After outfighting, outwitting, and outlasting her competition, teenage assassin Celaena Sardothien has won her place as King’s Champion, serving the paranoid and brutal king of Ardalan. She stalks at night, doing his bidding, killing his enemies without pity or remorse. She serves loyally—and behind her carefully constructed façade is a web of lies.
For in truth, Celaena despises the King of Ardalan and dreams of the day when she’ll be free of his power. Instead of killing his enemies, she helps to fake their deaths. She betrays him at every turn, with no one the wiser. Not Prince Dorian, her patron and sometimes friend, not the visiting Princess Nehemia, one of her few confidantes, and certainly not Guard Captain Chaol Westfall, her “handler” and potential lover.
And Celaena has other secrets. She possesses magic, even though the king has outlawed everything to do with magic, gods, and the old ways. She occasionally converses with the spectral ghost of a former queen. She hides elements of her past. But then again, everyone in the glass castle of Ardalan has secrets. Unfortunately, Celaena’s next target is the seductive courtesan Archer Finn, an old colleague from the days before she was sent to prison. Things are about to get complicated.
Celaena is soon swept up into intrigue and conspiracies, as she discovers that the king’s suspicions of a cabal plotting against him are true. Forced to serve the king, determined to destroy him, she strikes a precarious balance between the two opposing forces, seeking the one option that will let her protect those she care about. When she fails…well, the entire city will learn why a mere slip of a girl was once a feared assassin.
Meanwhile, Prince Dorian attempts to unravel certain secrets of his lineage, aware that one misstep could destroy him. Ultimately, Dorian, Chaol, Nehemia, Archer, and Celaena become irrevocably entangled in a web of deception, betrayal, discovery, and death.
Maas takes everything established in The Throne of Glass (and the assorted prequel novellas subsequently released as ebooks) and develops it further, giving Celaena and her world several more levels of depth, complexity, and danger. And she does it in such a skillful way that the pages just about fly by, taking the reader on an intense whirlwind journey.
Such is Maas’ skill at playing with characterization and emotion, plotting and pacing, that when Celaena stopped to realize that she was actually happy for the first time in a very long time, a chill ran down my spine. Because I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that things were about to get very, very bad. It’s not just a rule in situations like this, it’s an imperative. Happy characters are about to experience horrible things. And when said things occurred and Celaena experienced that moment of soul-shattering despair, I was genuinely terrified. Maas expertly flips the emotional switch on her main character, and we get to see Celaena go from controlled, confident, calm young woman to ruthless, relentless, and remorseless killing machine.
And let me just say that while I’ve seen a lot of badass assassins in fiction, killers who leave a high body count and a trail of blood in their wake, Celaena is definitely one of the scariest in her feral, unstoppable portrayal. The emotional journey that takes her to this point is heartbreaking; the struggle back to normality is captivating. (I promise you, there’s a lot that goes on before and after this point.)
Maas accomplishes this by building up the relationships between her characters—the friendships, the affection, the trust, the wariness, the love, the secrets—and bringing them all to life. It’s hard not to feel something for Dorian as he tries to get over the woman he simply can’t have, or sympathize with Nehemia, trapped far from home and still fighting for her people’s freedom. And Celaena herself is a heroine to appreciate and root for, a deadly warrior and experienced killer who still manages to steal moments of girlish joy; she uses her pay as King’s Champion to buy books and pretty clothes, in an attempt to find that element of normality, and she opens herself up to the idea of romance.
As for the plot itself, Maas keeps things moving along at a nice pace. The first half of the book is a slow burn, with Celaena spending more time on personal issues as she tries to untangle some of the mysteries surrounding the king, the castle, the rebellion, and as she explores the aforementioned romantic possibilities. But we never lose sight of the big picture, and once things reach the halfway point, they start cascading. By the time it’s all over, Maas delivers some perfectly-timed, well-executed bombshells which completely change the nature of the story and the main characters. In the hands of a less-skilled author, it might be clumsy, predictable, even clichéd. In this case, it works.
The world is richly-described and beautifully put together; even though the vast majority of the story takes place either in the sprawling yet claustrophobic castle, or the city outside, you can feel a size and weight to what we don’t see—and soon we get the understanding that we’re going to see a lot more.
Crown of Midnight is a superb follow-up to Throne of Glass, moving the story forward in leaps and bounds. While it’s definitely part of a series, setting things up for books to come, it doesn’t suffer from the second book syndrome. If you’re looking for epic fantasy with a touch of romance, steeped in intrigue and mystery, finished off with crisp action scenes and powerful characterization, this is the book and series for you. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.