So often I hear people talk about this, especially with regard to female characters, and the general consensus is that the characters depicted in YA novels are often found lacking.
Romance gets a bad name. Other genres are accused of being window dressing for 'some stupid love triangle'. And there is only so much of this that I can read before looking away in disgust and asking myself why the heck I'm here if the things I value most--the strength of an actual heroine and the value or romance--are both so easily denounced and discarded.
Enter Throne of Glass. To me, on first inspection, the premise seemed ripe with opportunity to rebuke the claims I am describing. When I saw it at chapters and opened it to take a look I was instantly drawn in by the easily engaging writing.
And a female assassin is something I simply could not ignore. From the moment I read the description for Throne of Glass I was instantly intrigued and knew that I would have to weigh in on this book. I'm here to tell you that this is exactly what YA fantasy has needed for a long time. There is romance here--but there is also a heroine, and a tale, that can stand on its own two feet.
The Plot: (Summary from GoodReads)
After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.
Her opponents are male thieves, assassins and warriors from across the empire, each man sponsored by a member of the king's council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she'll serve the kingdom for three years, and then be granted her freedom.
Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Choal, challenging and exhilarating. But Celanea's bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her... but it's the gruff Captain Choal Westfall who seems to understand her best. Then one of the other contestants turns up dead... quickly followed by another.
Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.
The way that the quest Caelena undertakes in this novel is constructed strikes me as very clever. On one hand, she is desperate for her freedom, and we see that regardless of any previous crimes that she has suffered greatly in the mines of Endovier. In order to get that freedom, she will have to serve a man she despises for three years--if she can win the competition that will grant her the right to do so. Along the way she will discover the mysteries of the Glass Castle, be tasked with saving her world and possibly befriend--or even love--one of the two men who gradually fall under her charms.
There is adventure and excitement presented in a way that does not strip away Caelena's vulnerability. There is romance, character growth and interaction that does not beat you over the head. And as these things come together, they weave an elegant tale that I found particularly captivating.
Is this likely going to be something devoured by a fantasy "purist" like my brother? Probably not--he'd think the structure of the tests vs. the character interactions was imbalanced. (More fight less flirt, even if it's not of the blatant "I need you now!" variety.) However, considering he read and loved The Hunger Games I would still feel confident having him read this. And that's the thing, in my opinion. YA does not need romance stripped out of other genres and segregated into its own 'thing'. It can certainly benefit from the type of elegant and balanced approach found here.
The scaling between action and interlude, mystery and romance, was something that made this book very enjoyable for me. It made the story's world feel very real. I felt like I was living the tale with Caelena, and that, to me, is very important.
I immediately felt a connection with our heroine, Celaena. She is strong and yet vulnerable, which has an end result of making her actions throughout the book unpredictable and yet reasonable. I think that Sarah did a great job of showing the aspects of her personality that were part of her past as an assassin, while also showing evidence that she has room for growth and change. The way that her goals shift and change, and the way that her connections with other characters slowly form, were both brilliant. The errors she makes regarding these connections, and the lengths she goes to fix them, was also welcome and well explored.
The friendship between Celaena and Nehemia was well done and actually felt real, when it was going good or when it was being tried and tested. Friendships between female characters in YA can often seem very artificial, one note or plain unhealthy, so it was really nice to see such a carefully constructed bond--which was used to great effect both as a way of building character and within the main plot.
And the boys. Oh, how I loved the boys. (Technically men. I somehow doubt Dorian would like being called a boy and Choal certainly isn't one.) Both of the potential love interests were extremely well done, unique, important to the actual story and seemed in one way or another viable. The resolution here is unpredictable and the build up was well handled. The presence of romance did not take over the book or lessen the type of character those who see the word "assassin" will want Celaena to be.
As the Crown Prince, Dorian struck the perfect balance between being interested in wanting to improve the Kingdom of Adarlan and being a bit spoiled and clueless. His interactions with Celaena were interesting and memorable and in many cases their banter added a welcome pinch of humor to what could at times be a grim and harrowing tale.
But it's Choal who won my heart. He's kinda like a marshmellow: a bit tough on the outside, but surprisingly warm, gooey and sweet underneath. I loved watching him and Celaena and I am truly impressed with how Sarah handled these two. You really don't get any implication of actual interest between them for ages. They fight like cats and dogs. But oh, does that slow burn pay off! I also find it fascinating how the ending allows the reader to understand exactly why Choal has such issues with Celaena throughout the book, but I'll stay quiet on that since I don't want to ruin it for you.
The rest of the cast of characters was very well rounded. There are a few other interesting and likeable allies and there are some utterly scummy villains whose faces I would have loved to slam into a wall. I particularly hated Kaltan and I'm torn over how her arc of the story ended.
I'm always in awe of an author who can slowly build up a relationship between characters and yet create a tale that feels like I'm living with the characters. Such a slow burn often requires feeling that the characters have been around each other for a large period of time and for me this can make a story feel like it's got potholes in it. Despite the fact that Throne of Glass takes place over several months, I never felt this disconnect while reading it, and thus Sarah had the opportunity to actually build up the relationships between the characters.
Despite loving the build up, I am slightly frustrated with the execution of the triangle. I will commend Celaena for actually making a choice, but the way that the author kind of pulls a 180 on us, rather then letting us see how the characters would be with the heroine equally, was slightly annoying. I look forward to seeing how this is handled as the series goes on, and that is what will decide how I feel about this aspect. For now, it was "pretty good".
I'm happy that I got what I wanted from this aspect of the book, but I wanted to see more of the actual connection here. I suppose I can't fault the book for this and I'll just have to be patient.
If you like epic fantasy, you will likely enjoy Throne of Glass. It truly has a bit of everything that good fantasy should have, in my opinion, and yet succeeds in weaving all of these precious elements together. It is beautifully written, well paced, filled with great characters and overall just plain awesome! This book comes highly recommended!