Once upon a time, Celaena Sardothien was one of the greatest assassins in all the lands of Erilea, despite being a teenager. Notorious, deadly, ruthless, she earned her reputation through blood and skill, before being betrayed, arrested, and sent to the Salt Mines of Endovier. She was supposed to die there, in the dark. Instead, she survived, lasting months longer than anyone expected. And then they came for her, dragging her out into the light once more. They needed her skills, her unique set of talents, her ability to persevere and overcome. If she’d known what was in store for her, she might just have chosen to stay in the mines….
Dorian Havilliard, Crown Prince of Ardalan, has a proposition for Celaene. His infamous father is in the market for a champion, and plans to hold a tournament. Every noble gets to sponsor a competitor. Dorian wants to enter Celaena as his representative. In a field made up of thugs, soldiers, thieves, assassins and warriors, Celaena’s to be the ultimate ringer. If, while competing under an assumed identity, she can win out over two dozen of Erilea’s toughest opponents, she can become Champion of Ardlan, and eventually win her freedom. So…serve under a king she despises, or vanish into the mines once and for all? Celaena’s willing to risk anything to get her life back.
And so it begins. First, she has to rebuild her strength and stamina, hone her skills, familiarize herself with her surroundings, and make some long-term plans. Then she has to find ways to outwit, outlast, and outplay the competition. She has thirteen weeks to overcome twenty-three men, to best them in archery and swordplay, wall-climbing and stealth and more.
Naturally, there are complications. Not only must she excel without revealing her true identity, someone—or something—is murdering contestants in gruesome fashions. While she can’t trust anyone, even Celaena’s unwilling to let people die for no reason. Especially when she might be next. She also has to deal with her confusing feelings, not just for the charming Dorian, but also for the mercurial Captain Chaol Westfall, who’s alternately her jailor and her ally. And finally, even though magic is forbidden in Ardalan and supposedly long gone, magical things are clearly afoot in the castle. Somehow, Celaena’s trapped in the heart of a deadly mystery, and it’ll take everything she’s got to survive.
And…yeah. There’s a lot going on in Throne of Glass, Maas’ epic fantasy debut, but it’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. All you really need to know is this: a teenaged assassin competes in a tournament in order to become the champion of a king she hates, while weird stuff happens in the background and people die. (Why didn’t I say that before? Because I like the long lead-in sometimes…)
This is the sort of book that draws you in right from the start. We’re presented with the mystery of how this beautiful, hyper-competent, deadly young woman ended up in prison, and that takes us through the arc in which she rebuilds herself. Maas gives us a great look at a complex, unpredictable, highly capable protagonist, who can kill without remorse, yet who has a passion for books and learning, who can handle herself in every conceivable fight while still harboring a secret appreciation for pretty, frilly things. And, it turns out, she’s still capable of being flummoxed by matters of the heart, much to her dismay. Celaena’s a mass of contradictions, but a fascinating character to watch in action.
The plot itself owes more than a little to reality shows, although it would never admit such a thing. Tournaments and competitions are as old as civilization, but there’s just something in the way this one’s been set up that remind me of modern day entertainment more than the classic examples. Call it Who Wants To Be A Champion, and it would do well on cable. As Celaena deals with her dangerous, often treacherous competition, she likewise navigates castle politics, skirting a fine line between fitting in and being herself.
One of my favorite secondary characters, however, has to be Princess Nehemia, who’s at the castle ostensibly as a diplomat from her homeland of Eyllwe (one of the few lands still resisting the rule of Ardalan), but really there as a hostage. She’s feisty, fierce, clever, capable, and awesome in her own right. She could headline a book, easily.
Throne of Glass is no Hunger Games or Graceling, for all that I’ve heard comparisons to both. It’s different, and just as good in its own way. It’s a little slow going in places, and the plot does have a tendency to meander during the quiet moments. With such a sprawling cast, it’s easy to lose track of people; some of Celeana’s opponents never even get names or significant scenes before they’re dispatched or eliminated. But overall, this is a strong start to the series, and a welcome breath of fresh air to the oft-neglected epic fantasy field. When so many YA books are paranormal romance/urban fantasy, it’s always nice to get something that hearkens back to the epic and high fantasy which laid the groundwork for the YA field. I can’t wait to see what happens next, as Celaena further deals with the changes in her life, and struggles for her ultimate freedom.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.