BY: LEWIS MEDEIROS
Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas (2013)
Throne of Glass series (Book 2)
Also related: The Assassin’s Blade (novella collection, prequel)
Also related: A Court of Thorns and Roses (novel series, connected mythology)
I’ve already given you all my pretty mixed opinions of the first book in Sarah J. Maas’s series chronicling the adventures (and in that book’s case, bedroom-hangout-sessions) of infamous assassin Celaena Sardothien. During the course of that review, I voiced what I felt to be an important thing I’d taken from my first impressions of its follow-up, Crown of Midnight: that the biggest problems I had with Throne of Glass did not seem to carry over into its sequel story. Having finally finished reading Crown front to back, I’m relieved to say I won’t be eating those particular words now that the time has come to discuss it in detail. Talking about it in non-spoilery terms is gonna be a bit vague, though, so I apologize in advance for that.
Right off the bat, Crown of Midnight is a superior novel to its predecessor in the most fundamental ways: it has a much tighter, more compact and focused narrative. It lacks the redundant information-recaps and distracted drabble-like character-hangout sequences that seemed such obvious relics of the first book’s FictionPress origins. In place of those, we are given a story which, while only fourteen pages longer than the book that came before it, feels like it has three times as much going on plot-wise from start to finish than Throne did. The focus is squarely on the story being told and on the growing intrigue surrounding Celaena and the assassination jobs she takes on as King’s Champion. Her duplicity in dealing with the enemies of the tyrant who holds her leash brings her directly into contact with a growing rebel movement that seeks to uncover and remove the source of the King’s mysterious powers — a plot thread that the first book only went so far as to set up before the end of its run, but which emerges into full prominence here.
If I have one big problem with this storyline, it is simply that the events of Throne of Glass itself really only exist to justify Celaena taking up residence and employment at the King’s glass castle and having grown close to both his honorable princely son and just as honorable Captain of the Guard, and having befriended Nehemia, the princess of Ellywe. One could skip the first book in favor of a brief Wikipedia refresher and lose almost nothing of value. Book Two isn’t just where the story finds its voice (although it is certainly that). And it isn’t just where the characters and their interactions with each other start to make narrative sense beyond the first book’s desire for a strong-and-beautiful girl to make bedroom eyes at two very appealing men while occasionally passing the Bechdel test in the company of the princess or Queen Elena’s ghost (it’s certainly that, too). It’s also where the story starts to move in a clearly-defined direction, and to keep moving, no matter what specific thing the narrative is focused on at the moment. The friendships and romantic tensions that were so carelessly and directionlessly thrown around over the course of Throne of Glass play directly into the events that unfold here, and are much more satisfying this time around for it. If nothing else, there’s a clear sense of payoff if you had the patience to endure all of the first book’s drabble hangout portions and their slow burn toward the state of Celaena’s relationships at the start of this volume.
The most noticeable improvement is in the writing of Celaena Sardothien herself. Due to the first book’s static state of plot and the limited agency it gave to pretty much all of its characters when it came to countering circumstance with their own wants and agendas, we mostly just got to hear about Celaena’s level of skill through either her own arrogant inner monologuing or from her actions during the rather sparse competition events or training sessions, most of which the story did not focus on as actual narrative chapters. On occasion, something dangerous would happen (such as her encounter with the ridderak in the catacombs of the castle) and she would be shown in a more down-to-earth light than her arrogance implied, and it would be a bit as if she were temporarily replaced by a more balanced, better-conceived version of herself.
Readers who dislike stories about characters of Celaena’s age somehow attaining a level of skill and notoriety that a teenager couldn’t realistically obtain won’t change their minds just because Crown of Midnight has a better approach to it. But at that point, “Young Adult” fantasy fiction is probably a genre best avoided entirely. More important for the purposes of this review, Crown of Midnight sheds the cumbersome element of Celaena being locked in her rooms the majority of the time in exchange for her constantly coming and going from the castle, secretly seeking to learn what she can of the King’s plans by uncovering what the rebels themselves have found out, under the pretense that she needs at least a month to safely dispatch the latest target His Majesty has assigned her to take down — who so happens to be an acquaintance of her from her days as an assassin before being sent to Endovier, the male courtesan Archer Finn, a man who Celaena is dead certain can’t have the guts to get himself mixed up in any kind of insane rebel movement in the first place.
There is no fading past entire months of inactivity here. The entirety of the story takes place over the course of four weeks, as Celaena balances her investigation into Archer’s dealings with her own relationships and further investigations into the secrets of Adarlan’s royal castle. There’s still some frankly juvenile stuff going on in the romance department during this book (enough to keep the doe-eyed teen-girl romantic drama audience satisfied, at least), but it’s less of a “big deal” this time and ranks maybe a notch or two above Harry Potter’s dick-monster on the awkward-annoyance scale. The main focus is on the adventure itself. Events unfold, bonds grow, break, are tested, there is tragedy. One major character kicks the bucket along the way, and it seems Sarah J. Maas is not going to take the route of the toothless storyteller when it comes to character death in this series, which is fairly important if you’re going to reach for the darkness inherent in “assassin” as a fantasy heroine’s character class.
The stakes are made clear in no uncertain terms before the book’s ending sends Celaena off into another part of the world where Heir of Fire will take place, and her destiny is revealed in the story’s closing pages. It’s a thrilling novel all the way through; instead of a slow build-up toward a singular climax, it takes an almost episodic approach through a series of smaller twists and turns with their own mini-climaxes all throughout the novel. The reveal at the end that this all builds to is satisfying and well-earned, but the secondary revelation that comes along with it — the idea that the character who died along the way might have done so on purpose to give Celaena a kick in the pants toward answering the hero’s call to action — feels melodramatic and tacked-on. I honestly feel the story would have been more impactful without trying to turn that character death into a poor man’s Albus Dumbledore situation.
In a way, the improvements here bring the problems with the first Throne of Glass novel into sharper focus. I doubt I’ll be able to go back to that novel after reading Crown of Midnight. But on its own merits, Book Two is an intriguing adventure and it gets a much stronger recommendation from me than the one that came before it. It’s not exactly the best entry point, though; it assumes that the reader has already read Book One and does not bother to recap much of its content beyond certain basic details, and even then, it does so in a way that assumes small mentions will be enough to jog the reader’s memory of what is being referenced (there is no way to know what a “ridderak” is without either reading the previous book or looking it up, for example). Whether it’s worth also putting up with Throne of Glass and its weaker elements to fully enjoy the merits of its sequel is a question I’ll leave the individual reader to answer for themselves.
However… this will be the last novel in the Throne of Glass series that I read for a good, long while. I don’t think I can deal with the specific ups and downs of Sarah J. Maas’s storytelling style in binge doses. She’s good when she’s good, but she also has that way of obviously catering to a soap-opera audience from time to time that clashes with the more serious elements of her novels. It takes a degree of patience to endure that and enjoy the better elements that come with it, and patience is not something that I have in infinite abundance, sorry to say.
But hey, after finally sitting through all ten episodes of The Shannara Chronicles Season 1? I’ve seen how bad it can get, and the Throne of Glass books aren’t even close. Here’s hoping that if Hulu picks up the proposed television adaptation of this series, they do a better job of it than MTV did with The Elfstones of Shannara. I don’t think that’s asking much, do you?
To the best of my knowledge, all previous notes on the e-book and audiobook versions of Throne of Glass hold true of Crown of Midnight as well.