Wyrdmarks and Worldbuilding: Reading Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass

When a series is seven books long and each book seems to get longer and longer, the first book is bound to raise more questions than it answers. And that is entirely the case with Throne of Glass, the first book in Sarah J. Maas’s series of the same name: it leaves a reader with so many questions. Where’d magic go? Is there really a whole kingdom of witches? How can a prince be so nice when his father is a total monster? And when am I going to get the whole story on teenage assassin Celaena Sardothien’s history?

I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to be patient with these and some of my other endless questions—or relatively patient, anyway…

In anticipation of the seventh and final Throne of Glass book, I’m reading the entire series over the next six weeks! This isn’t a reread for me, but a first-read: if you’ve already read the whole series, you will be able to feel extremely superior while I ponder things you probably know backwards and forwards. My fellow first-readers, though, beware: there are likely to be spoilers for future books in the comments.

There’s so much to talk about. Let’s start at the beginning.

Spoilers for all of book one, Throne of Glass, discussed below!

A Brief Summary of Throne of Glass

Eighteen-year-old Celaena Sardothien, Adarlan’s Assassin, has been toiling in the salt mines of Endovier for a year when two extremely handsome men appear to take her out of the mines. One, Dorian Havilliard, is the king’s son. He needs a Champion for a brutal game his father has concocted: a whole bunch of murderers, thieves, and assassins will fight each other for the title of King’s Champion—which is a nice way of saying “pet murderer.” The other man, Chaol Westfall, is the captain of the king’s guard. Dorian is fairly friendly, Chaol standoffish and gruff; Celaena flirts with them both while bargaining with Dorian about her willingness to fight for him. They make a deal: If she wins, she earns her freedom in four years.

In Rifthold, the capital of Adarlan, Celaena trains with Chaol, endures Tests against the other would-be Champions, meets the delightful Nehemia, princess of Eyllwe, reads every book she can in the sprawling castle library, and tries not to die. The last part is especially complicated given that something is killing Champions, and in a very ugly way.

The mystery of the nasty murders is solved by the time Celanea—with Nehemia’s help—triumphs at the final duel. But it’s just one of the book’s mysteries: Why is there a tomb in the castle’s secret tunnels? Why’s it the tomb of the land’s first king and queen? What exactly are Wyrdmarks, and why are they everywhere? What strange magic did Cain, the biggest and meanest of the Champions, and his sponsor, Duke Perrington, and the king tap into? How can there even be magic when everyone knows it disappeared some years ago, after the king banned its use?

I’m Just a Teenage Assassin Baby

Throne of Glass’s plot is fairly straightforward—for all the tension Maas can pack into certain scenes, Celaena’s eventual victory is never really in doubt. But the worldbuilding around Celaena’s story is cleverly full of gaps and mysteries, most of which serve to deepen the major looming questions: Who really is Celaena, and what’s really going on in this world?

What we know, at this point: Originally from the northern kingdom of Terrasen, Celaena began training as an assassin when she was 8, when the King of Assassins, Arobynn, dragged her out of a river. At some point she spent time with the Silent Assassins in the Red Desert; at some point Arobynn broke her right hand, to make her learn to fight with her left; at some point she saved a lot of slaves from a Pirate King (pirates!!!); she loved a fellow thief named Sam, who’s dead now; eventually, she was betrayed and captured, though she still doesn’t know exactly why, or by whom. She’s vain, arrogant, playful, confident, extremely good at all things related to murder, suspicious of other women, and prone to fits of anger both justified and petty.

But how did she get in that river? Who murdered her parents, who she found dead when she woke up next to their bodies one morning as a child? Why could she rattle the stars, as the spirit of Queen Elena suggests to her? How can someone so interested in other people’s approval and attention be a good assassin, when that requires sneaking and secrecy? Was Arobynn’s approval all she needed, when she was younger?

Celaena’s a fascinating character, a passionate, scarred, flawed person who doesn’t seem aware of her own flaws—at least not yet. I feel a ton of sympathy for all the things she’s been through, and I definitely enjoy her defiance of authority—but I’m not entirely sure I like her all that much in this first book: her scorn towards so many other women is frustrating (though she admits, at one point, she might be wrong on that front); she’s so dramatic I feel like she’d be exhausting to be around.

But those aren’t complaints, because we’re only in book one, and all of the things that frustrate me about her mean she has a lot of room to grow. (I do love that she’s the world’s greatest assassin and she adores clothes so much she’s not afraid to wear an outdated gown just because that’s the one she loves. It’s so Kaylee Frye in that confection of a dress in Firefly.) She’s not perfect—well, she’s perfect at murder. But she’s impatient and impetuous and impulsive and cocky, yet you can see how Maas is setting her up to grow beyond these traits. At the book’s outset, she—fully understandably—agrees to be Dorian’s Champion for her own freedom. After a year in the salt mines, which would’ve killed most people, she’d do just about anything to be free (and her life before then was hardly free of trauma). But by the end of the book, she’s thinking about how she actually wants to stay in Rifthold, to understand what’s happening … and to help. Freedom is still the endgame, but other things matter, too. If she gets revenge on the king, who’s the reason she was in the salt mines in the first place, all the better—but not just for herself.

One of Celaena’s better traits is her acute awareness of other people’s suffering, whether her fellow prisoners in Endovier or the Eyllwe rebels in the rumored-to-be-terrible labor camp of Calaculla. She hates slavery, hates cruelty, and hates the king who perpetuates all of these things. So she’s in a notably complicated place at the end of the book, when her freedom—and the lives of her new friends—depend on her working for him.

The King in His Castle and Assorted Other Folk

The king, so far as I can tell, is nameless, arrogant, bad at naming swords (“Nothung”? Seriously?), really into burning books, and overall extremely not good. His wife, Queen Georgina, is a fairly minor character except in that she really, really wants Dorian to get married, and she really, really seems oblivious to the fact that her younger son, Hollin, is apparently a terrible brat. Notably, the other important nobles are also not very nice: Duke Perrington, who is responsible for would-be-Champion Cain’s magical prowess, and Lady Kaltain, a conniving opium addict with her eye on the prince.

The thing about Kaltain, though, is … I feel bad for her. Throne of Glass doesn’t dig into or question Adarlan’s very traditional-Western-fantasy setup: There’s a monarchy that passes down through the men, as far as we know; women are serving ladies and such while men are soldiers. Celaena is the exception. There are no other women among the contestants to be the King’s Champion (I really wish there were) and appear to be no women among the castle guards. Eyllwe, from whence comes Nehemia, seems potentially a little different, but we haven’t yet seen enough to tell.

So Kaltain is a scheming, power-hungry woman in a world that doesn’t seem to like to give power to women, and she gets taken advantage of by an even more power-hungry Duke. The reveal that Perrington has been controlling her, in some magical way, only cements this: I already felt terrible for her by that point. I can’t quite tell if the book intends me to feel this way, or if I’m reading too much into it, but I’m curious to see if she reappears, if she’ll ever get out from under Perrington’s magical thumb, and if she, too, can grow out of thinking that other women are her enemy.

The people in the castle I’m really supposed to be thinking about, though, are Dorian and Chaol, both of whom are—naturally—drawn to Celaena despite themselves. It’s not exactly a love triangle, which I appreciate, so much as a sort of game of attraction pinball, where Celaena, still adapting to even being out of the salt mine and into something like polite society, bounces off both men in different ways.

I admit: I’ve been spoiled for exactly three things in the following books, and one of them involves Celaena’s love life. So I may not have been as invested in this as I might’ve been otherwise; I watched the three of them with a slightly more detached amusement. Chaol’s reserve frustrates her, and makes her want to poke him; Dorian, though he’s got a bit of a reputation as a flirt, is more the gentle, good-natured tease, the one who sends her presents and knows he shouldn’t fall for her. (But his dogs like her on sight, which is an absolute guarantee that this is exactly what’s going to happen.)

(Somehow, I decided that Dorian’s ladies-man act is just that: an act. But nothing in the text really backs up this theory, I realized by the end. It just seems like there are more references to him knowing things about certain ladies, or being a flirt, than there is evidence of him actually, y’know, flirting or skirt-chasing or what have you. I think it’s an act he puts on so his mom will think that’s why he doesn’t want to get married—and that the truth is that he’s a romantic who just hasn’t found the right girl. But am I imagining this?)

One of the greatest signs of Celaena’s maturation over the course of this book is when she tells Dorian, at the end, that they can’t be together. Her reasoning is sound, her logic fair, but what I love about this moment is that she does it for herself, for the thing she’s wanted since the beginning: freedom. She’s thinking about the impossibility of the King’s Pet Murderer being with the Crown Prince, sure, but she’s also thinking about how she got here in the first place, and what that really means to her, and what it means, at least in this moment, is not making any promises to the future four years down the line, when she’s done doing the king’s bidding.

Chaol remains a mystery to me. I like him? I think? But he’s the strong-and-often-silent type, and there’s so much left to be filled out in his character. I like the way his personality and Celaena’s are complementary rather than matching, but I want them to be besties, like siblings, having each other’s backs in the fight that’s obviously coming.

And then there’s Nehemia, sly, brilliant, magic-wielding Nehemia, about whom I would like an entire book. Sharp-tongued, secret-keeping, she’s so clearly good that the slight misdirect when Celaena thinks she’s responsible for the gruesome murders is hard to buy, even for the brief time before Maas lets us in on what’s really happening.

But Also All These Questions About the World

Throne of Glass is absolutely full of hints about how its world used to be, before—whether that “before” is “before the King of Adarlan wanted to rule everything” or some other, not-yet-defined “before.” There were Fae; there was magic; there’s a whole hinted-at mythology about King Brannon that I’m dying to know more about. Magic is gone, but not: tiny fairies bring Celaena flowers in the night within just the first few chapters. There’s a land of witches, for crying out loud! (Take me to the witches!) Duke Perrington is using some kind of magic that the king knows about; the castle glows green when Celaena sees it at night, which is not a thing a non-magical building tends to do.

And then there’s the whole issue of Elena, the half-Fae first queen of Adarlan, and her pretty tomb beneath the castle, which, narratively speaking, is full of shiny toys: The mythology of Elena and Gavin is fascinating, probably super-relevant, and not necessarily the story everyone knows, as Elena eventually tells Celaena: She wasn’t a passive queen but a warrior. And now she’s dead-but-appearing-to-our-heroine, having been led there by someone to tell Celaena … all kinds of things. There’s evil in the castle. Someone led them both there. Someone wants her to learn. The gargoyles are watching. What she doesn’t tell Celaena is what the heck the words on her tomb mean: “Ah! Time’s Rift!”

All of this makes Throne of Glass feel like the tip of a giant fantasy iceberg. There’s still the not-yet-fully-explored issue of the king’s rule over the rest of the continent. Nehemia is a princess, and Eyllwe has a king, but the King of Adarlan is their king, too—and their rebellions are constant in the background of the story. (The meaningful gesture of Celaena winning the final duel with Nehemia’s staff is just gorgeous.) There’s another kingdom, across the sea, that the king is also trying to dominate. How big is his army?

Beyond the shape and contours of the physical place, I grew fascinated as I read with the shape of belief in this world. In chapter 16, Celaena says a prayer—but to whom? Maas doles out bits and pieces as the book goes on: the people celebrate Samhuinn, when the gods and the dead are closest to the earth; they go to temple for that holiday, and for Yulemas. People swear by different things: They might say “Gods help you,” or “Wyrd help you,” despite the fact that few people seem to know what “Wyrd” means.

It struck me as slightly odd that Celaena would know the phrase “Wyrd help you” but be so baffled by Wyrdmarks. When Yulemas finally comes around, just before the final Champions’ duel, Maas is generous with the details: Yulemas celebrates the birth of the Goddess’s firstborn, Lumas, whose birth brought love into Erilea and “banished the chaos that arose from the Gates of the Wyrd.”

So the Wyrd is part of the major religion of Erilea, yet Wyrdmarks are largely unknown—except to Nehemia and her family. And even for them, Nehemia tells Celaena near the end, the Wyrdmarks are only “a last defense against evil”—but they can be used for other things, like Cain’s calling forth “demons from the Otherworlds.”

This is so much worldbuilding—and world-expanding—in the course of one conversation that it must have been agony to read this book when it first came out, knowing you would have to wait ages to get any answers. What are the Gates of the Wyrd? How are the Gates and the Otherworlds related to the world’s religion? Does it have a hell? What about the “dark lord” Elena and Gavin fought, way back in Adarlan’s history? Was that a dark lord in the “lord of the dead” sense or just a nasty man? There’s also a reference to evil creeping out of the Witch Kingdom—but what kind of evil?

Of course the king knows all about Wyrdmarks. Of course the king banned magic so only he could use it. Of course he’s basically stealing the power of Nehemia’s family, of the southern lands, so he can use it to subjugate them and others. This is going to give me a lot to chew on as the books progress.

And of course no one knows what the Wyrdmark on Celaena’s forehead means.

I Still Have a Lot More Questions and Random Thoughts

In no particular order:

  • Do I get to see Nox again? I liked him. I like someone smart enough to know when ghosting is definitely the right move.
  • “Blood ties can’t be broken,” Elena says, so … she and Celaena are related, right?
  • Why are there “shining buildings” at the salt mines? With a throne room?
  • The name Rifthold is a hint, right: magic is locked behind a Rift? Or did I read too much Raymond Feist as a kid?
  • There’s got to be more to her hatred of the glass castle than just feeling like it shouldn’t be able to hold her up.
  • What’s up with the many references to the brutal White Fang mountain men, of which Cain was one? At one point, the king comes back alone from the White Fang mountains; everyone else in his party is dead. No one knows what happened. This seems relevant.
  • I appreciate that Maas addressed the fact that Celaena’s periods stopped when she was malnourished in the salt mines, then returned when she got healthy—it’s a small thing, but it’s a realistic detail that makes the world feel more solid.
  • The minute I read about Wyrdgates I wanted to know if Celaena’s mysterious heritage is behind one.
  • I absolutely love that Celaena isn’t snobby about her reading.
  • “You bear many names,” Nehemia says to Celaena, while giving her another one. Does she? Whispering voices in the duel call to her by a different name, “a dangerous name.”
  • These hints about thundering hooves! And a bridge! And young Celaena running! Tantalizing hints!

Next week, we’ll see how many of my questions are answered by Crown of Midnight!

Molly Templeton isn’t sure how she didn’t read this series already, but is so pleased to be reading it now.

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