My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sarah J. Maas was strongly recommended to me as a writer before I picked this up, so I had high hopes going into this first book. There are a lot of elements here that are definitely hit-or-miss for me, but I’ve ultimately come down on the side of having liked the book. I know it was Maas’s first published novel, and I’m guessing that some of my complaints have to do with that fact. I can certainly appreciate that writing is a process of learning and development. So, let’s break it down.
I definitely found the world of the novel interesting. It’s not entirely original in that there is one brutal empire gradually taking control of everyone else and crushing anyone who stands up to them. However, the details and complexity that do come through work well. The scope of the first book is largely limited to one castle, so the reader naturally does not get to experience the full reality of the outside world – and this works fine for the story being told. Additionally, the mystery of vanished fae and lost magic adds additional complexity and character to the world, making me interested to keep discovering. Finally, the detail about the parts of the world that we do see is rich – particularly in regards to the castle itself.
Strong female protagonist:
I had some issues with Celaena as a character (which I will get to later) but there is a lot about her that works as well. First of all, it’s cool to see a complex female lead who doesn’t just fall into stereotypes (sarcastic tough-girl, damsel in distress, fairy princess, etc.). Celaena can be ruthless and conniving – as an assassin should be – and by action and reputation, she proves her willingness and ability to confront dangerous situations. At the same time, Maas allows her to embrace “feminine” qualities – clothes, appearances, puppies, romance – and these two sides of Celaena do (mostly) manage to exist together in a way that is effective and realistic. Additionally, her hatred of the royal family and desire to escape create a welcome tension with the connections and new purpose she finds in the situation she is forced into. There is a lot that happens to and around Celaena, and the tension of her efforts to reconcile herself with those situations makes for an interesting story.
The other characters don’t manage to achieve quite the same level of complexity as Celaena – largely because the reader spends little time in their perspectives. However, there is some well-crafted tension in the way they are torn between duty, other relationships, and the assassin who has been dropped into their midst. There are pieces of the supporting characters that feel familiar – but there are also refreshing moments of characterization and development that build the story and keep things interesting. (And even the love-triangle felt like it worked, which was a pleasant surprise.)
Character decisions and behavior:
This is where the issues creep in. For Celaena – if she’s supposed to be the world’s greatest assassin, she spends a lot of time having people sneak up on her and giving away her emotions with her expressions. Over the course of the novel, she also alternates between the driving commitment to survival I expected to see from her and a rather lackadaisical view towards things that are vital to her future. If the truth is that her reputation in the world has exceeded the reality of who she is, then it explains some of the problems with her behavior, but the narrative itself seems to reinforce that she really is as good as everyone claims – which in turn makes me feel she doesn’t fully deserve the reputation she has built (based solely on her behavior over the course of this narrative). She is definitely a talented assassin, but the best…?
I had similar issues with Chaol who is somehow captain of the guard despite never having killed anyone – in a kindgom built on conquest.
And to a lesser degree, character decisions about who to trust, what secrets to keep, what risks to take do not always feel fully realized or justified. For me, there wasn’t anything that couldn’t have been justified by the narrative, I just don’t think the construction of the story fully establishes the necessary explanations for the reader. The logic is there, but sometimes more by implication and reader-assumption than narrative clarity.
Plot and action:
Finally, looking at the plot as a whole, there is a lot here that works really well – a kingdom in turmoil, political intrigue and war, the world’s greatest assassin, vanished magic, a competition of talented rogues, thugs, and murderers. The mystery and stakes do build over the course of the novel, and there were some enjoyable surprises built into the plot. I also felt like there were details worked into this novel that are setting up greater revelations to come – hints of a larger world and a grander story.
Part of the novel’s climax felt a little deus ex machina-y to me, but it did ultimately fit into narrative elements that had been previously established. And, on a good note, the climax didn’t play out exactly as I imagined it might. It did have many of the typical elements of the climax for this type of story, but introduced a few final surprises as well. And the ending was definitely engaging – holding my attention far more intensely than I had anticipated.
So as a whole, this is a debut fantasy novel with a lot going for it. It’s a cool world populated by interesting characters and driven by a complex and engaging plot. There are some very noticeable flaws as well as moments that require a certain willingness to suspend disbelief – but for me, these issues did not ultimately stop me from enjoying the book. Despite my complaints, there is enough here that works that I look forward to picking up the sequel at some point. Even with the flaws, this book shows me that Maas is a talented writer, and I see a lot of potential for where this series could go in the future.