Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I connect so much with the background of this author - sixteen when she started out writing for an online audience, and wanting to write fantasy with a badass chick lead - but I connected very little with this book. I think I'm too old now to swallow the trope of eighteen-year-olds who have already traveled the world, achieved it all and topped their game, and well and truly over the perfect/talented/smart/witty/beautiful/strong/confident/impressive Mary-Sue archetype. If you're still in your teens, this is probably the perfect book. If you're looking for good assassin fantasy, look elsewhere.
I liked a lot of what I got from the first chapter - former assassin enslaved in the fantasy equivalent of the Spice Mines of Kessel offered a humiliating get-out-of-jail card by the same royal family who ruined her country and enslaved her in the first place. Her freedom, after four years of servitude to the man she hates the most. I liked the moral dilemma of it, and I liked the casual carelessness of the prince when we first met him. I also liked the very un-princessy visage we're given of our protagonist here: enslaved for a year, she's dirty, scarred, bedraggled, unsightly. How often are female leads allowed to be so repulsive to their male counterparts?? I appreciated the author's bravery in beginning her story in this way. To hell with meeting sexist societal expectations! This is my kind of book!
But then. The rest of the book happened, and it was, mostly, not my kind of book. I realised I am old.
Celaena is quick to assure readers that she's normally very pretty, and that she dresses well, which is good, because we couldn't like her otherwise, I guess. (??) Once she's clean and getting healthy again, male characters constantly note how beautiful/delicate-seeming/innocent-like she is, and there's a fair number of 'admiring looks' being noticed by the very arrogant Celaena. It's mostly annoying because, while we're told how attractive she is way too much, what we're shown is quite contradictory - verbs associated with Celaena are typically 'grabbed' and 'snatched' when offered something politely, and 'sneered', 'snarled', 'screamed' and 'demanded' when speaking to anyone other than her princess friend. She's depicted scoffing lollies tipped out on her bedspread until her teeth are stained red all day, throwing a tantrum (including biting a pool cue) when she can't win a game after a couple of tries and baring her teeth at people trying to scare them every chapter or so. If I wasn't being periodically reminded that the character was a beautiful, overly talented young woman, I would think I was reading the tales of a spoiled, snotty, grubby child. This characterisation was too hard to connect with as an adult.
The 'overly talented' element was the other bothersome part of this book. Aside from being multilingual, good enough at her own language to teach others, a talented musician and dancer, and a bookworm, Celaena was adopted at eight years of age by an assassin, and within nine years had gotten so good at assassin-ing that she was well-known as the land's greatest ever assassin, presumably outshining all the other veteran assassins in her assassin compound. She mentally notes how easily she could kill or overpower every person she meets but never shows it. No mention is given of her amazing hitlist or of any famous kills. She's just famous. She displays unnerving skills in isolation, such as in archery, castle-climbing, fencing and knife-throwing, but does not demonstrate any of these in context in this book, nor reminisce on any past kills in which these skills were helpful. If you were reading this book for the 'assassin' element, it's not really there.
It must be mentioned that, for me, Chaol was one of the BEST things about the whole book. Opposite these irritating, shallow models of perceived teen perfection is this well-rounded, grumpy, efficient and grounded Captain stuck babysitting the childish assassin while also balancing his actual job of protecting the castle and investigating a series of supernatural murders that are mostly ignored for the span of the story. I really, really liked this character, and was soon reading to see what happened next with him. I LOVED his dismissive attitude towards Celaena, juxtaposed against a whole cast of characters present purely to be admiring of her, scared of her or rude to her (so she could put them in their place with her superior wit and intelligence). Nearly everything he said, I just felt like "Yes!" After a near-Dorian-less first half, I felt annoyed by his increasing appearances in the second half rather than swoony, and just wanted him to leave and for Chaol to come back. The resultant obligatory YA love triangle was kind of awkward, but again, I'm not really the right audience for this.
There was enough good raw material that I would be willing to read the rest of the series, because I understand that this was Maas's first book and it's an impossible ask for a perfect book the first time. With this foundation laid, I hope the following books will expand and improve upon what was portrayed in Throne of Glass, especially as the author and her writing grow and develop.
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