We Might Be So Much More: Reading Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass: Kingdom of Ash

All our theories can at last be put to rest, though not all of our questions got answers. But how could they? Even in almost a thousand pages, there were so many things in motion, going into this last book, that only one thing seemed definite: A really big showdown, years in the making, was coming.

Welcome to the last post in Reading Throne of Glass! My head is absolutely full to bursting with details, both vital and random, and I’m dying to talk about what happened at the end. So let’s get to it.

This post involves all the spoilers for all the books!

A Fairly Brief (Given How Much Happens) Summary of Kingdom of Ash

In the east, Rowan, Lorcan, Fenrys, and Elide hunt for Aelin, wringing news about Maeve from her Fae commanders. Elide is still furious at Lorcan, but eventually he clears something up for her: he wasn’t crawling for Maeve at the end of Empire of Storms. He was crawling to Aelin.

In the north, Aedion fights losing battles on two fronts: against Morath’s soldiers, and against his feelings for Lysandra, who he’s still emotionally punishing for having made plans with her queen that he wasn’t in on.

Among the khaganate’s ships, Chaol gets word that Morath marches on Anielle. Much as he doesn’t want to see his father, he can’t let his home be destroyed.

In the mountains, witches hunt witches: Manon leads the Thirteen in search of the Crochan Witches. Dorian, among them, works on his magic, and—once they encounter Cyrene, the spider Manon fooled, who also took years and magic from Falkan the shapeshifter—begins to practice shapeshifting. He wants to go to Morath—in a different form.

In Doranelle, Maeve tortures Aelin, all with the goal of getting her to take the blood oath. (There is a lot of torture.) Fenrys is forced to watch. When Cairn, Aelin’s torturer, moves to burn her, it’s too much for both of them: Fenrys snaps his blood-oath and attacks Cairn. Aelin, desperate enough that she’d rather die, tries to goad Cairn into killing her. And then Rowan and company show up, just in time to help. Aelin is traumatized and silent, blinking her silent language with Fenrys, when the Little Folk come to help them all get out of Doranelle.

Cyrene leads Manon to the Crochans, who are skeptical; Manon quietly draws two Ironteeth covens to the combined witch force, to fight them and prove herself to the Crochans. A tentative truce is struck. The Thirteen fly into the Gap to speak to the other Ironteeth, and Petrah Blueblood listens. When the Crochan Matrons come for Manon later, she lets the Blueblood Matron live. She kills the Yellowlegs Matron, to take back Rhiannon Crochan’s crown of stars, and her grandmother escapes. (For now.) Everyone recognizes Manon as queen, and a call goes out: hidden Crochan witches from all over dust off their brooms and fly north.

In Adarlan, Aelin—slightly recovered, but covered in new skin from where Maeve’s healers regrew all the damage—and company encounter ruk riders, and make their way to Anielle to join the fight there. It’s a nasty one, and Aelin has to save the day when Morath’s legions try to drown the city by breaking a dam. She expends all the power she’d been tunneling into—saving for Maeve’s death blow—steaming the flood away and redirecting it. And then everyone heads north.

Dorian sneaks into Morath, where he discovers that Maeve has come to speak to Erawan. After pretending to work with her, Dorian, so satisfyingly, turns off Maeve’s portalling power, uses her own deceiving power against her, and brings down what’s left of Morath. With all three keys, he shifts and flies north.

In Terrasen, the fighting continues. On the road there, Dorian finds Aelin, Chaol, and the khaganate host, and after a reunion, it’s time to deal with the keys. Dorian and Aelin plan to share the burden, in hopes it won’t kill either of them, but things go awry when Aelin tries to bargain with the gods for Elena’s existence. Deanna destroys Elena entirely. They don’t take Erawan with them. The old king of Adarlan appears—nameless; Erawan took his name—and offers his power. Aelin kicks out Dorian, the king uses up his magic, and Mala gifts Aelin a last nugget of power. It keeps her alive after she opens a portal in the god-world (to the hellscape we last saw in Crown of Midnight), leaving the gods to fight whatever comes through. And then, led by the magical Wyrdmarks in her new tattoo, she falls through worlds back to her own, power mostly depleted.

Manon’s witches arrive in Terrasen—and the Bluebloods join their side, too. Petrah uses Iskra’s own wyvern-murdering trick against her. (“For Keelie.”) And then Manon’s entire coven sacrifice themselves against the witch-tower and it’s everything: crushing, effective, giving the fighters time enough to breathe, and, afterward, time to pay tribute to those amazing women.

When Aelin comes to Terrasen, astride the Lord of the North, she remembers one of the important lessons: symbols have power. When everything is dark—when Gavriel has sacrificed himself, when the spider-Valg princesses are on the move—she makes a stand in front of the gate, her sword burning. The tide turns when a series of portals open: Fae, the ones who fled the Southern Continent, and wolves and men, all coming down from the far north to aid the fight.

And when it comes time to destroy Maeve and Erawan, Aelin doesn’t do it alone. Dorian, Lysandra, Elide, and Yrene combine forces to defeat Erawan. Before the final blow, Dorian learns his father’s name: It’s his own. When Yrene crushes Erawan, she shows him her mother: a woman Erawan never knew, whose hope for her daughter led them to this moment.

And in front of the gate, Aelin, Rowan, Fenrys and Lorcan fight Maeve, who tries, one last time, to turn their minds. But Aelin has seen enough of Maeve’s lies, and slips Athril’s ring onto the Valg queen’s finger. It’s not a pretty death.

When Erawan falls, his armies stop. And it’s actually over. Everyone has made peace—Lysandra and Aedion, Lorcan and Elide, Darrow and Aedion—and their losses aren’t nearly as terrible as they could’ve been, apart from the Thirteen. Gavriel went down in front of the gates, protecting his son and his son’s people. A lot of nameless, faceless soldiers died, but everyone else we know lives. Rolfe and his Mycenians. Ansel, though not many of her men. Ilias. Hasar and Sartaq and Nesryn, Dorian and Chaol and Yrene. Lorcan and Fenrys. Darrow, Evangeline, probably even Nox, wherever he got to.

Aelin is crowned queen, and offers the blood oath to Aedion in front of everyone. There’s a party, and everyone goes home. A witch brings Manon proof that she’s broken the curse: a flower bloomed in the Wastes. And in the end, on a sunny morning, the kingsflame blooms across Terrasen.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Babies

It is completely impossible for me to talk about everything that happened in this massive doorstopper of a book, so I’m going to pick a few key things, starting with three people who met in a salt mine in Throne of Glass—and whose story could’ve ended there, if “Duke Perrington” had realized just who he shoved to the floor. Remember those babies? A snarky, defensive assassin; a stoic, dedicated captain of the guard; and a prince mostly famous for being a ladies’ man. You can still see those people in the people they are now: a warrior queen, a leader and husband, a skilled magician and king. All much stronger, and all pretty darn traumatized.

I tend to love secondary characters more than leads, and to me, as a reader, Aelin has always been the pole around which this story rotates, but not what I read the story for. Pages and pages of torture is a tough sell at the best of times, and lately I’ve even less stomach for reading about terrible things happening to women—but Aelin’s resolve is carefully laid into those difficult chapters. Her resolve and her bond with Fenrys, which is reminder that people get through things when they’re not alone. Maeve underestimates this, being Valg; she doesn’t realize that by torturing them both, she pushes them closer together, and they give each other strength.

Maas doesn’t shy away from the repercussions of Aelin’s time in Maeve’s clutches. She’s not herself, not for a long time, not even at the end of the book, though she’s better. She’s changed so much, but in one way, her choices are consistent: She fights, and then she tries to sacrifice herself, thinking it the best way to take care of her people. She did it in Heir, and Rowan shared his power; she did it in Empire, and it saved Elide and her friends; she would have done it here, when it comes to the Lock, but Mala intervenes. It’s the truest way in which Aelin is a queen; her first priority is her people. It’s all she asks of those who take the blood oath: that they protect Terrasen and its people.

Will normal life—normal queenly life—be a challenge for Aelin? Will she have five kids with Rowan, like in his dream? With other threats come to Terrasen? Will she ever learn to tell people her plans?

Chaol has less time in this book, but it’s good time. It’s important time; it’s him facing his father with his new wife at his side, and finding that he can stand up to the old crotchety lord. So much of Chaol’s strife, in the earlier books, comes from him expecting people to be a certain way, and that includes himself. That’s part of his struggle in Tower of Dawn: accepting that you can’t always be the person you thought or wanted yourself to be. He’s had to adjust his expectations, again and again; he’s had to grow more flexible, and more accepting. He’s going to be such a good advisor for Dorian.

It’s Dorian I found the most fascinating as this series went on. He’s taken the longest to figure himself out, which makes sense—he was a prince, an heir, his life set out for him; then he was slave to one of those nasty Wyrdstone collars. There are things he’s always known about himself—his loyalty, the way he values friendships—but there’s so much else he has had to reconsider as his story shifted and changed. He’s struggling with PTSD almost as much as Aelin is, and he’s had to come to terms with the raw magic he never expected to have.

What I love is that his response to all of this is to grow curious. He studies Cyrene’s nugget of shapeshifting magic; he tries on other bodies; he tests Damaris’s truth capabilities, summons Gavin, learns, literally, to fly. He’s almost never still; he’s moving and looking and watching, and trying to understand. He doesn’t just want to understand what he’s capable of; he wants to understand how other people move through the world. He uses Damaris to detect lies, but also to understand truths, and to see what matters.

When he stands in that chamber of Morath and debates who he is, and what kind of action defines him, the choice, again, is taken from him. But really, he already chose: he chose when he weakened Morath, but not the pathways humans used. He chose when he tried to fight the prince in his Valg collar, and he chose when he accepted that maybe he felt like the deserved that collar. (I don’t love the implication that if people just believed in themselves more they could fight Valg possession, though; that veers a little too close to victim-blaming for me.)

It’s Dorian I want to follow now that this story is done—Dorian and Manon, who both have kingdoms to rebuild. But more on that later.

O Witch Queen, My Witch Queen

I’ve been on Team Manon since her first appearance, and so you can probably guess how I felt when the Thirteen flew off to their deaths—their light-filled, important, heart-wrenching deaths. (I could barely read the page through tears.) Part of me hates this choice, hates that Manon has to go off and lead the Witch Kingdom without the very witches who taught her to care, to love, to change, to look beyond the shitty ways she’d been taught. It’s a huge loss.

The story of the witches is the story of overcoming a history of infighting and self-hatred, and in some ways I wish the book was more upfront about that, about how the Ironteeth fight with the cliched weapons of the catfight, nails and teeth, turned viciously deadly. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on about the female friendships in the series; I love them, but they tend to be between women with differing levels of power, whether Manon and her second or Aelin and the women who will be ladies of Terrasen—but still subjects of their queen— when this is all over. It’s a series about kings and queens and royalty, so you can argue this is inevitable, but there’s something different about the connections between men and between women. (And I can’t help but notice that the only people who die are single; no one loses their partner or mate. It’s friendships that suffer most: the loss of all the Thirteen, and two of the cadre.)

In the end, there are three queens on this continent, and three witches leading the way back to the Witch Kingdom. There’s far more power in the hands of non-evil women than there was at the outset of the story. Still, I wish the Thirteen had gotten to keep demonstrating the biggest lesson they helped Manon learn: how people can change, and surprise you. But war is war, and people die, and their sacrifice was a blow to the heart.

It wasn’t in vain; Manon will still be a great queen, even without them. She’s learned to make harder and harder choices, to inspire, to see feelings as strengths, not just weaknesses. She and Aelin come to queendom from opposite ends—Aelin from a place of trying to do everything herself; Manon from a place of destructive teamwork for a horrid cause—but they both grew up, at least part of the time, being lied to and controlled. And they’re going to help each other figure out how not to be like that, I think.

(I’m glad she didn’t marry Dorian. I don’t think either of them are done baking yet, to mix in a Buffy metaphor. As allies, and, yes, lovers, they’re going to grow to be incredible. But they don’t need to get married.)

Unimportant Mysteries

This is still driving me bananas: How! Did! Erawan! Get! The! Third! Key! Obviously he had it, but when and how did he get it? Brannon hid that key in Mala’s temple, where only someone with his gifts could get it—or someone who held another key. So … who did it? Was it after Erawan got the key from Elena’s tomb? Valg hate fire, so he sure didn’t go fetch that one himself. (Did he use Kaltain, who’s said to have had the fire gift? Was there time for that?)

I know, I know: this isn’t the most important thing. But it was fascinating to finish this series and think about the difference between what an author prioritizes in a story and what a reader feels is vital to the tale. There are a lot of unanswered questions here, and I don’t mean that in a please-spell-everything-out-for-me sense, but in a worldbuilding sense. Authors have to make choice about what they focus on, and Maas built such a huge world that it was impossible to flesh out all of it.

I’m a nosy reader; I want to know how things work. I thought there would be more to the Wyrd (the way it’s discussed in the first book, for example, is very different), and to the whole story of the gods: what they were, how they got here, how they set themselves up as gods, how they relate to the other gods worshipped in the Southern Continent. Bless Gavriel for wondering what I wondered—with the gods gone, is there an empty chair in the underworld?

Some of my lingering questions were answered, like where the Fae from the Southern Continent went—but that answer was just, North. We didn’t meet any of them, or hear any of their stories. What’s their leadership like? The whole history is still full of mysteries that fascinate me: What caused the witch wars? What actually happened to Mab and Mora? Who were Brannon’s other children? What about the dragons in the southeast? From whence came Rolfe’s Mycenians, and were there ever sea dragons? What am I missing about the relationship between Rhiannon Crochan and the last go-round in this game: Why does Maeve know her face, and why does Manon have to step into the mirror with Aelin, when no witch is necessary for the forging of the Lock? What about the twin mirror, in the other chest that was supposedly under Morath?

What Comes After

Maybe I’m just greedy, though. If I have one primary wish about Kingdom of Ash, it’s that I wanted it to go a little further after Aelin’s coronation. I wanted the equivalent of “The Scouring of the Shire”—the scene when our battered, tired, long-traveling heroes have to go home and deal with the mess waiting for them. I wanted to see Dorian in Rifthold, figuring out where to start with his sacked city, coming to terms with his guilt and trauma, and making a better world with Chaol and Yrene. I wanted Manon flying over the Wastes-no-longer, seeing the place she can call home. I wanted to watch Aelin meet Nehemia’s parents, to finally give their country a moment in the spotlight that isn’t about death.

There’s a whole story after the battle is won, and it’s one that’s rarely told. But this is a celebration, and I respect that: After everything, Aelin and company deserve a ball, a coronation, a quiet farewell. (And a prime, wonderful appearance of the Little Folk, who’ve been there all along.)

Empire of Storms Redux—and Not

In some ways, the end of the series reflects the end of Empire of Storms: As ever, Aelin has plans she doesn’t tell anyone, from not explaining (even to Rowan!) why she doesn’t use her power until that desperate moment in Anielle, to not telling everyone that she’s asked the Fae and Wolf Tribe in the north to come to Terrasen’s aid. The latter, I understand; she never wants to give anyone hope that may be unfounded, because she knows what it’s like to lose hope. The former was endlessly frustrating, because while Aelin didn’t use her fire, people died. Nameless people, nameless soldiers, all falling to Morath’s hosts.

This turns out to be just as well, because all that power is needed to stop the flood that rushes from the destroyed dam. Aelin’s choice turns out to be right, and it’s almost too tidy, the way her reluctance turns out to be the right move. But it also makes for one hell of a scene: the fire-breathing bitch queen, turning a flood to steam.

But what matters in the end of this book—what’s mattered all along—is that battles aren’t won by individuals. Aelin saves Anielle, but that’s once the battle is done; there are only people to save because everyone fought, ruks and foot soldiers and Fae and all. From the very start, Aelin never wins her battles alone. Assassinations, yes: Archer Finn’s death is an assassin’s kill, and it might be the last time that happens.

Nehemia and Chaol fought beside her, if not in the ring, when she became King’s Champion. Rowan lent her his magic when she faced the Valg in Heir of Fire. Destroying Arobynn was a group plot, the last blow Lysandra’s; saving Rifthold from the king was a two-pronged effort, in the streets and in the castle, and neither Dorian nor Aelin could have done it alone. The same goes for the battle at the end of Empire, which took every alliance Aelin could call up on short notice.

So when it comes time to end the series’ two villains, it’s fitting, and beautiful, that it takes everyone—every major character we’ve come to know over these thousands of pages. Everyone’s skills are needed, from Dorian’s raw power to Yrene’s healing light, Lysandra’s strength to Elide’s perceptiveness. Chaol and Aedion, soldiers to the core, fight on the battlements; the cadre fight at Aelin’s side, every one of them with a part to play in the destruction of Maeve. It’s personal, like Asterin being the one to destroy the Blackbeak Matron, but it’s more than that: it’s fitting. And it’s really satisfying, too.

Given how much of this book is fighting—a lot—it’s saying something that the climactic battle is so breathtaking. Maas has firm control over the narrative, which moves all over Orynth; there’s never any confusion about where the characters are, how they relate to each other, and she manages to check in with just about everyone as everything comes to a violent but glorious close. You can trace some of the moments back to various classic fantasies, from the giant wolves and hidden people in the north to the way that even non-fighters can play a vital role at the end of things. (How I loved Elide, without a goddess at her shoulder, still so good at seeing what needs to be seen!)

The end of this book is, like Chaol thinks after the battle, the beginning—the start of a new kind of life for all of them. And two of our queens make choices, early in the book, that outline what that life will be, and what this story is all about. When she faces the Matrons, Manon spares Cresseida for a simple reason: She has seen that the Bluebood Matron is capable of love. And when Maeve tries to tempt Aelin with an imaginary version of Rowan that’s perfect, that never suffered, Aelin rejects the dream, because the reality is what matters—the reality where they got their shit together in Mistward, where they saw each other’s flaws and pain, and found hope in all of it.

It’s all hope, like it’s always been. It’s hope, and friendship, and connection. But it’s a wonderfully imperfect kind of hope, not the kind that wants the world to just be magically better, but the kind that understands that mistakes can be learned from, that people can be better, and that failures make us who we are, for better or worse. Sometimes they’re not even failures, like when a witch loves her daughter. Sometimes they’re just things we haven’t really figured out how to see yet.

Ten Last Things I Just Loved a Lot

  • Everything with Aelin and Fenrys. I guessed that a new blood oath would save him, and was so, so glad to be correct.
  • The way that Aelin keeps her body lined in fire when she escapes Maeve—there’s a really intense truth there about bodily autonomy and needing to feel, to be, in charge of your own self.
  • “Death—that was his gift.” So Dorian is Buffy, and I accept this.
  • The nuance of Rowan’s bait for Maeve—the whisper of Valg collars—being both what draws Maeve out and what nearly sends Aelin to her death. It’s so scary, and that makes it feel true.
  • Dorian accidentally summoning Kaltain, and kneeling to her. It’s the very least she deserves.
  • Elide tearing across the battlefield in front of Anielle, desperate to find Lorcan.
  • When the witches all start flying north it gave me all the same feelings as the lighting of the beacons in the Lord of the Rings—”Gondor calls for aid!”—and all the goosebumps, too.
  • Darrow listening to Evangeline, and giving Aedion his sword—and his pride—back.
  • Sea-dragon Lysandra covertly saving good witches while sending the rest to the bottom of the river.
  • My single favorite page in the book: 945, all the witches, and the meaning of the tribute to the Thirteen.

Molly Templeton really isn’t sure what to read next. Come talk to her about your Kingdom of Ash feels on Twitter!

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