Side Quest: Reading Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass: Tower of Dawn

After Empire of Storms, our heroine is off the page in more ways than one: Tower of Dawn is primarily Chaol’s book, as he and Nesryn venture to the Southern Continent and meet up with another person whose life has been unexpectedly affected by a certain former assassin. A reader might think they could skip Chaol’s sometime frustrating tale of healing, but that would be a mistake: it’s also full of super-important secrets and one reveal that changes the entire nature of the threats our heroes face. (I have so many questions.)

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

Spoilers for the entire published series follow!

A Relatively Brief Summary of the Events of Tower of Dawn

At the end of Queen of Shadows, Chaol and Nesryn set sail for the Southern Continent with two goals: to take Chaol to the famed healers of the Torre Cesme to heal the injury inflicted by the king, and to win the southern armies to Aelin’s cause.

In the southern city of Antica, the khagan is not exactly amenable to talking politics: His youngest daughter, Tumelun, died just a few weeks ago. Though Nesryn is delighted to be among her people—people she’s never known, being Rifthold-born after her parents emigrated—she’s horrified to learn of the sacking of Rifthold. There’s no word about her family.

The khagan’s court contrasts with everything Chaol knew in the north, and not only because the line of succession is not dependent on age or gender, but on the choice of the khagan. Some choose to make their children fight each other, though it has not yet come to that with the five current potential heirs, some of which control different pieces of the country’s forces (land, air, sea, spies).

Forced to cool his heels on the political front, Chaol finds that healing may be no easier: He’s sent Yrene Towers, heir apparent to the Healer on High and friend to at least two of the khagan’s children: Hasar, the scheming princess, and Kashin, the nice one, who’s kind of in love with Yrene. Yrene, who has her own reasons to loathe everything about Adarlan, would prefer not to heal the former captain of the king’s guard at all, but the current Healer on High, Hafiza, has her reasons for assigning Yrene this task.

While they work through the magical injury to Chaol’s spine, Nesryn befriends one of the heirs, Sartaq, who controls the ruk riders—soldiers who ride giant birds into battle. When she travels to his aerie, she meets Sartaq’s excellent hearth-mother, Houlun, and discovers an unexpected threat: the Stygian spiders, here called kharankui, are growing bolder, stealing ruk eggs and hatchlings. In Antica, Yrene stumbles on a murdered healer and it looks like the work of a Valg. Something chases Yrene to Chaol’s room one night; someone steals the valuable books, full of Wyrdmarks and secrets, that she finds in the Torre’s library.

While Nesryn and Sartaq investigate the spiders, Chaol investigates … well, mostly himself. Our boy’s got a lot of self-loathing to work through, and he makes progress, though sometimes his versions of events are unrecognizable. (Aelin didn’t sleep with Rowan in Wendlyn … because of Chaol?) He and Yrene grow closer as she overcomes her anger and bitterness about her past and he overcomes his own seemingly endless guilt—and he learns that he’s no less of a man when he’s in a wheelchair. Yrene gradually breaks through the poisonous remnants of the Valg injury, which feeds on Chaol’s guilty memories. Healing involves making him relive them while enduring terrible physical pain.

In the mountains, Nesryn learns secrets from spiders, including the truth about Maeve, who is no Fae but a Valg queen who came here ages past, before the Valg kings, who followed her. In a desert oasis, Chaol and Yrene confirm a secret of the Southern Continent: Fae lived there. Chaol theorizes, accurately, that the Fae’s healing gifts passed into the land and the people, making the whole continent a sort of secret weapon—because healing magic, it turns out, can rid a person of the pestilence of the Valg.

When the Valg lurker finally shows its hand, it kidnaps Hafiza, luring Yrene and Chaol to another secret old Fae space to gloat and monologue in true Valg fashion—and it’s possessed Duva, the pregnant, quiet daughter of the khagan. Chaol is re-injured in the fight, and when Yrene, backed by all the other healers, throws everything she’s got into healing him, it links them for good: his physical state is forever tied to her magic. This could be awkward were they not in love. Also, good thing Sartaq and Nesryn—also now in love—show up just in time to help out.

Yrene drives the Valg—a princess, who says her sisters are coming—out of Duva. The khagan is all gratitude, and offers Yrene anything. (His scheming daughter Hasar, it turns out, had already heard from Aelin—Aelin asked for her help and promised her a better world.) In the end, everyone goes to join Aelin’s battle: Hasar’s navy, Sartaq’s ruk forces, Kashir’s army, and several hundred healers, including the Healer on High.

The Southern Land of Good Intentions

This is a novel full of good intentions. From the disability representation to the focus on the Southern Continent and the different culture that flourishes there, Maas seems to be really trying to embiggen her world, to stretch it beyond its semi-European-fantasy borders.

I’m just not sure it all works as well as it might. And I think the reason why I’m underwhelmed is that the story she tells, in this other country, with its great literacy rate and fairer sense of justice, is for the most part the same story she tells in Adarlan, Terrasen, Wendlyn; it’s the same story about magically bonded straight couples and strength and forgiveness and Fae secrets. This book isn’t really about the Southern Continent or the people who live there; it’s about Chaol, and to a lesser degree Yrene, then Nesryn, and even Maeve. Apart from the details, the khave and the ruks, the healers and the desert, it feels largely the same.

Sense of place has never been Maas’s strength as a writer. I don’t have a great sense of what Rifthold is really like outside the castle and the Vaults; Skull’s Bay seems just like the town where Aelin met Yrene; most of her locations rely on the reader’s understanding of the general landscape of western fantasy. Tower of Dawn’s new setting is fascinating, but it doesn’t come through as strongly as it needs to.

I appreciate the impulse to tell this story—to work through Chaol’s hurt and shame, to let Nesryn explore a city where she’s not othered by her neighbors, to remind us all that there are more kinds of magical fantasy kingdom than the ones we’ve been to so far. But it was a mistake not to make any of the heirs, or maybe Borte or Hafiza or Houlun, a POV character—to not give us the voice of someone who grew up in this continent and could show it to us through their eyes. Nesryn loves the continent—and I love the moment when the ruk riders each welcome her home—but in Chaol and Yrene’s sections, Antica feels more like set dressing than a real place.

The other frustrating thing about the limited POV characters is that all our narrators exist in relation to Aelin. I hadn’t realized how much I appreciated Manon’s POV in Heir of Fire as a break from that: Manon knows Aelin now, but when we first meet her, she’s her own witch, living out her own life with no ties to the Queen of Terrasen. That outside perspective enriches the story; it reminds us how big the world is, and that people in it have their own stories and problems apart from Aelin’s quests.

The closest approximation of that here is Nesryn, but her character is underdeveloped. She is Neith’s Arrow, an astonishing archer; she’s affectionate toward Chaol, though never in love with him; she loves her family. She’s loyal and fierce and strong—but those qualities are almost givens among the heroes in this story.  As she and Sartaq do their courtship dance, her character flattens. It’s a huge disappointment that she winds up more plot device than person—and, inevitably, winds up on a path to becoming royalty. (I just want someone to be Normal But Still Useful and Great!)

The King’s Hand and the Healer

Oh, Chaol. I know there are readers who love our honor-bound, extremely sculpted, problematically loyal boy, but he’s not my favorite. I appreciate the role he played in Celaena’s life before she became Aelin again; as I said before, it matters that she had a love who was not her One True Love. People do that; they fall in love, they make mistakes—inside and outside of relationships—and they learn from them.

It just takes him so bloody long to learn from his mistakes.

And there’s so much more that Chaol’s struggle in this book could’ve been about. His father comes into a little, but I think too little: What was Chaol’s unwavering loyalty to the crown if not the direct result of his family strife? Without a family, he imprints like a little duckling on the very concept of his position in Rifthold. He decides that that is where his loyalty lies, since his father threw him out. In Crown of Midnight, that leads directly to the choices that divide him and Celaena.

All of that suggests to me that much of Chaol’s mental battle should’ve been more about his upbringing, about the problematic traditional masculinity of his father’s expectations, about what it means to be strong and why his physicality is his refuge. Instead, it’s about Aelin, and like Aelin, he takes the burden of responsibility for events that were not his fault. He’s stuck on the moment in the castle when Dorian told him to run, about what happened to his men at Valg-possessed Dorian’s hands, and beating himself up and inventing new reasons to be guilty.

Part of my frustration with Chaol’s arc in Tower is that I understand—like so many of us, I’m very skilled at beating myself up, at listening to that part of me that thinks that yelling at myself will somehow make me better. It doesn’t and it won’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy habit to break. That critical internal voice is one hell of an enemy, and a pretty unusual one in an epic fantasy novel. I wanted to be invested in Chaol’s interior journey, in the way he silences that voice, but it became repetitive, and secondary to his relationship with Yrene, in an unsatisfying way.

But Chaol does a lot of work. It’s important that he respects Shen, and that he understands that to think less of himself for his injury is to think less of Shen. He has to fully accept that they are no less of men. And it’s important that this kind of healing—of his self-worth, his perspective—is also work. He finds solace in training his body, but he’s got to retrain his mind as well. 

Though their courtship followed a very familiar path, I understand Maas intended with Chaol’s relationship with Yrene. We don’t always, or even often, defeat our worst impulses alone, and having the two of them face their darknesses together makes for a bonding experience. Yrene, in a mirror image of Chaol, has to let go of anger that’s directed outward. It’s righteous anger, to a degree, but it’s holding her back.

Yrene’s appearance is a pretty great payoff for “The Assassin and the Healer” (and she’s not the only Assassin’s Blade character to appear here; I did not expect Falkan!). She’s become so much more than that girl Celaena met in Innish—and I love few things in this book as much as her passing on the self-defense lessons she learned. But her story becomes dominated by Chaol—letting go of her own anger becomes about forgiving, loving, and accepting him, despite his connection to the old king. I love the way she plays on Chaol’s anger to get him to do the work; I like that she’s not flawless, that she makes mistakes and can get lost in her anger. But I wish more of her story was just about her.

They’re inextricably linked now, and I’m certainly curious to see how that will play out when they reach Aelin’s forces. How will Chaol adjust? How will the magical connection between them help or hinder when she has to cure a Valg possession? Can the healers link up for that the way they linked up to save Chaol? And what happens afterward: Will they come back to Antica for Yrene to take Hafiza’s place? Will Dorian have no one left to advise him and be part of his court? Nesryn has her own reasons to return south. And there’s no one left.

(I worry about Dorian.)

I Was Right and Wrong About Maeve

She’s not a barn owl. But she is a dirty liar. She’s no Fae; she’s a Valg queen, and she rewrote Fae history so they’d think she’s always been part of it. She hoards healers because she knows what an excellent defense they are against the Valg.

Maybe Aelin should just set her on Erawan and sit back and let them destroy each other.

The lack of reference to female Valg earlier in the series makes Maeve’s secrets more shocking, but I have to do a complicated little mental dance to convince myself that it makes sense that there’s no mention of female Valg in any of the old stories. The Valg that possesses Duva is a princess, so Erawan is working with at least some of them. But maybe only male Valg fought in the last war; maybe in the years that Erawan has been asleep, the legends faded; maybe the way that the Valg seem to mostly possess the bodies of men made people think they were only male.

But what does this mean about Maeve’s power? How many skills does she have, that she twists minds to this degree, and can see the future, and whatever else? How does Valg culture work?

The truth about Maeve explains Brannon’s fear that she had something other than conquest in mind for the three Wyrdkeys, though I still don’t know what that something is. And then there’s Athril. A sneaky little reveal in this book—unless I missed it elsewhere—is that Athril’s other form was an owl. Chaol remembers the owl, the symbol of Silba, on the tapestry in Aelin’s room that led to the tunnels. And I remember the owl that sat on Maeve’s chair in Heir of Fire, and that swept off after Aelin’s demonstration of power, making me think that was Maeve’s other form.

But Mave doesn’t have another form, being not at all Fae. So: is that owl Athril? Did she not actually kill him, but only trap him as an animal? Was he a healer? Did she really love him? Did he find out what she was?

I’ve misdirected my curiosity about minor characters before (see also: whoever became the monster under the clock tower in Rifthold). But the story of Athril is even more incomplete than Maeve’s story was. His ring guards against Valg powers, and was forged for him by Silba—which certainly suggests he understood why he might need such a defense. Can healing magic be focused through it?

(Also, whose body is Maeve wearing?)

I Would Like a History of the Southern Continent, Please

What I liked least about reading Tower of Dawn was that it threw into sharper relief the things that frustrate me about this series as a whole. In earlier books, there’s so much going on in terms of perspective and worldbuilding that I could focus on those things, on mythology and Manon and the way Aelin tries to forgive herself as part of understanding how to become herself. It was easy to spend less of my attention on the less appealing stuff that leans hard into YA fantasy tropes: the way that everyone is the most beautiful person ever; that every main character must be paired off in an aggressively straight relationship; the repetition of bleated and barked and crooned; the focus on things being “purely male” and the overemphasis on physical strength; the way Maas, as a writer, relies heavily on the same tactic Aelin uses: withholding information until a secret plan can play out in dramatic fashion.

Tower of Dawn, with its close focus and limited POV characters, gave me fewer outs. And yet there’s so much to want more of in this setting! As I said earlier, Tower needed a POV from someone born and raised in the Southern Continent, someone who could give us a better sense of the place, of the library city, the desert, the way the economy works, the way the people feel about the khaganate, for good and bad. (It seems to be a history of conquest, of combining many lands into one—but here it’s presented as a good thing, rather than Adarlan’s tyranny.)

I don’t expect we’ll find out much more about the Fae civilization buried beneath the deserts and the cities here. But how long ago was that? How many thousands of years? Valg-possessed Duva says the royals buried under the Torre were “renegades of Mora’s noble line,” about which we don’t know much at all. (How does this Valg princess know this, anyway?) And, pressingly: what happened to those Fae?

So much is teased: Houlun says the Fae came to teach the ruks to fight the spiders, and to build watchtowers, presumably to keep an eye on where Maeve came through. There were Fae who knew about Maeve’s lies, at least at some point. Why didn’t they leave more hints and clues? Did they leave the Baast Cats?

And what happens when Erawan finds out who Maeve really is? Does he know?

Power Isn’t Just Physical

Power, in this series, has been expressed primarily via dominance and control. Nearly all of the characters are physically powerful and/or magically dominant; they know how to fight, how to hurt, how to kill and frighten and manipulate. Their forces have almost entirely been used for destruction—though the moments of defense, like Aelin stopping the wall of glass, are striking and meaningful.

Sorscha was a brief reprieve, a character whose strength was in healing; Elide also has a different kind of skill in the way she adjusts herself to her situation, handles Lorcan, talks her way out of things.

With Yrene, Maas solidifies this important point: power comes in many forms. “The world needs more healers” was a long, slow payoff, but a true one: especially in and after wartime, people need healing, and countries need healing, too—in more ways than one. But Maas takes it a step farther, shifting the means of defeating the Valg from destruction to salvation: not just burning them and the humans whose bodies they take to bits, but saving those people by treating the Valg like a particularly nasty infection.

Will that work on Maeve? Doubtful. But every person saved from Valg control is a win.

After five novels of swordplay and flashing daggers, iron nails and meaningful weapons, there’s another important aspect to the relevance of the healers’ power: it’s a reminder that you don’t have to be physically strong to fight. Maas nodded at this with Abraxos, the clever wyvern who’s not the biggest or the strongest, yet is exactly the mount for Manon. The theme carried through with Lysandra, who worked quietly, secretly against Arobynn and eventually took him down—before she got her power back.

But now we have a kind of power that has nothing to do with threats, or control, or deadliness, or size. We have a kind of power wielded mostly by women of all ages. (It’s worth noting that coding healing as a primarily female power buys into a gendered cliche, especially alongside Aelin’s mostly-male forces: women heal, men fight. Which reminds me: Where are the women that are part of the khaganate’s fighting forces?)

Despite the book’s flaws, the end of Tower of Dawn, when hundreds of healers are sailing off alongside all the khagan’s armies to bring a different kind of magic to this war… I loved that. And I’m glad I don’t have to wait very long to see how it all plays out.

Where Does All of This Leave Our Fire-Breathing Bitch Queen?

She’s got quite the force now. We can only hope Lysandra and Aedion can control it. Tower’s epilogue is a vicious tease—just a glimpse of Aelin in Maeve’s clutches. We know not only that Maeve is Valg, but that one of her skills is twisting people’s minds until they believe whatever she wants them to believe.

What will she twist about Aelin?

A Few Random Thoughts and Questions

  • I understand why everyone, even Chaol, believes Aelin razed the glass castle, but that’s going to be a thing he and Dorian need to deal with at some point.
  • Which god watches over Chaol? Any of them?
  • The khagan’s wife is almost as invisible as Georgina. (But at least they’re not dead!)
  • Two thumbs up for the focus on consent when Chaol and Yrene are in the oasis.
  • I appreciate the parallel of Yrene always wanting Chaol to do things himself and Sartaq nudging Nesryn to join in, to help, to be part of the aerie—encouraging people to participate in different things, for different reasons.
  • Can we hang out with Renia? I need to know a lot more about her.
  • So Erawan is the youngest of the three Valg kings, and he loved his brothers, and this fascinates me. We’ve seen no suggestion that the Valg are capable of love; they’ve just been plain old garden variety evil. What else is up Maas’s Valg sleeve?
  • If Silba is the Fae god of healing too … what other gods do the Fae have?
  • I’m anxious for Aelin and Yrene to meet again—but what do we bet Yrene’s going to run into Lysandra-as-Aelin first and Lysandra’s not going to remember her and that’s going to be the end of that masquerade?

Kingdom of Ash is out so soon! Next week, I’ll take a look at the biggest questions the finale has to answer—and then digging into all 992 pages once I’ve had a chance to read it.

Molly Templeton wouldn’t complain if there were spinoff books about Manon and Nesryn. Wouldn’t complain at all.

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