This review is going to be one, long splurge of Unpopular Opinions ™, so if you happen to be a S J Maas junkie, I’m sorry my duckie but the time to bow out is probably now.
This novel sucks.
I am siiiiiiick of books during which all that happens is a feisty girl competes in a medieval Hunger Games physical trials, in order to attain an important political position in a European-esque court, from which they can actually do (maybe?) interesting shizzle in the sequel. Except this isn’t the sequel, it’s the ‘origin story’, so all we get to see is the hero competing their way through trials more relentlessly uninspired than most kids’ summer camps. Trials such as archery (omg so original), climbing (the thrills) and hand to hand combat (NO ONE SAW THAT COMING!!). Needless to say, this risks creating an overly linear plot of sequential obstacles, whilst the surrounding cast are underdeveloped, since they are all opponents who either randomly hate the protagonist, or they’re kind of nice but you know they’re just going to die anyway. Meanwhile, the book desperately tries to build up the false tension of ‘Oooh, I wonder if the protagonist is going to win!!??!’ WHO KNOWS! It’s a mystery!!
I seriously hope Linsey Miller, author of Mask of Shadows, hadn’t previously read Throne of Glass, because if so the similarities are depressing. But it’s Mask of Shadows’ lucky day, because this book is definitely worse.
Let’s talk about Caelaena, Ardalan’s “Greatest Assassin,” whom, we are constantly reminded, has been honed for death from the age of eight, and is a stone cold murdering machine of a child soldier. This book is DARK YA, Maas practically yells on every page, DARK I tell you!!!
In fact this “assassin” does FRICK ALL killing people. Does she ever murder anyone? No. Not even in the trials? No. Does she ever come close to murdering anyone? No. Are there any flashbacks to her murdering anyone? No.
Does she even at least threaten to murder anyone?
Oh sure, she occasionally throws out a bunch of ‘scary’ threats in really inappropriate situations, about how she’s going to break people’s bones, or cut out their tongues, if they don’t do what she says. But it almost seems as though Maas just stuck them in there in case we were forgetting how #Dangerous she is (hint: we were), because does she follow through on any of them? Of course not. Infact, in this entire novel, she doesn’t even so much as slap someone outside of the actual context of the trials.
Well, maybe if this “assassin” doesn’t kill people, she at least acts like an assassin, right? Dark… intimidating…cold hearted…?
Um… nope. There’s a few gestures to how she “doesn’t trust people” and “doesn’t make friends easily”, because Maas wants us to know that Caelaena is a Dark, Troubled Teen. But this doesn’t stop her from immediately becoming BFFs with half the palace, including Prince Dorian, Chaol the Captain of the Guard, and Nehemia, a hostage princess. She also adopts a fluffy puppy. She is horrified by the sight of weaker trialists being put in danger, and she even risks her own winning position within the trials to randomly save the hides of her opponents. Ooooh, so ruthless and scary! Uh, more like bleeding-hearted idiot?
In fact, Caelaena acts just like any other seventeen year old girl who hasn’t been psychologically scarred by being forced to kill from an early age, or her year in a brutal slave camp. It’s almost like those things never happened to her. In fact, there’s zero engagement with any mental or emotional issues Caelaena has. You can’t have a protagonist who is both a deadly child soldier, and a well-adjusted, sunny, and utterly un-traumatised teen, who has great relationships with both of her semi-boyfriends, and who NEVER FRICKING KILLS ANYONE. Maas tries to have both. It’s unbelievably stupid.
He [Dorian] sipped from his goblet. Despite her arrogance, she was clever, and relatively kind, and somewhat charming. But where was that writhing darkness?
You know what Dorian? I’ve been wondering that for the last 200 pages too!
Look, I get it. This book is for young teenagers who want to eat up the sense of ‘danger’ and ‘power’, without having to deal with any of the consequences, like actually confronting death, trauma, or a plot which extends beyond what pretty dress Caelaena wore that day. But I’ve read plenty of books who manage to juggle heavy topics extremely well whilst still appealing to teenage audiences. Graceling is a good example. So sorry guys, this book still sucks.
Now, if this wasn’t enough to entirely destroy my opinion of this novel, let’s talk about the internalised misogyny. Ooooh hooo yes let’s. *rubs hands*
Kaltain, Caelaena’s female ‘nemesis’, is written appallingly. She is the textbook example of a Mean Girl who Hates Other Girls for poorly defined reasons of jealousy, without having any further explanation or real character development. It gets worse, however, because Kaltain doesn’t have to do anything other than be mildly annoying before Caelaena dismisses her character entirely, and uses her as a vehicle to justify her own sexism:
She [Caelaena] glared. “I hate women like that. They’re so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it.”
What the CRAPERONI, Caelaena. You live in a highly misogynistic society where you know that women have few options to obtain power, so you think it’s okay to shame and sneer at women who weaponize their femininity and try to play the system in the only way the patriarchy allows them to? Not all women are independent assassins with the ability to kick men’s butts if they need to. What a classic case of ‘Let’s All Hate Sansa Stark’.
The worst thing about this godawful quote is that it’s obviously a ham-fisted attempt by Maas to show how #feminist she is for supporting sisterly solidarity and condemning jealousy. Sisterly solidarity like this, for example…
After that, she’d [Caelaena] sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agendas and power of their own. Girls who would do anything to get what they wanted.
Wow, such solidarity, many progress! Hashtag I’m not like the other girls!!!! I’m a cool girl who will side with boys against the bitchy girls!!!!
Here’s another quote about Kaltain, which occurs after she (oh the horror) commits the Slutty Bitch crime of trying to flirt with an eligible man:
[Chaol] “I pity her servants.”
[Caelaena] “I pity her father!”
Then of course, the two protagonists laugh over this hilarious bit of woman-shaming lad banter.
This whole exchange was so unnecessary. Just…screw you, Caelaena. Screw you.
Of course, there’s also one great female friendship (with token woman of colour Nehemia) to make us readers forget how Kaltain, one of only two other women in the book with dialogue has been written as a 2D Mean Girl Bitch.* Yaaaaaay feminism!
*Apart from the mythical queen, a lady servant and the Queen maybe also get like one line each, but also, one line.
Kaltain isn’t the only 2D character in this book. We also have the joys of the chief hench-baddy, Cain, who of all the ridiculous hench-baddy names ever, ffs is literally called Cain. Cain, for reasons unknown to anyone but Maas, swaggers around like a generic schoolyard bully, complete with a snivelling side kick. And that’s officially all there is to his character. He is constantly decried to be a horrible terrible person, and Caelaena, cool, level-headed assassin that she apparently is IRRATIONALLY HATES HIM WITH HER ENTIRE SOUL because they’ve got to contrive a character arc to this thing somehow.
Now let’s chat about the love triangle. The love triangle that puts so little fricking effort in to set itself up that it’s essentially love at first sight from all three participants.
But wait, you cry, Chaol and Caelaena hated eachother at first!
For around fifty pages they make a few flirty jibes…and spend hours of every day together… and then suddenly Chaol is bringing her mother trucking rings to her bedside as gifts at 1am in the blinking morning. Yeah. That’s hatred. SURE. Despite being Captain of the Royal Guard (and basically the only staff member in the entire palace as far as this book shows us) Chaol apparently still has nothing better to do with his time. A toddler could see where this was going from page one.
Incase you didn’t already think that Caelaena is a heroine from hell, in case we forget, one of the male POVs (Chaol or Dorian) steps in every twenty pages to remind us how beautiful is, with amazing prose such as this:
The folds of fabric—like the flowing waters of a river—were rather attractive…They [her feet] were clad in red shoes—red like the winter berries beginning to pop out on the bushes.
It is also the job of the male POVs to constantly remind us how dANgeROuS Caelaena is. Because lord knows, if we weren’t told on every page, we’d forget that she’s a SCAaaARRY ASSASINNnn!!!
She was still in her clothes, and while she looked beautiful, that did nothing to mask the killing potential that lay beneath. It was present in her strong jaw, in the slope of her eyebrows, in the perfect stillness of her form. She was a honed blade made by the King of Assassins for his own profit. She was a sleeping animal—a mountain cat or a dragon—and her markings of power were everywhere. He shook his head and walked into the bedroom.
WHAT SORT OF GODFORSAKEN SHITEY ASSASSIN LEAVES HER DOOR CONSTANTLY UNLOCKED SO THAT EVERY CHAOL, DORIAN AND HARRY CAN WALK INTO HER APARTMENTS AND STAND OVER HER WHILST SHE IS SLEEPING AT ALL HOURS OF THE BLOOMING DAY AND NIGHT??????
Maybe they got in to Caelaena’s room so easily because there’s no-one else in the bloody palace to stop them. Writing for a YA audience does not excuse you from creating a rich, detailed world. And the ‘court life’ of the Glass Palace is so sparse at times I just assumed the entire thing was empty. In all seriousness, more time is spent describing Caelaena’s dresses than literally any other aspect of court life.
By midway through the book, I was so done with the lazy writing, underwhelming protagonist, and pseudo-feminism, that I could barely enjoy the side plot (the only real plot, quite frankly), involving Caelaena’s link to the mysterious Wyrd symbols, and her visions of a mythical elf-queen who calls her to a higher purpose. Clearly, this will all be important in the sequels, but to be honest, by this point idgas. As for the ending: why oh why is Chaol so horrified and traumatised by having to kill Cain – which also happens to be the first real death of the novel? Firstly, by anyone’s count, Cain was a mega-douche. Secondly, he was about to kill Caelaena. Thirdly, you don’t get to be the Captain and chief security officer for the entire royal court without ever having killed anyone ever. Oh but wait, this is the assassin novel where EVEN THE ASSASSIN NEVER ACTUALLY KILLS ANYONE, so apparently… you do!
Verdict: 1 star, for the cool spooky Wyrd symbols, even though they do eff all in this book. Everything else is officially redonkulous.
Chat to me! Did you guys find Caelaena as underwhelming as I did? Or am I spouting absolute rubbish? Let me know in the comments! 🙂