Vengeance and Victories: Reading Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass: Queen of Shadows

The young woman who used to call herself Celaena Sardothien is back on her home continent, having reclaimed her name and heritage—and with several new goals in mind. One is to destroy her old master, Arobynn Hamel. The other two are even more dangerous.

And just about anything else I might say here is a spoiler of some sort, so let’s jump right in.

Welcome to the next installment of Reading Throne of Glass! In anticipation of Kingdom of Ash, I’m reading the entire series over 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.

It Is Pretty Much Impossible to Sum Up Queen of Shadows, But I’ll Try

Aelin Ashryver Galathynius is back in Rifthold, and everything is different. She finds Chaol meeting with Arobynn, finds her old enemy Lysandra on her doorstep with a very compelling story about what else happened the night Sam died, and finds that she has a lot to do. For starters, Aedion needs rescuing before she can even deal with the other threats: Arobynn, the king, and the demon walking around in Dorian’s body.

It’s not helping that she and Chaol are not on the best of terms, not least because she, having seen what Valg prince possession looks like, is willing to kill Dorian if she has to. Chaol, who’s only alive because of Dorian, resents this. A lot. He doesn’t even want to tell Aelin how to free magic. But hey, Rowan shows up before too long! Unfortunately, so does Lorcan, who is even less nice than he was last book—but at least he has a meaningful goal. He wants to destroy the Wyrdkeys before Maeve can make herself into a god with them.

In Morath, Manon is dealing with Duke Perrington, who wants to impregnate witches with … well, we’re spared knowing with exactly what, but it isn’t pretty. She finds a girl named Elide snooping in her room—a girl who has witch-blood. When forced to choose, Elide claims her standing with the witches, who are maybe slightly less terrifying than the men in Morath. (Also, Abraxos seems to like her.)

Though Manon will not quite admit it, Elide is part of what shows her over the course of this book that she has a heart, and can feel regret, and shame. But her grandmother’s letters are the furthest thing from kind.

Aelin concocts a plan to rescue Aedion, and once he’s freed—after a run-in with demon-possessed Dorian—they bond over their scars. A second, very complex, not entirely revealed-to-the-reader plan takes out Arobynn (she gives the killing blow to Lysandra, who’s been in Arobynn’s clutches all this time) and funds the rebellion: Aelin switches Arobynn’s will to leave everything to her.

When Lysandra is taken by the king’s men—a last jab from Arobynn, even after death—the whole gang (including Nesryn, who is the best) crash a party in the woods: The king is meeting with the Blackbeak High Witch to see the nifty, terrifying weapon they witches have built for him. Team Aelin gets Lysandra back, but they don’t escape without facing Manon—a fight that reveals a lot about the witch to the queen, and vice versa.

In Rifthold, Aelin, Aedion, Rowan and Chaol set in motion a plan with many parts that will free magic (by destroying the clocktower) and take out the king. It almost goes terribly wrong, but with Lorcan helping Aedion and Rowan fight Valg in the sewers, it succeeds. And with magic free, everything happens: The witches feel it. Kaltain, also trapped in Morath, feels it. Aelin feels it, and she and Dorian face off—but she’s put on his hand the golden ring she found in the cave in Heir of Fire, which protects the wearer against the Valg. Aelin can barely get through to him, even with the ring, but when the king says he killed Chaol, Dorian snaps.

And with Dorian and Aelin’s combined magic on him, the king briefly becomes who he was: A man under the control of the Valg. Because he’s never been in charge. Perrington has—but he’s not Perrington. He’s Erawan, the dark lord. “All the players in the unfinished game,” indeed. Before dying, the king also reveals his own big secret: he ended magic to protect the magic-wielders—especially his powerful young son—from the Valg.

The castle gets exploded. Morath also gets partly exploded, when Kaltain, who long since crushed the demon in her body, uses her shadowfire to destroy the Duke’s horrible breeding grounds. She destroys herself in the process, but not before she gives the Wyrdkey they had put in her arm to Elide with instructions to give it to Celaena Sardothien—a name Elide doesn’t know. But Elide knows her queen is still alive, and Manon sends her north, to Terrasen.

Aelin also heads north, and sets foot on her own country’s soil for the first time in years.

The Faces from the Past

I almost expected something else from Arobynn. I expected him to be older. I expected him to be more—he’s a master manipulator, very good at using just enough truth to tell hideous lies, but in the end, he’s just a man. An abusive monster of a man, but just a man. And watching him lose his shit when he confronts Aelin with everything she’s been doing off-page to destroy him is deeply satisfying. Maas does a lot in this book to illustrate all the ways Arobynn has been terrible, and while I still don’t quite believe that he made himself into the King of the Assassins by his mid-20s, I’m fully convinced that he was a sadistic misogynist with no redeeming qualities. The most generous I can be is to say that when he wasn’t traumatizing and scarring her, he taught the girl called Celaena a lot of very useful things.

Lysandra, on the other hand, is a wonder, and as much as I hated the reason why Aelin hated her—that Arobynn, ugh, won her Bidding when she came of age—I appreciate that Aelin finally grew up enough to get over it. And maybe, somewhere, to realize that her rage at that grotesque scenario should’ve been directed at Arobynn, not the newly minted, deeply in debt young courtesan.

I worried about Lysandra constantly in this book, half convinced that Arobynn knew she was playing him, and was playing her right back. They all know that Arobynn has eyes everywhere, and that she’s often alone with him, fully vulnerable. Her alliance with Aelin is a huge gamble, but she does it for such meaningful reasons: for herself, for Evangeline, for Wesley and Sam, and even a little bit for Aelin. They both lost the men they loved because of Arobynn; they’re the perfect team to take him down. And the apology Aelin gives Lysandra when she begins to understand the courtesan—”I wish I’d seen everything better. I’m sorry.”— is sincere. It’s a huge step for Aelin, not just to trust the woman she hated, but to begin to accept that there are a lot of things she was wrong about. (She even belatedly realizes that maybe she should have been kind to Kaltain.)

And Lysandra is a shapeshifter! When she tears through the Valg as a ghost leopard, I nearly cheered. Can she ever figure out what her original face looked like? Will she try? Will she lead the ghost leopards into battle for Aelin? Will she tease Aedion right into a relationship?

Chaol isn’t quite a face from the past in the same way, but he plays an interesting role here, and one I think he’ll keep playing: he’s a check on Aelin’s impulsive choices and domineering tendencies. She’s willing to sacrifice Dorian; he’s not willing to sacrifice his king. He remembers when she killed all those rebels—for him, yes, but she didn’t have to. When they fight, it has the weight of all the things they’ve been to each other, but it’s also the believable fight of someone who’s avoided killing arguing with someone who kills all too easily. She needs that voice—and it makes me nervous that she doesn’t have Chaol with her at the end of this book.

The Witch, the Witchling, and the Sorceress

I’m don’t even think “sorceress” is a word in this world, but I can’t think of anything better to call Kaltain, who endured more than Maas put on the page. We only see the bruises. She seems to sleepwalk through the background of Manon’s life in Morath, creepy, silent, always catching the witch’s eye—but when Kaltain makes her move, at the end, it’s with such eerie calm that it’s almost hard to remember she’s the same woman from the end of Throne of Glass. I wish she could’ve been saved, but I think she did what she wanted to do, in the end. She was as tough and brutal as any Irontooth—because the duke made her that way. “Monsters are made, not born” is the theme that runs under so many parts of this story, though maybe not so much when it comes to the Valg.

Manon’s story, though, is my favorite thing in this book. Her transformation is slow, gradual, meaningful, and has everything to do with her position: caught between her grandmother on one side and the witches in her Thirteen on the other. Her grandmother is endlessly harsh, her letters unyielding, her instructions, well, destructive. The Thirteen don’t know that they’re being used against Manon, their lives forfeit if the Wing Leader steps out of line.

But her witches have secrets, and a lot more strength than even Manon gives them credit for. And introducing the wild card of Elide into the situation starts shifting everything.

Elide is to this book as Aedion was to Heir—the character from Terrasen that Maas mentioned ever-so-briefly in the previous book, who now shows up and proves to be more important than expected. And she’s a witch! Or at least part. Enough for them to accept her, if she can learn to be a little more witch-like. And maybe if they can learn to be a little kinder.

I love is that Manon grows her witch-heart two sizes because of her relationships with women—both because it balances out the manliness of Aelin’s court, and it balances out the cruelty of the witch-clans. What happens between Manon and Elide, and Manon and Asterin, parallels what happens between Aelin and Lysandra: women realizing, if sometimes belatedly, that they are stronger when they trust each other. That they’ve been set against each other by men, or by lies. On Aelin’s side, it’s part of her growing out of her need to be the most special all the time—to be the most desired and beloved by every man in the room. On Manon’s, it’s beginning to reject the cruel domination that is the witch-clans’ structure.

The lesson is that there are other ways to be. Manon may not know what those ways are, yet, but thanks to Elide, she has hope. When she meets Aelin Galathynius in the woods, she recognizes her name, and what she means to Elide: the embodiment of Elide’s hope for rescue and hope for change. That hope might’ve made them allies from the start—if Aelin hadn’t gloated about Baba Yellowlegs.

Better, I suppose, that they get that out of the way from the start, rather than have it come up later, once they’re on the same side. (I’m clearly absolutely convinced that’s what’s going to happen.) Their fight was a rough one to read, but the way it plays out—with Manon owing Aelin a life debt that she pays off in incredible style—makes sense. These two both respect strength and power. They pretty much had to duke it out eventually.

And that fight leads to a powerful moment, later, when they’re all back in their own places. They’re not allies yet, but they understand something key about each other: how much they love and fear for their own people. Aelin thinks of how Asterin’s scream of fear for Manon matched Aelin’s own shriek when Asterin’s arrow hit Rowan. Manon thinks how Aelin sounded like Petrah’s mother screaming for her daughter as Petrah fell from the sky. In that moment, the love of a witch for her friend, her leader, is as strong and valid as that of a queen for her not-yet-official-but-obviously-going-to-be-her-mate, or a mother for her daughter. It all matters—the family you choose and the family you’re born into.

Chosen family is my narrative weakness—I can forgive a lot for a good chosen-family tale—and why, as bloody and brutal as they may be, I love these witches, I love that they’re going to change their own world, and I love the things they can teach Aelin about trust and listening to each other and leading. Eventually. When Asterin trusts Manon with her story, it’s another step away from the witches’ past and toward hope and change. But trust comes first.

Everything Comes in Threes

Things there are three of:

  • Valg kings who led the Valg in the demon wars
  • Wyrdkeys
  • Towers used in the magic-banishing spell
  • Wyrdmarks on the back of the Amulet of Orynth (one of which is Brannon’s mark)
  • Fae sisters
  • Ironteeth witch-clans

And probably more threes as well. There’s also a reference to a Three-Faced Goddess, among other new and intriguing god and goddess references. (I’m keeping a list. I won’t subject you to it.)

Taking out one of the three towers broke the spell and let magic back in the world. So … what happens when you do something similar to one of the other trios? Are the three Ironteeth clans directly descended from the three Valg kings? (This seems like a yes.) What does it mean that only one of the three Fae sisters seems to still exist in this world?

I still don’t understand how Mab became a goddess, if she even did (or how the other gods and goddesses might relate to the Fae). But it didn’t escape my notice that Lorcan, when he shows up, is worried about Maeve getting the keys and making herself a god. This clearly isn’t the same way that Mab became a goddess, because Mab isn’t present, isn’t ruling the world—which is obviously what Maeve wants to do. (Can we just pitch her and Erawan at each other and let them duke it out or would they team up and leave humanity with absolutely no chance?)

Am I overthinking this? (Don’t tell me. I’ll find out soon enough.)

One thing that’s surely important: the whereabouts of the third key. Aelin has the one that was inside the Amulet of Orynth. Elide has the one that was in Kaltain’s arm—but was that the one from Elena and Gavin’s tomb, or the second key the king was suspected of having? Where was it hidden? If the Fae founded Terrasen and Adarlan, what about the other kingdoms? If Erawan’s tomb was under Morath and that strange Sin Eater cave of bones was under Rifthold, is there another deep, dark place somewhere else?

The vagueness about the remaining key, wherever it is and wherever it came from, feels very intention, like the truth about it is going to come with a very big reveal.

The Queen’s Court, the Queen’s Secrets

I have 25 pages of typed notes on this book and I’m still not sure exactly what I think about it. In part, that’s just the sheer amount of stuff that happened—but I also found it a more frustrating read in some ways. Part of this was structural (I’ll get to that in a minute), and part of it was frustration with Aedion and Rowan’s “territorial Fae bullshit,” as Aelin describes it. These two spend too much time jockeying with each other about their power and importance or doubting Aelin’s decisions. Aedion freaks out about the blood oath, without accepting that his queen had a reason for what she did. Rowan thinks about tearing Aedion to shreds, and later about how they both having scores to settle on Aelin’s behalf. They want to protect their queen, they see everything as a threat… there’s justification for their behavior, to a point. (Though to think Aelin needs protecting is to grossly underestimate her.) But this kind of dominating, aggressive, “traditional” male behavior is a tough sell for me at the best of times.

Often, these scenes are reminders that the Fae aren’t human—that they’re more animalistic in some ways (all that snarling and growling), that they relate differently. But apart from Maeve and Aelin herself, we’ve only seen Fae males. If Fae females are like this, we don’t really know that yet, and so all the Fae male posturing comes off like a tiresome dick-waving contest. (Rowan makes this rather literal when he meets Lorcan on the roof. Immortals: surprisingly juvenile.) Sure, one of these men is Aelin’s beloved cousin and the other is her love interest, but at times I wished she could put them both in time out until they learn to respect her both as a person and their queen—and not just to give lip service to that concept while still thinking they know better.

Optimistically, I hope this is one of the things that changes. They’re changing the world, after all. Maybe the Fae, like the witches, can learn that there are more ways to be. One of the most important moments in the book is when Aelin says to Dorian, who’s still possessed, “We get to come back from this loss.” She’s come back from so much, and it’s changed her. The whole continent has a lot to come back from. It will have to change, too.

My other frustration relates to structure, and the choice to rely heavily on things being kept from the reader. I love it when a plan comes together, but often the seeding of these plans felt a little clunky. Aelin does a thing, and then there’s a vague reference to another thing she’s doing—sneaking into the bank, or coming home smelling of ash. Because we’re with her so closely in her POV sections, it often feels like her narrative is just being cut off, like there’s no real reason for the vagueness except that we can’t be in on her plans until they come together. Even once they do, more questions sometimes remain. (If Aelin changed Arobynn’s will, why didn’t she remove the part about Lysandra’s bloodline being revealed upon his death? Or am I supposed to think he’d sent that letter at some earlier point, to be opened upon his death, and it actually had nothing to do with his will?)

But the effect Aelin’s sneaking has in-story is maybe more of an issue, and this is where I am hoping that it’s on purpose: it demonstrates how much she has to learn about being a queen. She’s new at this, and still only 19, and has spent years as an assassin, working largely alone. There are reasons for her behavior, but when Aedion, in one of his best moments, calls her on it—tells her to let him share the burden—she’s not ready to do that yet. And to a point, it makes sense for her to keep things from people, whether that’s so they might react appropriately to her seemingly under Arobynn’s control (shudder) or whether it’s so that they can’t give her away.

Her plans are generally good, given that they’re all alive at the end of the book. (Even Lorcan, who I thought was Wyrdhound-meat.) But she’s going to have to get over her assassin-who-does-it-all-alone way of thinking if she wants to run a country—and if she wants to win a war against Maeve on one side and the Dark Lord on the other. She’s going to have to tell people what she’s planning, and let them help, and she’s going to have to be very careful who she trusts. She also needs to understand that what her court is to her, Chaol is to Dorian, and every time she was willing to sacrifice Dorian, it undermined Chaol’s trust in her a little.

She might also consider not stalking into a terrified city and delivering a heartless decree about how it will behave. Her speech to a city full of people who just thought they were going to die an ugly, glassy death took me aback. She loves Rifthold. (I read The Assassin’s Blade this week too; I noted how much she didn’t want to leave.) It hasn’t been cruel to her. She loves the shops and the artists and Florine and yet … first she refuses to think about all the people killed when the glass castle fell, and then she stomps out there and terrifies them all.

I didn’t think it was that auspicious of a start.

Where That Leaves Us

To be fair, she did just nearly die, she fell out of the sky and got clocked by a frenemy, and her friends are all injured or traumatized (except Nesryn the Extremely Competent, about whom I can’t say enough good things). But if there’s one thing this new Queen needs to learn right quick, it’s that a good ruler has to think about the people she leads. All of them, not just the ones she personally loves.

Maybe she and Manon can have a conversation about that. Manon, by the end of this book, has a new kind of respect—for Aelin, the Witch Killer, but also for Asterin, for the members of the Thirteen who’ve protected each other when she wasn’t able to; for Elide, who survived, who grew braver, who snuggled up against her wyvern; and maybe even for Dorian, who she saw fighting the Valg prince inside him, and who she was instrumental in saving. (I love when she goes to see the new king for herself.)

Magic is back, with all the implications that brings: Aelin has her power, her ability to shift into her Fae form. (How Fae is Aedion? Does he have magic?) The witches are immortal again. Whatever magic-wielders are left in Erilea have their power back. Of course, this means if Maeve comes to the continent, she—and her warriors—will also have power. And so will Erawan, when he stops hiding as Perrington. He’s down a shadowfire-wielder, but I have the terrible feeling that won’t stop him.

So Aelin—who has finally faced up to her feelings about Rowan, and vice versa—has headed north to see her kingdom and marshal her forces. Dorian, in Rifthold, will put his kingdom back together again, while Chaol and Nesryn travel south in search of the famed healers of Torre Cesme. Manon is still in Morath, but you know she’s undermining Perrington and Vernon whenever she can. And while Aelin has the book’s final scene, I think Manon’s final thought is just as important:

She hoped.

The Random Thoughts and Questions Continue

  • The Wyrdhounds look like the gargoyles from the clock tower, but clearly aren’t. From whence do they come?
  • Dorian’s magic is both raw and infinite. How? Why?
  • Witch eyes! I knew they were important. Watching the Valg prince in Dorian quake at Manon’s eyes was fascinating—and then she defeats a prince (poor Roland) barehanded. Damn. I was already certain the witches were key to defeating the Valg, but this felt like confirmation.
  • Are there Valg females? Or do they only “breed” in conquered worlds? Do I regret even wondering about this? (I do.)
  • So the queen and half her court are in the mountains somewhere. How did she not notice her husband had changed? Did she? And what about Hollin?
  • There’s so little reference to the Bluebloods—except when they’re excited about the Valg, ugh—and I kind of missed Petrah. Did she ever recover?
  • It continues to crack me up that everyone who can kill with a knife is also an expert at dicing vegetables.
  • Ok, silly question, but: Can Rowan and Aelin actually communicate with their minds? Or is this just reading each other’s expressions? Because last book it was entire conversations and now it seems more like understanding. But I can’t quite tell.
  • One of the greatest images in this book is of the smallest wyvern, with his spidersilk wings, stuffing his face in a bunch of wildflowers. Monsters are made, not born.
  • It’s very interesting that after they save Lysandra, they make their way into Rifthold “one last time.”
  • Nesryn saving Lysandra with a perfect shot gave me goosebumps.
  • With Aelin gone north and Chaol gone south—who is Dorian’s court? He needs advisors! He’s traumatized! (Maybe Manon can help? I’m kinda into these two…)
  • It’s very intriguing that Elide thinks there’s a goddess watching over her—and Manon notices something, too.

Up next: Empire of Storms!

Molly Templeton would also like to talk about meeting Ansel in The Assassin’s Blade, but is out of time. For now.

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