related: A Court of Thorns and Roses (novel series, connected mythology)
While in other mediums, strong female characters gracing the cover image with idealized badassery and ruling the role of protagonist is still a rarity, novels swing in something closer to the opposite direction: cover art like the one above is pretty gosh-darn cliché, trite, overdone — especially in the self-published e-book market. What initially sold me on giving Throne of Glass a try actually was the cover, but not the front one; it was the back cover’s interplay with the front cover that I liked. The quality of the art is quite nice and all, and protagonist Celaena Sardothien certainly cuts an impressive figure striding forward with her twin blades. But I’m a sucker for artwork that plays into theming and the whole “dual natures” motif they went with for the cover art of this series (all of the books that follow keep the theme of having Celaena ready for action on the front, but wearing a fancy dress in the same pose on the back) suggested something about the kind of character being portrayed and that was enough to set it above the umpteen-zillion other Warrior Woman Cover Girls propagating in the fantasy-novel market over the last number of years. It’s not quite as thrilling a cover as the sort you’d see on one of Kristen Britain’s Green Rider books, where the cover art depicts some sort of action-in-progress, since the character is still the only really dominant feature. But it does say something about the character beyond just “this is the hero of our story,” and that’s important to me in a cover; it’s also about 80% of what made the cover art for the Harry Potter series (in both the U.S. and the U.K.) so darn memorable.
I suppose an apology for this opening tangent is in order. I just feel that as long as you’re actually designing your own custom cover, you should probably go beyond the limits of what you could do if you were publishing a mass market paperback with a movie tie-in cover. The random screenshots of Frodo, Saruman, and Aragorn that adorned the earlier paperback box set released along with the Lord of the Rings films were never as impactful as the Hobbit’s cover artwork in the same set, depicting a distant view of Gandalf strolling along the road outside Bag End, with the Shire’s rolling hills stretching out beyond; half the reason I never replaced it with the admittedly nicer box set later released to tie in with The Hobbit Trilogy was that they replaced it yet again with movie promotional art, though I congratulate them for at least choosing more meaningful shots this time. The “strong female hero” fantasy market seems to struggle with conflicting needs to showcase the impressiveness of the character they want to focus on, and to showcase the story being told about them, and almost to a fault, they will focus on the former at the expense of the latter. It’s understandable, but it also bleeds together into a blur after a while. Throne of Glass only avoids that cover-art trap by a distance comparable to a single hair’s width — and only if you turn the book around to look at the back cover, too.
It is not a trap that the narrative itself manages to avoid. Yes, I was going somewhere important with all of that cover-art waffle: it’s a writing trap I didn’t even know existed until I read this book, but it’s a trap nonetheless. Having gotten some distance into sequel volume Crown of Midnight as of this writing, I can tentatively say that it seems it’s a trap that only this volume falls into quite so badly. It’s an innocent, well-meaning one: the trap of focusing so much on character portrayal that the pacing of the plot itself suffers for it. It’s the trap of wanting to establish your character as something special and spending a little too much time paying attention to that, and only that, to the point where the story seems to forget for long stretches of time that it has a plotline to go along with her.
To understand this story’s pacing issues, you need to understand its history to some extent. Sarah J. Maas originally wrote and posted this story on FictionPress, which, if the front page layout doesn’t make it obvious enough, is the original-fiction sister site to FanFiction.net. So this book (originally titled Queen of Glass) is an example of a web novel that achieved enough success to catch the eye of the traditional publishing world. Knowing this (which I didn’t while reading it, until I went back and read the dedication), several aspects of the book suddenly make a lot more sense.
That isn’t some snobby, backhanded remark about web novels or about FictionPress, so you can put away the torches and pitchforks; it’s more about the way the story is written and how that contrasts to a traditional book. While being a fairly standard-length novel, Throne of Glass is comprised of over fifty quite short (often bite-sized) chapters. It also frequently reminds the reader about important but basic things that have previously happened in the story, at a rate far too repetitive and cumbersome for a novel… but at a pretty standard frequency for a story being written and uploaded chapter-by-chapter over a long stretch of time. Most tellingly, a significant chunk of its page count is dedicated not to moving the plot forward, but to drabble-like relationship sequences that wouldn’t be out of place as cutscenes for Social Links in a Persona game but get a bit grating after a while in the context of a novel. Throne of Glass seems to alternate between spinning its wheels over the passage of time and having thrilling or mysterious plot turns dominate the forefront of the story, giving it an unwieldy sense of stop-and-go.
Part of it is the specific plot that the author went with for this opening volume, a weakness that none of the following stories share. Throne of Glass begins by introducing our protagonist, a notorious assassin who’s been imprisoned in a brutal slave-labor prison camp for around about a year. If you want to know anything significant about her time working as an assassin you actually need to read the novellas collected in The Assassin’s Blade, because you only get vague allusions and a steady trickle of backstory development here. We also only get occasional recollections of Celaena’s life at the labor camp to go along with that, because this book begins with her being retrieved from prison by the Crown Prince of Adarlan, who has selected her as his champion in a sick game his tyrannical father is hosting: a gambling competition between criminals championed by nobles of the court to become the King’s Champion, committing themselves to four years of servitude putting His Majesty’s enemies out of their misery, and to finally be granted a pardon from their crimes and allowed their freedom.
On paper this sounds like a plot that should be full of action-packed duels and court intrigue between the patrons of said criminals, but in practice it’s mostly dominated by the lazy, repetitive passage of time, as the criminals, all of which have spent varying lengths of time in a state of inactivity or imprisonment, spend most of the story training to get their strength and skills back to tip-top levels, only a few of them receiving any amount of real development or character identity. Celeana herself is in such a state of poor health at the start of the novel that a scene later on in the story (played somewhat for laughs) shows the effect of her time of the month finally coming back after failing to occur for almost a year. The training sees her straining greatly to pull back the string on a bow, and disappearing into the woods to privately vomit her guts up after pushing herself too hard at an endurance run. There’s no instant, miraculous recovery from malnutrition and atrophy here, and I congratulate the author for sticking to her guns on that, but a side-effect is that we spend most of the novel simply reading Celaena’s inner monologue about how great she is (her biggest character defect is her ego), rather than seeing her back that up with action. Oh, the action is there, but it’s thin on the ground and far between.
This would still have been a plenty serviceable angle for the story, but it feels too long for what it is. The time between action sequences is dominated by the aforementioned drabble scenes, where we see (a fair bit too much of) how many little human quirks Celaena has. If I had a quarter for every fancy, expensive dress that got a vivid, lengthy description in this book, I could afford to buy the next one. Far too many scenes just happen in Celaena’s rooms (“rooms” in the plural, since she effectively has a penthouse apartment in the castle complete with dining room and billiards table) with her interacting with whichever of her two love-triangle partners has decided to visit at the time. The plot is limited to the bare bones of “tests are happening now, training is happening now, a mysterious murder happened somewhere in the background, and Cain is being a dick” for the first half of the novel, and only picks up during the second half, where the murder mystery starts to really develop, and where Celaena’s conflicts with both fellow competitor Cain and opium-addicted, gold-digging court lady Kaltain start to overtake the drabbles as most-frequently-focused-on plot threads. The second half certainly feels better paced than the first half, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for giving up on the book before it gets to that point.
I’ve read far better debut novels and series starters, several of which feature similar female-driven stories — I’d direct interested readers to the likes of Green Rider and Mercy Thompson: Moon Called if that’s something you’re interested in — but I should stress that I do not think Throne of Glass is a bad book, just flawed in its execution. The characters and the story are all solid and enjoyable enough; the biggest problem it suffers from is in its pacing and its tangents, and in not tying those story elements it wanted to develop through them (the love triangle and Celaena’s distinctly teenage-girl quirks or general humanity) tightly enough to the narrative for it to feel unified. I can’t help thinking that when the story made the jump from FictionPress to Bloomsbury, it could have done with heavier revision, rewriting, and smoothing-out. The way the story is written (and I’m not using my own words here, but rather those of one of my Twitter followers), Celaena can come off as “alternating between strong and weak.” Which isn’t how I personally thought of her while reading, but I can see readers taking it that way. It’s not that the elements of her personality are incompatible, we just don’t see much of how they blend into a single cohesive character in this one; she’s either chilling in her rooms and bantering with her love interests, or she’s doing cool fantasy action-heroine things. The two elements don’t correlate in interesting ways until Crown of Midnight sees her actually working as an assassin again and doing assassin-type things.
My recommendation for Throne of Glass is thus a tentative, thou-must-judge-it-for-thyself affair: it’s a good book, and a good series so far, but it’s possible you’ll need to grit your teeth and stick it out until Crown of Midnight or read The Assassin’s Blade alongside it in order for it to really “click” and start feeling like a smooth, worthwhile reading experience. It’s good when it’s good, and at its worst, it just feels like the author got distracted… kind of the way I’m distracted during most of our commentary playthroughs, now that I think about it.
Notes on the audiobook version:
Elizabeth Evans is our narrator for this one, and she narrates clearly with a competent amount of dramatic inflection for narrative and dialogue, giving a good sense of the tone of the inner monologue and the mild haughtiness of Celaena as a character. There’s no particularly amazing voicework here, but it’s good to listen to. There is the problem of most of the book’s supporting cast being comprised of male characters, which must be voiced by Evans with her distinctly feminine voice. The dialogue has a bit of a “mixed success” feeling to it as a result, but Evans seems to know better than to overdo her impression of a man’s voice, so it never crosses into “grating” territory… which counts as a win by the dubious standards of audiobook narrators trying to voice characters of the opposite sex, if nothing else.
On Audible, the audiobook is compatible with “Whispersync for Voice” and can be bought at a discount if you own the Kindle e-book counterpart. On mobile Kindle apps, the audiobook can also be downloaded and set to narrate along with the e-book, although one page partway through does not appear at the time of this writing to have been programmed to follow its corresponding audio and will not “read along” until the audio moves past that page.
Notes on the physical and digital releases:
While the e-book version of this novel is cleanly-formatted and does include a map of the setting, this is a case where the physical version definitely trumps the e-book in terms of fancy formatting. The e-book version lacks the back cover’s artwork and the physical version’s impressive-looking chapter title design, replacing it with a simple line of text telling you what chapter number you’re on. For readers to whom formatting finesse is important, the e-book version goes no further than properly justifying the text.