I have a confession to make. A guilty secret, if you like: Sarah J. Maas’s first two novels, Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight, are the kind of books I love to hate. Implausible, inconsistent in characterisation, populated by protagonists who are all in their own way some variety of Mary Sue, operating according to Opposite World logic, and with the kind of scattershot worldbuilding and wrongness-in-small-details that makes me bang my head against walls, they nonetheless possess an indefinable quality that keeps me reading all the way to the end. I think it may be the tasty tasty angst.
Heir of Fire is the third volume in Maas’s ongoing series about youthful assassin Celaena Sardothien. It marks the first occasion where I feel that Maas may one day mature into a writer whose work I enjoy in its own right, and not mainly for the pleasure I find in taking it apart.
After the events of Crown of Midnight, Celaena has left Adarlan and its tyrannical king behind. The king of Adarlan believes she’s in the overseas kingdom of Wendlyn to assassinate its ruler—and she briefly contemplated doing just that—but when she set out, she was intending to find a magical counter to the power the king has used to conquer, enslave, and oppress the inhabitants of most of a continent. But as Heir of Fire opens, Celaena is in the throes of the kind of self-destructive behaviour epitomised by the lyrics to “Hurt.”
Brought by a Fae warrior to visit her immortal aunt, the Fae queen Maeve, Celaena finds herself required to learn how to use the magic that is her birthright if she wants any answers to her questions. But Celaena is not merely angry at the world (and depressed); she’s also—understandably—afraid of her magic. She grows across the events of Heir of Fire, learning to come to terms with her failures and to take responsibility, and forges a close relationship with Rowan, the Fae warrior who teaches her control of her power. Her training concludes in a battle with demonic forces sent by the king of Adarlan, and in a confrontation with her powerful aunt.*
*I am entirely confused by the family trees here, but lineage is the least of our worries.
Back in Adarlan, several different point of view characters are having their own sets of adventures. Guard Captain Chaol finds himself an ally in Aedion Ashryver, a man who’s served the king of Adarlan as a military commander for ten years, but who—it transpires—is Celaena’s cousin, secretly sympathetic to rebels, and deeply loyal to the person Celaena was born as: Aelin Ashyrver Galathynius, the princess of Terrasen. Running about plotting under the king’s nose, Chaol and Aedion uncover the reason that magic no longer works in Adarlan: some dark towers, built by the king’s order as the focus of a spell, prevent it. Unfortunately, Chaol’s and Celaena’s friend Prince Dorian, the king’s son, doesn’t have very much to do in the narrative—save for falling in love with a young healer who is, alas, actually too stupid to live—and rather suffers in comparison.
The character who makes the strongest impression, however, is newly-introduced in this volume: Manon Blackbeak, heir to the Blackbeak clan of Ironteeth witches, a bloodthirsty, amoral, ruthless sort whose brief flashes of empathy complicate her character in interesting ways. (Also, I’m a sucker for training montages involving dragons. Maas calls her flying beasties wyverns, but hey, bloodthirsty witches on giant flying scaly lizards, where’s the downside?)
I’ve previously referred to Celaena, Chaol, and Dorian as Assassin-Sue, Captain-Sue, and Prince-Sue. They continue to warp the logic of the narrative by virtue of their Sue-ness,* but this trend is less pronounced than in previous volumes. Melodrama and purplishly overblown prose still predominate. “He was a male blooded with power,” with “whorls of black ink stark against his sun-kissed skin,” Celaena observes of one new character on page thirteen. A little later Chaol thinks of Celaena: “There was such a glittering darkness in her, an endless rift straight though her core.” But Maas is slowly learning to temper the melodramatic urge: there are a handful of character moments that almost use tasteful understatement.
*The text wishes us to see all three as very competent, beautiful, admired by friends and enemies alike. They also magnetically attract Angst, much as black clothes do cat-hair.
Heir of Fire contains less in the way of outright problematic elements than its predecessors. It’s also working more clearly towards a defined epic fantasy arc: we’re setting up for a confrontation or series of confrontations with Dark Forces That Could Destroy The World. (I do enjoy a good Demonic Beings From Another Plane plot.) Yet most of Heir of Fire is set-up and training narrative: while Maas brings her narrative threads to their individual climaxes, there’s no question but that this is merely a staging-post on a larger journey.
Much as I enjoy picking at its flaws, Heir of Fire held my attention. If you enjoyed its predecessors, you’ll enjoy it, too. If you haven’t read its predecessors—well, if you like a high angst content and don’t mind hitting the ground running, you could probably start here.
Heir of Fire is available September 2nd from Bloomsbury.