Through the Looking-Glass: Reading Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass: Empire of Storms

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any more complicated for the woman formerly known as Celaena Sardothien… they did. From sea dragons to Settling, magic mirrors to Manon’s secret history, Empire of Storms is crammed with revelations and confrontations. There are even more queens playing this unfinished game than we thought—and power keeps shifting.

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.

Spoilers for the series up to and including Empire of Storms follow!

There Are a LOT of Moving Pieces in Empire of Storms

Finally in Terrasen, Aelin Ashryver Galathynius discovers that it’s not so easy to march into a country and declare yourself its queen. As she’s about to leave for Skull’s Bay, where she hopes to turn the pirate captain Rolfe into an ally, she gets news: the witches are en route to sack Rifthold.

Rowan, in his bird form, races south to help, arriving just in time to nearly kill Manon Blackbeak, who’s taken out two Yellowlegs witches in order to save Dorian’s life. Rowan and Dorian escape out the tunnels while Manon flies back to Morath. She’s put on trial, and while the words of Petrah Blueblood save her life, her punishment is almost worse: Asterin is to be sacrificed.

In the woods, Elide heads north, but there’s something on her tail—Lorcan, who thinks she’s Valg-possessed because he senses a wrongness, not knowing it’s the key she carries. A shared enemy in the latest monstrosity from Morath leads them to become an unlikely team, making their way across the country together with the same goal: finding Aelin.

En route to Skull’s Bay, Aelin, Aedion and Lysandra stop in the coastal town of Ilium. Aelin wants to visit the Temple of the Stone, where Brannon first set foot on Terrasen soil. It’s important to the Mycenians, a never-before-mentioned seafaring group who were rumored to have sea dragons. There, Aelin has an informative chat with Brannon, who tells her she needs to fetch the Lock from the Stone Marshes in the south of Eyllwe. Erawan, wearing the body of the Chief Overseer of Endovier, appears briefly, presumably to check in on his enemy. When he attacks Aelin, he narrowly misses hitting the Amulet of Orynth and learning she has a key—but he vanishes right afterward.

In Morath, Manon faces the last morning of Asterin’s life. But when her Thirteen raise two fingers to their brows in a gesture that means to honor a Witch-Queen, she finally understands that she has a heart. She swings Wind-Cleaver at her grandmother instead. In the fight, the Blackbeak matron tells Manon that her father was a Crochan Prince. Manon is the last royal Crochan—half Blackbeak, half Crochan Queen. Terribly injured, she escapes thanks to Abraxos.

In Skull’s Bay, Captain Rolfe is less than psyched to see Aelin, who has figured out that he is one of these lost Mycenians. Two members of Rowan’s former cadre, Gavriel and Fenrys, are also in town, having been sent by Maeve to murder Lorcan. In a demonstration of power that gets a lot of people killed but does get Rolfe on her side, Aelin quietly summons Valg ships from the other end of the islands. When she digs deeply into her magic while wearing the Wyrdkey, Deanna possesses her and delivers a valuable message before nearly destroying Skull’s Bay. Team Aelin wins the day, thanks in part to Lysandra’s bad-ass transformation into a sea dragon.

En route to the Stone Marshes, a wyvern appears, and his rider falls into the sea near Aelin’s ship. Weak, still injured, Manon is locked up in a cabin, looked upon with suspicion by just about everyone—except Dorian, who’s rather drawn to her.

As everyone converges in the Marshes, Lorcan and Elide spot hundreds of Erawan’s awful ilken. Lorcan uses his power to send a warning pulse, then watches as Aelin burns through most of the ilken. He’s so focused on looking out for Elide, he doesn’t notice Fenrys and Gavriel before they attack. Rowan separates them, and Elide finally meets her queen. Drained and exhausted, they find the Lock, but surprise! The chest contains only a witch mirror.

Back on the shore, a fleet of gray sails awaits them, looking for all the world like Melisande’s fleet. Lorcan panics, and sends another magical signal. It is Melisande’s fleet—but led by Ansel, whose debt Aelin called in. (The story of how Ansel got the fleet does not entirely check out, but I’ll let that slide for now.) Everything’s looking up for about five minutes—until the Fae armada appears in the distance.

In the night, Rowan sneaks off to ask his cousins to switch sides. Dorian has pieced together something Deanna said and has a more immediate suggestion: Aelin and Manon, fire and iron, need to step into the witch mirror together. There, they learn the truth of Erawan’s previous defeat: Elena used the Lock to bind Erawan—only to find that she had betrayed the gods. It was meant to seal the Wyrdkeys back into the gate, and to send the gods home (wherever that is). Elena’s only been doing as the gods demand, leading Aelin to this dramatic do-over that will probably end her life.

When the magic mirror boots Aelin and Manon out again, they appear on the beach where Maeve stands, one of her warriors with his sword at Elide’s throat. The sea battle turns, aided by the arrival of Manon’s Thirteen, as Aelin goes up against Maeve… and loses, still drained from the previous day’s battle. To save Elide, to distract Maeve, to keep her friends safe and give her kingdom a chance, Aelin lets Maeve whip and capture her.

Maeve takes Aelin, locked in an iron coffin—but she doesn’t have the Wyrdkeys, which Aelin slipped into Manon’s keeping. The prince of Wendlyn shows up with an armada, the silent assassins appear, and every favor Aelin called in, every debt, creates an army that’s too late to save her. But they’ll face Morath while Rowan Whitethorn goes in search of his wife.

Take a Breath, We’ve Got a Lot to Cover

I don’t even know where to start with this book. I cried, I rolled my eyes, I worried about Lysandra, I changed my mind again about Lorcan, I got goosebumps, and I wanted to shake Aelin—more than once. Because she still isn’t telling people huge important things—things that would’ve changed at least a couple of these scenarios.

But apparently that runs in the family. The scene in the mirror reveals so much about Elena, her motivations, her punishment… but it also reveals another thing: Brannon didn’t tell his daughter what the Lock was for. If Elena had known, if she’d understood that it served a bigger purpose than she imagined, then no one would be in this situation. Aelin blames Elena for so much, but that’s not entirely fair; some of that blame should be squarely on Brannon. Everyone does the best they can with the information they have. If you don’t have all the information, your choices are made out of ignorance. And this seems like it’ll be rather relevant, given that Aelin keeps not giving her own people any information.

If Aelin had told everyone about Ansel, about what she hoped the red-headed queen would pull off with Melisande, Lorcan wouldn’t have summoned Maeve. Maybe this was all fated; maybe it would’ve happened anyway. Maeve obviously wasn’t far away, so the showdown was inevitable, but it didn’t have to happen right then, right when Aelin was still drained. (Elide thinks to herself that Aelin, at full strength, would win.) But I thought about that a lot, about all of the things that led to that showdown on the beach, and how one of them was keeping secrets.

In this book, though, we do get a much better understanding of why Aelin is like this—and she starts to change. Part of it is simply that she doesn’t like explaining herself and sharing her plans. Part of it is that she doesn’t want to delegate because it might get people killed. But she also doesn’t want to be wrong. “She’d wanted to do this on her own,” she thinks when Aedion and Rowan are growling over Ansel’s surprise appearance.

No ruler, no leader, can do their job that well entirely on their own. It’s a dangerous kind of perfectionism: If she doesn’t tell anyone what she’s planning, they’ll never know if it doesn’t pan out. If she doesn’t offer them any hope, it can’t be taken away from them. She wants so badly to be strong for everyone that she keeps them in the dark. But when no one knows the plans, no one has time to prepare in case those plans go awry.

After Lorcan’s summons goes out—a summons Aelin understands, though she doesn’t let on—she realizes she’s cornered, and she begins to tell people some parts of her plans and asks others for help. Even before they see everything in the mirror, she asks Manon to find the Crochan witches. She tells Lysandra at least part of what she suspects and fears, and asks for the help that only the shifter can give. And she marries Rowan, though we don’t really know how much she tells him. There’s a lot he knows simply because of that choice, including that she trusts him to rule Terrasen in her stead.

In the end, many of her plans work. When she retakes Ilium, she has something concrete to offer to Rolfe. When she succeeds in Skull’s Bay, it sends exactly the right message to her potential allies. Ansel shows up. Eventually, the armada from Wendlyn and the Silent Assassins do, too. She puts every tool she can in the hands of her friends, so they can keep fighting after she’s gone. It’s noble, it’s a sacrifice—though not the one the Lock supposedly requires. But as a reader, it gets frustrating to have the same trick pulled time after time: A hint here, a suggestion there, and then a dramatic entrance. We don’t know about her plans until they work out. What about the other ones, the ones that don’t work out? They can’t all be perfect.

Imagine how frustrating it is to live with someone who only makes plans like this. You don’t even really have to imagine: you can just watch Aedion, so furious at being kept out of things, angry at what he doesn’t understand. In the end he feels so guilty for criticizing her, for thinking she wasn’t taking steps, that he’s still angry. I’m worried about that anger.

Mating Season

The language of Rowan’s relationship with Aelin is … not my favorite part of this series. It’s always the language of ownership: taking, claiming, marking. He loves her, he risks himself for her, they have almost literally explosive sex, but the way Maas describes their interactions sits a little weirdly with me. We still haven’t met any purely Fae females besides Maeve, so there’s no basis of comparison: Are they like this too? Right now it seems like “territorial Fae nonsense” is code for “men being Manly”—a sort of “Fae will be Fae” excuse for aggression and possessiveness.

Aedion thinks similar things when he thinks about Lysandra—it’s all the language of the hunt—and there’s a similarity with Lorcan and Elide, too, a sort of wild-men-being-tamed-by-the-love-of-a-good-woman trope that repeats in many of these relationships (Though it’s worth noting that it’s decidedly not the case with Manon and Dorian.) I almost miss the way Rowan and Aelin bickered and fought their way into friendship and understanding. There’s much to admire about Rowan: he brings Aelin back from the endless pit of her power, asks his cousins for their help for her, restrains himself at her request—he listens to her, holds her up, understands and forgives her worst impulses. I just can’t get as invested in their relationship as I am in the many friendships in these books. (I did love that there was a reason he threw himself in front of Deanna-possessed Aelin in Skull’s Bay, though—it wasn’t just a grand romantic gesture, but a practical one, inasmuch as there’s anything practical about being mates.)

What I do appreciate is that Rowan isn’t Aelin’s first love. There are so many stories in which a first love is the same as a character’s epic one true love—a fairytale notion turned fantasy cliché that got tired years and years ago. Celaena had Sam, and Arobynn took him from her. She had Chaol, and he betrayed her, however unintentionally. When Aelin meets Rowan, Maas builds their relationship for an entire book before either of them even acknowledges that it’s more than just respect and affection. It’s downright refreshing how long they take to, uh, take each other.

(I also liked knowing that Aedion has a friendly ex in the Bane.)

The Point at Which I Literally Started Crying

I waited two entire books for Manon to turn on her nasty grandmother, and I was not disappointed. Maas built everything about Manon’s rebellion slowly and carefully, from her bond with flower-loving Abraxos to her sympathy for Elide to the moment when Manon finally learned Asterin’s story, and learned just how hateful and cruel her grandmother really could be.

And so to have that all come to a head in the same scene where the High Witch reveals Manon’s secret history was incredibly satisfying. The way Manon comes to understand that she has a heart, that she loves her witches and they love her (that salute!) is the slowest of slow burns, a portrait of a woman transforming herself. By throwing in the revelation that Manon is also the last Crochan Queen, Maas changes everything, all at once. Of course the High Witch would gloat about that when she believed she had Manon cornered; she wanted to watch her granddaughter find and lose a last shred of hope.

And of course Manon’s story isn’t just about the Ironteeth, just about wyverns and Morath and helping Elide escape. No one in this book is “just” anything; they’re all queens and ladies, princes (though I’m unclear what Rowan is prince of) and lords, whether born or self-made. Manon is also a queen, and one intended to break the curse on the Witch Kingdom.

She’s also clearly vital to Aelin’s story. They had to step into the mirror together, didn’t they? I wonder if that was a step taken in part to try to ensure that no one makes the mistake Brannon did—that Aelin can’t keep the secrets of Elena’s error, and the Lock, to herself. But it’s also because a Crochan queen helped Mala forge the Lock in the first place, which clearly suggests that Aelin’s going to need a Crochan around when it comes time to do so again.

I love that Elide takes her place with the witches, in the end, after she gives Lorcan a piece of her mind. (I just plain love practical, scared, adaptable Elide.) I love that, after Maeve vanishes with Aelin, Manon tells everyone everything, and Elide picks up part of the story. There’s no way to keep any more secrets, and it feels right for these two to do the telling.

Elide is so much more important than she initially seemed: when Aelin endures everything Maeve does to her, it’s for Elide—a debt of gratitude for Elide’s mother’s actions. But Elide is also a symbol, and Aelin has learned how to use symbols. She stands for Terrasen, and alliances, and hope; she’s only there in front of Aelin thanks to the help of people Aelin thought were enemies. Elide is the future, brought to Aelin by a changed Lorcan and a Manon who has remembered how to hope.

“We are allowed to make mistakes, to figure out who we wish to be,” Lysandra says to Aedion, when Aedion forgets how to have any sympathy for what Dorian has been through. On a scale like this, those mistakes can have massive consequences. But they’re still inevitable, and people still have to be forgiven—and accepted. It’s a lesson Aelin is still learning about herself.

Maeve’s Extremely Long Game

Maeve has been waiting so long for this. She made Rowan think Lyria was his mate, then ensured Lyria’s fate so that a broken Rowan would take the blood oath—all to ensure that Rowan would belong to her, when he finally met the mate Maeve had foreseen. So that all she would have to do is threaten him—as she did, back in Doranelle—and Aelin would hand over the keys.

That’s why she was so insistent on meeting young Aelin: so Aelin would meet Rowan and be mate-bound to the subject of Maeve’s blood oath. Everyone thinks she didn’t help Terrasen out of spite, but I think it was something pure disinterest. If she couldn’t have her shiny toy, she simply didn’t care. “Nameless is the price of Maeve’s allegiance,” Fenrys says, and it makes things click, slowly, for Aelin—who was the price.

This certainly implies that Maeve is as bad, if not worse, than Erawan, doesn’t it? Did she give Evalin and Rhoe an ultimatum? Did they decide that Adarlan was less of a threat than whatever Maeve had planned for their daughter? Brannon believed that Maeve wanted the Wyrdkeys for “something darker, worse” than simple conquest. But what? There’s still something missing from the story about her killing her beloved Athril all those years ago: motive. Why? What was that about? It’s like the mythology about Elena and Gavin defeating Erawan: it makes for a compelling story, but some key plot points have clearly been left out.

And she knows Manon’s face. Which is Rhiannon Crochan’s face. What history do the witches have with the Fae queen?

All These Busybody Deities

Since Queen of Shadows, I’ve been keeping a list of all the gods mentioned. That list came in handy when Lysandra tells Aedion her theory that everything happening was planned, that Mala and Deanna have been watching over Aelin her whole life. I don’t think it’s just Aelin. There’s a god or goddess hovering over the shoulder of each of these main characters.

The presence of Hellas and Annieth in Lorcan and Elide’s lives is obvious—and certainly Mala has made herself known to Aelin. I feel pretty confident about Lysandra and Temis, goddess of wild things, and Manon’s alignment with the Three-Faced Goddess. But what about everybody else? Who lines up with Kiva, the god of atonement? Chaol? What about Lani, goddess of dreams? And who is the twelfth god? I’ve counted up only eleven.

However, that’s not accounting for the Goddess referenced in the Yulemas celebration in Throne of Glass—the one who birthed Lumas, whose birth brought love into Erilea and “banished the chaos that arose from the Gates of the Wyrd.” That Goddess hasn’t been named (yet). Could she be Mala in another guide? Could Lumas be another child, one born before she tied herself to Brannon and a mortal body? We didn’t even know until this book that Mala was Elena’s mother—what other secrets is Maas hiding about her?

There are references to both sin and hell throughout this series, and it’s pretty clear there’s some sort of afterlife, given that Elena’s punishment is that she won’t get to see her family and loved ones again. And the Valg are demons, so is their realm hell? Where do the gods and goddesses want to return to? Will that change Erilea fundamentally, if their literal gods are gone?

Knowing that these beings came from somewhere else—somewhere they want to get back to—makes me even more suspicious about the story about Mab being made into a goddess. I think Maeve has been telling a lot of stories over the centuries. And I don’t think that Mab-as-Deanna would have treated Aelin the way she did in Skull’s Bay.

I’ve Got a Theory

There are multiple references over the course of Empire of Storms to people always finding each other—Lorcan and Elide say it, and Rowan tells Aelin more than once that he’d find her anywhere. “I’d walk into the burning heart of hell itself to find you,” he says.

This seems like a huge bit of foreshadowing. Obviously, he’s hunting for her now, for wherever Maeve has taken her, and it’s not going to be easy to find her.

But I’m much more concerned how this potentially relates to the price of forging the Lock, and whether Aelin will actually die—”yielding every last drop of [her] life force.” Would she go to hell if that happened? What does “hell” even mean, in this world, with this pantheon?

Bits of different mythologies are scattered throughout: Erawan’s name is notably similar to the Welsh figure Arawn as he appears in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and it’s surely no coincidence that Deanna, like her Roman cousin Diana, is the lady of the hunt. (Mala, Deanna’s sister, then parallels Apollo, the lord of light.) “Temis” is a lot like “Themis,” one of the Titans.

It wouldn’t be out of place for an Orpheus story to turn up here. Though given that Aelin is the musician in this relationship, perhaps Rowan being the one to make this promise is a misdirection. Maybe she’s going to have to fetch him from an underworld.

I also suspect Dorian will do something foolish and noble and brave. He’s also descended from Mala; he can also sacrifice himself to forge this Lock. I really don’t want him to die: I like Dorian, and his quiet struggle with the trauma he’s been through, and the solace he finds in Manon’s fierce strength. Plus, someone has to rebuild Rifthold, eventually, and we’ve seen no sign that Hollin or the queen are capable of that. If they’re still alive. If Erawan hasn’t brought them to Morath by now.

So, in short, I think Aelin is going to die, but in the grand tradition of everyone from Jesus to Buffy, it’s not going to stick. There will be a different kind of sacrifice and no one is going to see it coming. 

Where Does All This Leave Us?

Aelin is locked in an iron coffin. (How will she heal?) Maeve thinks she has what she wanted: the Wyrdkeys in one hand and Aelin, her slave, in the other. Maeve dishonorably released Lorcan and Gavriel from the blood oath, but still has Fenrys at her side—and Cairn, the sadistic one.

But she doesn’t have the keys, because Aelin slipped them to Manon, who in turn gave them to Dorian, the other heir of Mala’s bloodline. Manon believes the Ironteeth owe Aelin a life debt for her sacrifice, which saved Elide—but she’s going to find the Crochans not just for Aelin, but to stop centuries of witchy horrors and abuse. And Dorian’s going with her. “To see if I can do what needs to be done.”

Lysandra and Aedion, after finding common ground, are at odds: He’s full of rage, feeling betrayed, and she’s walking around in Aelin’s face and body, holding up the ruse as long as she can. It’s a terrible idea; Aelin’s allies are going to find out, and how will they react? But at least they have allies, now: A fleet of Rowan’s cousins, Wendlyn’s ships, and Silent Assassins sails north. Rolfe has gone in search of the Mycenians, and will then sail north too.

As for Rowan, he’s taken off across the sea to find his wife.

The Inevitable Random Thoughts and Questions

  • I don’t understand why Elena saving Aelin and putting her in Arobynn’s hands was defying the gods—if she died, how would that help them?
  • There’s a “dark” chest under Morath, twin to the “light” one they find the mirror in. What for? What story is trapped in its mirror?
  • If I never read another bit of dialogue in which a character “croons” their words, I’ll be ok with that.
  • Lorcan gets so many points for making pads for Elide.
  • Two major things mentioned here for the first time: the Yielding, the only time a witch can summon great power, and the Settling, when a Fae settles into their final immortal form.
  • Very curious about Rolfe’s barmaid with the sea dragon tattoo that matches her eyes. I wonder if the sea dragons have vanished … into human form.
  • A lot of things get gendered in these books in really unnecessary way: “a hint of female temper,” a “purely male smile.”
  • Since Elena married Gavin and ruled Adarlan, clearly Brannon had other children. Who?
  • Why did Nehemia know how to use Wyrdmarks?
  • “You will not see Eyllwe again” is not the same as “You have to get yourself terribly murdered” but fine, maybe I’m splitting missives-from-the-dead-queen hairs here.
  • Where did the witches, who were bred by the Valg, get their mythology? From whence comes their Three-Faced Goddess?

We’ll be back with Aelin in two weeks—but first, to the Southern Continent!

Molly Templeton is exhausted from New York Comic Con, but excited to pick up Tower of Dawn and see what Chaol and Nesryn have been up to. Come discuss your favorite theories with her on Twitter!

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