Among the Witches and the Fae: Reading Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass: Heir of Fire

Heir of Fire finds Celaena Sardothien—Adarlan’s Assassin, the King’s Champion, and so many other things as well—drinking on foreign rooftops. She’s crossed the sea on assignment to assassinate the royal family of Wendlyn, but accepting that assignment was a ruse to get her closer to the Fae queen, who may know a thing or two about Wyrdkeys.

This task will be even more complicated than she expects. Heir of Fire has a certain middle-book vibe, in that while it’s packed full of slow-burn reveals and backstory, in the present timeline, it’s a lot of putting-pieces-in-motion. There’s so much to learn, and so much to set up. Everyone’s in research and training mode.

Personally, I love a good training montage.

Welcome to the next installment of Reading Throne of Glass! In anticipation of Kingdom of Ash, 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.

A Briefish Summary of the Very Meaningful Events of Heir of Fire

In Wendlyn, Celaena has been sulking and drinking, trying to figure out how not to get anyone unnecessarily murdered—not Wendlyn’s beloved royal family, and not Chaol, who the king will kill if she fails her task. Before long, she’s summoned by the Fae queen, Maeve, who is also Celaena’s aunt. Family, especially when you’re immortal, is complicated.

Maeve sends the handsome, tattooed, very-prone-to-growling Rowan to fetch Celaena, then assigns him to train her. Celaena must master her shifting abilities (all Fae are shapeshifters; Celaena, luckily or not, shifts into human form) and her magic before Maeve will explain anything about the Wyrdkeys. And she has to wash a lot of dishes: Rowan assigns her kitchen duty, too. (This is notable in part because it’s really nice to spend some time with some relatively normal folks.) Celaena and Rowan clash, of course, because he’s serious and she’s a pain in the ass, but gradually, they start to reveal the bits of their histories that make them the way they are.

In Rifthold, Chaol is—well, Chaol is freaking out. He has all the secrets: Dorian’s magic, Celaena’s royal and Fae heritage, and, before long, the truth about Aedion, Celaena’s cousin, the “Wolf of the North” and one of the king’s most feared generals. Aedion is nothing of the sort: He smelled something bad on the mind-controlling ring the minute the king gave it to him, and threw it into the sea. This whole time, he’s been rebelling under the king’s nose, faking deaths as need be (a family trait, I see), and working with the resistance. When the rebels catch Chaol, they almost kill him, forcing him to play his whole hand and tell Aedion: Aelin is alive. Chaol, who thinks that if he can free magic, he can help Celaena and Dorian, joins their small rebellion and helps Aedion work out what exactly happened when magic died: Spells done in three places, in the shape of a triangle, sent from towers in the east, north, and south.

Dorian is slinking about the castle, trying to control his magic, and trying to keep it hidden—something complicated by his attraction to a healer, Sorscha, who knows more than he’d guessed from all those nights mending Dorian, Celaena, Chaol, and even Fleetfoot.

And in the Ferian Gap, the three Ironteeth witch clans train to ride wyverns for the king.

Each of these narrative threads takes a generous amount of time to get where its going—and then Heir of Fire just explodes into action. Manon Blackbeak makes the decision to fly in the face of everything she’s been taught when she saves the Blueblood heir from certain death. Celaena masters her power—and finally accepts the girl she’s been as well as the woman she’d becoming—in a fraught battle against the king’s finally-revealed secret weapons: Valg demon princes in stolen human bodies. Her next battle, standing up to Maeve, is almost simple in comparison.

And the king, in a show of power and horror, baits Dorian into revealing his magic: he murders Sorscha right in front of his son.

Aelin is headed home. Aedion is in prison. Dorian has a dark-magic collar locked around his throat. Chaol’s on the run. And Manon Blackbeak is dreaming of taking back the Witch Kingdom.

Becoming Aelin

I’ve had so many questions about Celaena’s backstory over the first two books, and by the end of Heir of Fire, I had answers … to most of them. The story about her climbing into bed with her dead parents’ corpses never seemed complete, but now Maas slowly unspools the whole thing: The smell in the room that Celaena eventually realizes was the Valg. The lady, Marion, who sacrificed herself so that little, powerful, couldn’t-control-her-magic Aelin could get away. The Little Folk who helped her; the truth of the Amulet of Orynth, which she thought she’d lost in the river.

No, Arobynn still has it, and with it, the third Wyrdkey. (I gather he’ll turn up again before long.) But while this is a very big deal, it’s not the part of Celaena’s memories that she has to accept and process, after years of denial. That part is Marion’s sacrifice, and the knowledge Celanea tried to ignore: that people have always been dying for her. And that maybe she didn’t deserve it.

Celaena spends a lot of Heir of Fire resisting: resisting training, resisting her magic, resisting sympathy of any kind; resisting her name, her past, her power, and, ultimately, her responsibilities. She complains about the weight of the crown, but Maas never quite lets her get away with that. Instead, Maas slowly uncovers all the things that make up that weight—the losses, the people, the library Celaena burned, the things she survived and the things she escaped—and builds a plot that forces Celaena to finally accept that she owes it to a lot of people to get her shit together. To Nehemia, to Marion, to her parents—and really to herself.

And this is what makes Heir of Fire such an engrossing read. Training stories are never just about the actual training, and this is no exception: Celaena and Manon (more on her shortly) are learning so much more than skills. They’re learning who they really are, underneath everything they’ve been taught and told, and how best to be those people. Manon learns that maybe she’s not heartless. Celaena learns that she’s never going to be whole, or be healed, unless she opens the door she’s closed between her two selves, human and Fae, princess and assassin. The human assassin fought and killed to survive. The Fae princess needs to do it so other people can survive, too.

What Celaena has to grudgingly, painfully, slowly accept over the course of this book is that while she can’t keep blaming herself for everything, and trying to sacrifice herself out of guilt, she is responsible for some things—and she needs to make a different kind of sacrifice. She can’t blame herself for Nehemia, but she is responsible for the oath she made to Nehemia’s memory, the promise to free Eyllwe. It accomplishes nothing to blame her 8-year-old self for what happened to Terrasen, but she must take responsibility for the fact that she hasn’t tried to help what’s left of it.

What makes her slow-burn friendship with Rowan work, in this story, is that he isn’t just there to growl at her until she figures this stuff out. He’s got his own trauma and pain and guilt, and he, too, needs to get out from under it. So they hate each other at first on account of who each person believes the other to be—until, gradually, they come to understand the things they each keep hidden. She needs him to own up to the reasons why he’s kind of a dick, so he can stop being such a dick and teach her what she needs to know. He needs her to stop evading and joking and provoking and start taking her power—and her potential—seriously. He’s hiding the pain of his losses. She’s hiding from how much she aches over Nehemia, how much she owes her friend, and how much Nehemia’s request—and Celaena not let her light go out—challenges her when she’s at her worst.

He understands, eventually, why she holds onto her scars; it’s the same reason he wears his losses in ink. And he accepts the “terrible” things she’s done, not assuming she is merely the sum of her actions. They both need empathy and acceptance, and are uniquely equipped to provide that for each other given all the things they’ve been through.

The Soldiers and the Prince and the Healer

All of this, and not just Chaol’s misplaced loyalty to the crown, is why Celaena and Chaol were never meant to be. Midway through Heir of Fire, Dorian calls out Chaol for his other great flaw: “You cannot pick and choose what parts of her to love,” he says of Chaol’s affection for Celaena. Chaol wants people to be who he thinks they are, nothing more, nothing less. He wants Celaena to be the girl he met, not the heir of Terrasen; he wants Dorian to be his prince, not the bearer of powerful magic. Fittingly, then, Chaol has to spend much of this book discovering, and accepting, that many people are not who he thinks they are, first and foremost among them Aedion, the Wolf of the North.

Aedion stalks into this book seeming like an unbearable prig—and turns out to be nothing of the sort. He’s a rebel; he loves his queen; he just want to see no-longer-so-little Aelin Galathynius again. But in the meantime, he uses his position as the king’s fearful general to build a tiny but vital rebellion right under the king’s rotten nose. He and Chaol are a good team, once they trust each other: they both want something to attack, and they find that in the mystery of the spell that ended magic.

(Everything about this spell, as Maas teases it out, feels like a setup for later adventures: three towers, two in distant places; creepy guards; a sacked temple… someone’s going on a road trip, aren’t they?)

Chaol’s character growth in this book is a lot more subtle than Celaena’s (or even Manon’s). They’re both very clearly wrestling with who they are, and if they can keep being those people, and what it means to change or accept. But Chaol struggles with how to act. He wants to bring magic back, because he believes it will help Dorian and Celaena, but that’s a huge task that one man alone can’t accomplish. It’s noble, but it’s not nearly as meaningful as a brief moment near the end that marks the moment Chaol really understands how to help Celaena. When word reaches Adarlan that Aelin lives, that she destroyed the king’s evil general, Aedion’s friend Murtaugh sends riders to the ragged bits that are their rebellion—and Chaol, in a moment that left me a little choked up, says, “Send word to Eyllwe. Tell them to hold on—tell them to prepare.”

It’s the smartest and best thing he does. He remembers, while everyone else is thinking of the heir of Terrasen, what it is the heir of Terrasen swore to do. That’s what Celaena needs: for her friends to understand what matters to her.

Meanwhile, Dorian is kind of the quiet one in this book. He grows close to Sorscha, he helps Chaol understand the spell that stopped magic, and then … he gets everything he’s worked for turned against him.

I wish there was more of Dorian, to my own surprise, because while everyone else is having adventures and training, he’s quietly learning a different kind of acceptance. His struggle is so internal that we don’t get a lot of it on the page, apart from when he calls out Chaol for Chaol’s conditional love—that single page displays all the hard-won emotional intelligence Dorian’s been developing since he very consciously chose to let his feelings for Celaena go. He’s trying very hard to see and accept people for who they are—so hard, maybe, that he forgot to keep an eye on his enemy.

Here’s what I love most about Sorscha: That she’s been there all along. That she’s been invisible in the narrative the same way she’s been invisible to Dorian and Chaol and Celaena. There were references to a healer, but they were vague; the healer could’ve been anyone. We weren’t supposed to think too much about it. So we didn’t; we were just glad the healer was good at their job.

But now, Maas makes her so much more: a young woman who, like so many people in this kingdom, has a history full of death and trauma—and who, like maybe more people than we suspect, now works silently against the king who caused all that death and trauma. Or rather, “worked,” past tense, because Sorscha—letter-writing Sorscha, the rebels’ source of news from inside, Dorian’s new ladylove, skilled, shy, smart Sorscha—is the one semi-major character who doesn’t survive this book.

I’m not going to retread the ground I covered last week in my discussion of what happened to Nehemia, except to say that it seems a less-than-well-considered choice to introduce another woman of color only to kill her off. What happens to Sorscha arguably makes more sense in the narrative, because of course the king would do this, and of course it would be about Dorian, and of course it would be brutal and ugly and upsetting. (The massacre of the slaves in both labor camps is also brutal and ugly and upsetting, but it isn’t about anyone—it’s not done to motivate characters. It’s done because the king is a monster. It made me sick, as it was intended to.) The moment when Dorian cannot stand the possibility of Chaol’s death, but can bear Sorscha’s—it’s meant to be a comment on their longstanding friendship, and how powerful those bonds can be. But under the circumstances, it also feels like an insult to the healer.

Sorscha deserved so much more than being used as bait. As soon as Chaol learned about their relationship, I figured the king also knew. But I still held out hope she’d survive the book—and that was even before I realized she was writing letters to the rebels. There’s so much more to her story that we’ll never get to know.

I Want to Be Where the Witches Are

Ok, maybe I don’t really want to hang out with the witches; there’s a lot of punching and whipping and general violent unpleasantness among the witch-clans. But they’re all so fierce, so certain and vibrant and purposeful, that I love them anyway and would really like to read an entire book from Manon Blackbeak’s POV.

And Manon’s story is an excellent counterpoint to Celaena’s. As Celaena figures out how to accept her past, to own it and step forward and use her power for good, Manon’s figuring out … that maybe she isn’t the person she thought she was, that everyone expected her to be. Celaena’s been hiding from her whole self; Manon’s never been permitted to consider what her whole self looks like, or acts like, or thinks or feels. Witches, they say, don’t have hearts.

But they do.

She has a heart when she admires the bait-beast, Abraxos, the battered and angry wyvern that wasn’t meant to be a witch’s steed, for its cleverness and rage; she has a heart when she tells her Thirteen not to eat the stinking meat, or nibble the stinking men; she has a heart most of all when she considers the connection between wyvern and witch, and makes that breathtaking call to save Petrah, the Blueblood heir, from falling to her death. She has a heart when she deals with her coven, violently but fairly, and when she stands up to her grandmother.

That heart is probably going to get her in trouble. But it also might just get her the Witch Kingdom back. Well, if that spider she tricked doesn’t find her first. The spider who traded with a human for some shapeshifter gifts. When magic comes back, I assume she’s going to go witch-hunting.

(I am extremely concerned about Manon being sent to Morath, into Perrington’s clutches—but also hopeful that maybe she’ll destroy him and team up with Kaltain in the process.)

Magic and Mythos and Religion and Fae

There’s just enough information on the Witch Kingdom, and the clans’ strife with the Crochan witches, to suggest that it’s all going to be very important down the line. From what I can piece together: Once upon a time, the Ironteeth Alliance fought against the Crochan Queens, and the last queen, as she died, cursed the Ironteeth and left the Witch Kingdom barren. The witches think they need to find the Crochan witch who can undo the curse, but the Crochan Manon kills at the end tells her: “You have known all this time how to break it—you have known for five hundred years that your salvation lies in your hands alone.”

The Crochan also tells Manon she pities the Ironteeth for what they do to their daughters. And given the way history gets rewritten in this world (hi, Elena), who knows what is actually true, in this witch history?

I wonder if Manon will ever find out who this Crochan was. And I wonder even more about the young red-headed queen in the Wastes, the one who deposed a man who would be king.

But if the witches’ history remains vague, the history among the Fae becomes slightly less so this time around. I still have questions—a lot about Mala and Deanna and what it means to become a goddess and how that relates to the goddesses that existed before the Fae—but I’ve got one thing sorted out: Maeve is a truly nasty piece of work whose machinations and deviousness are yet to be fully revealed. But at the very least, she’s a threat—a threat who wanted to use the Wyrdkeys, who murdered her own love, who maybe forced her own sisters to give up their immortality, and who fears the power of Brannon’s descendants. No wonder she didn’t come to help when Adarlan conquered Terrasen. There’s not a helpful bone in her body.

(And her other form is a barn owl! So she’s the Goblin King. Got it.)

She doesn’t have much information to tell Celaena about the Wyrdkeys, when it really comes down to it, but she tells her something else that will absolutely be meaningful, if not useful, down the road: The Wyrdmark on her brow is the bastard’s mark, passed down to each of Brannon’s heirs.

At least, that’s what Maeve says. But she’s really good at not telling the whole truth. She just wanted to see how powerful Celaena was—and now she’s got her answer.

A Queen in the North

The three climactic sequences in Heir set the stage so precisely for Queen of Shadows that it’s been a real challenge to write this post and not just dive straight into the next book. But these scenes deserve a moment of consideration, because each one illustrates the way that nothing—no choice, no action—is just one thing. Perspective is everything.

The difference in how Celaena’s fight with the Valg felt for her and how it looked to the rest of the world is huge. She went out there willing to sacrifice herself, again, and instead was faced with all her memories—all the things she needed to accept. She warned Rowan, earlier, that when she faced everything from those two fateful days in her childhood, she would let the monster inside herself out. And she does—on the Valg.

But when the news reaches Adarlan, it looks like something else entirely. It looks like the Terrasen heir displaying her powers, making a show of force, destroying the king’s general not to save Rowan and her friends in Misthold, but to save the world. It looks like a promise.

Really, though, it’s both. She faced the Valg for Misthold, but when they tried to destroy her by using her guilt and pain against her, she realized something: Everything she’s blamed herself for, all these years, is something for which the king should be blamed.

And when Manon makes that choice to save Petrah, it looks like an act of weakness. Witches are brutal. Witches don’t sacrifice themselves except for their own kin. But the king’s plan to seat witches on wyverns may be having an unexpected side effect: what spurs Manon to act is Petrah’s wyvern’s pain. The connections among wyverns, and maybe between wyvern and witch, may just reshape Manon’s idea of what witches are. What looked like weakness was really the strength to stand up to her clan’s expectations—and maybe the start of change.

In the castle, when the king calls in all the players in Rifthold, it looks like a simple display of power: proof that he knows everything that’s going on and will dole out his version of justice. But it’s a trap for all of them: to trap Aedion and Chaol and Sorscha, the traitors, and to force Dorian to reveal his power. And amid all of the horror and violence, two things finally snap into place: Chaol understands that his loyalty is not to the king, but to his prince and the queen in the north. And Dorian and Chaol, in one moment, make huge sacrifices for each other. Dorian is trapped; Chaol is a fugitive. (With the best sword—and Fleetfoot!)

The king probably thinks he came out ahead in that confrontation: Sorscha dead, Aedion in the dungeons, as bait, and Dorian trapped in one of those terrifying Valg collars. But Chaol is free, and free of that misguided loyalty to the king, too.

And Aelin is ready to do what the dead queen told her she could: rattle the stars.

Yet More Questions and Random Thoughts

  • From whence comes Dorian’s magic? What part of his line? Where’s the king even from? There’s also a throwaway reference to a female Fae with “raw magic” and later the king says Dorian has “raw power”—is there a connection?
  • Will the Blackbeak eyes of black and gold be meaningful, like Ashryver eyes?
  • Why doesn’t anyone else smell the wrongness, when the witches go to the Ferian Gap? Was Manon’s father Fae or something? (Did the king make that weird bridge with the keys?)
  • If anything happens to Emrys I will be most displeased.
  • There’s a note that male and female demi-Fae are warriors, but it’s just a vague reference. Where are the women warriors? I was so hoping one of Rowan’s cadre would be female.
  • Every time someone over 35 shows up they’re saggy or only handsome “despite [their] age” and the casual ageism gets a little wearing after a while.
  • Can we never see skinwalkers again because ew but also why can’t you kill them with a mortal weapon? What are they? Why, like Valg, are they bodiless? Are they related?
  • That moment when Celaena tells Rowan what she did to Grave and Archer and he says, “Good.” It’s small, but it means so much for someone not to be horrified by her.
  • The suggestion that the monster under the clock tower was a somehow defective version of one of these people-being-possessed-by-Valg: WHO IS IT, I NEED TO KNOW WHO.
  • If I didn’t already know A Thing about Celaena and Rowan I would be very suspicious about all of the talk about how rare the carranam bonds are, how mate bonds don’t always snap into place immediately, and how Fae can smell pregnancy…
  • I keep seeing Buffy parallels: In season 2/book 2, Buffy/Celaena had to defeat the big bad alone. In season 3/book 3, the lesson is that you can’t always do it alone: It takes all the Scoobies to beat the Mayor, and it takes Rowan and Celaena’s combined magic to beat the Valg.
  • Is the king’s control a kind of forced carranam, given what Rowan says about how the power has been misused in the past?
  • So if the man who killed her parents was a Valg … the king has been doing this for a while. And did he want her for one of his pets, or just want her dead?
  • Who is this “dark-eyed Silba” who’s referenced several times? Celaena, Dorian, and Sorscha all pray to or think of her.

What happens when Aelin returns to Rifthold? Queen of Shadows is up next!

Molly Templeton is still trying to fit The Assassin’s Blade into her reading schedule but has only managed the first story so far. Come tell her your favorite on Twitter!

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