Girls Just Want to Have Fun–A review of Sarah Maas’ “Throne of Glass.”

Throne of Glass was originally a Fictionpress story, and it shows. 

(I’m using my summer to catch up on some YA reading, because my students generally read them)

Fictionpress.net, for the uninitiate, is an online website where aspiring writers can post their original works for free. No one pays to publish, no one pays to write, but writers and readers all across the world come together to share works. It’s associated with Fanfiction.net, which is the same thing except there the stories are exclusively tales based on existing works and franchises like Hunger Games, Star Wars, and Tetris. (I’m not joking about that last one.)

I’m a huge fan of Fanfiction.net and Fictionpress alike, and I have accounts on both.  They’re great places for writers to practice their craft, get an audience and free attention. My first major attempt at a novel, Felis y Canis, took place on Fictionpress.

High School me thought “Cats and Dogs” was an extremely clever title if you put it in latin. The story itself wasn’t bad, though, and I got a surprising distance on it.

But Fictionpress, like all online communities—and like all genres, really—has its own norms and expectations, and Throne of Glass has a number of very obvious ones.  It also has a number of flaws independent of its publication genre.  But despite all of that, it is still fun, which is an underrated and nebulous trait.

Throne of Glass is the first (well, technically the second) book in the Throne of Glass series.  Published in 2012 by Sarah J Maas, simply the story of its publication is enough to make any aspiring author hopeful—it was originally released chapter-by-chapter online on the free writing platform Fictionpress.net and, due to the enormous online following it spontaneously generated, was picked up by a publisher. It’s the sort of thing dreams are made of, which is fitting, since Maas has said the work was inspired by Cinderella.

This info may at first be confusing.  The story features Celaena Sardothien, a former assassin doomed to work in the salt mines for the crime of attempting to kill the king, until the prince visits and drafts her for the murder-competition the king is giving to determine his new “champion.”  It does not bear a strong resemblance to Cinderella, on the face of it.

Cinderella!

However, Celaena Sardothien, hardened assassin and purported badass, quickly gains a fondness for dresses, a crush on both the prince and his captain of the guard, and as the story progresses, finds cause to wear a mask to a ball (that she’s totally not interested in and doesn’t resent not being invited to) to protect both of them.  Also she may be connected to some ancient queen.

Yeah, it becomes more obvious as the story runs on.

As many such stories do, The Throne of Glass employs a love triangle, between the central protagonist and two of her male friends (almost a third, but that does not materialize).  There’s nothing at all unusual about this, but the romance is not interwoven at all with the main plot, instead taking the form of occasional cutscenes around the castle. She stumbles on one boy playing the piano, the other boy offers her books, one day she goes to the kennels and the first boy gives her a dog, oh also there’s a murder competition going on. The romance is not forced so much as it is utterly adjacent to anything else going on.

Also utterly adjacent is a particular, shall we say, “thirsty” quality to the writing.  At the most random and strange intervals, Celaena will notice the muscular bodies of the men wooing her.  Even opening a door can cause the girl to reflect on the broad shoulders shifting beneath the shirt.  (Admittedly, I don’t have any experience on this, but I’m pretty sure girls don’t fixate on muscles everytime someone opens the door.)

(With obvious exceptions)

Fictionpress stories are famous for this sort of fanservice, but in fairness, they’re hardly unique among literature for dwelling on such things. There are plenty of stories that unnecessarily talk about a woman’s hair, face, or other advantages.  Thrillers and mysteries, along with certain fantasies, come with their own expectations of “thirsty”-ness. No one would seriously claim that A Song of Ice and Fire is not hugely influential fantasy, and yet it has quite a lot of blatantly unnecessary sexual content.  The Throne of Glass, quite frankly, is modest by Fictionpress standards (definitely by fanfiction standards). 

The story is roughly split into a series of “trials” that the various challengers must overcome, which makes sense, except that the story itself–the romance, the plot developments, the activities–all seem equally split into various “episodes” that are remarkably self-contained and rarely flow into each other. This is hardly surprising–it’s a trait of the serial novel format used on Fictionpress where new chapters are posted periodically, with sometimes months or even years between. It’s not by itself a problem—Charles Dickens used a similar method to publish many of his books, and many great classical stories revolve around the episodic format.  Yet in practice, since the story is essentially being published as it is written, new concepts are often added to the story mid-plot, as the author thinks of them or has fun with more characters—or even gets suggestions from the readership. 

I love Dickens and all, but some of his stories were pretty obviously made up as he went along.

Certain elements of the plot are around from the beginning—magic being banned, Celaena having strange connections with the fairy realm, etc. However, important plot points like the black rings being worn, the wyrd runes, the portals to other realms and the otherworldly creatures—though hugely crucial to the final battle, they only show up partway through.  The world the end battle takes place in seems like a very different place from the one we started in.

This is a flaw, and one that frankly hampered my enjoyment.  The book did not feel like a cohesive world; Celaena’s life did not seem like a logical progression.  I didn’t feel intrigued by plot developments, even by ones I saw coming, because it felt overall as if foreshadowing meant very little.

This ties into the larger flaws, independent of the genre. Because new elements are constantly being added, exposition almost universally comes in giant dumps, not moments at a time.  Mostly you get more and more mysterious things until someone comes along and simply explains everything. Ideally, this sort of thing could have been fixed in pre-publication editing, but there’s little sign of such work—perhaps because Maas did not want to change the story that her online readers fell in love with.

This is especially a problem because some of the points strain believability already. Celaena is an assassin.  Yet she is hurt by being overlooked and needs to be told by a captain of the guard that she should try not to stick out. She feels put-out that people think she’s the prince’s wife, when roles and disguises should feel natural to her. Despite constant mentions of her prowess as an assassin, she does not come across as someone familiar with death and treachery.

Meanwhile Celaena is put in a room that has been carefully searched for weapons—except for the pool table with the cues and billiard balls (an odd fixture for a fantasy world, but why not).  The searchers also apparently missed the secret tunnel behind the tapestry, because why would anyone have checked the wall hangings in the room YOU’RE PUTTING A WORLD-CLASS ASSASSIN IN.

Celaena’s main motivation, frankly, does not make sense.  Purportedly, she’s participating in the murder competition to “gain her freedom.” Yet it’s stated and demonstrated numerous times that she could totally escape the castle if she wanted to.  The usual rejoinder is that she’d spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder, but… I mean c’mon.  She was an ASSASSIN. Surely being a fugitive is not a new thing for her.

The story is inconsistent, with baffling characterization and large leaps in logic. But that being said, the story is fun. And it’s important not to discount that. 

It’s enjoyable.  I liked picking it up, I liked reading about Celaena’s improbable romance and her theoretical badassery in an inconsistent world. It was an underdog girl gaining friends and allies and being brought from being despised to being respected—a Cinderella story, which everyone always loves.  It wasn’t tedious, it wasn’t grueling—it was fun. And given the fact that it’s a best seller, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

I teach English.  I believe firmly in the importance of good writing, plot development, effective characterization, all that jazz.  But I also can’t deny that often there are writers who just completely throw that by the wayside, have stories with terrible plots, stupid characters, plodding plots—but stories that nonetheless grab your attention, and fill you with delight and wonder.

(Next on my reading list). Even most fans will admit that Ready Player One is not great writing. But while the nerd references help, a lot of them say “it’s just fun.”

It’s something undefinable.  We’ve tried.  Over thousands of years, we’ve tried to distill the formula of what really connects with people and fills them with joy.  Possibly part of it is a work coming out at a particular time for a particular group of people—I doubt Ready Player One would have had the same impact if it’d come out in the 2000’s or any other time period in which people were not almost obsessively nostalgic over the 80’s.  Possibly part of it is something as vast and unknowable as the writers own essential nature, as revealed in their writing.  Maybe a part of it is simply luck, or more theologically, the providential blessing of God on a work irrespective of the art involved.  The Norse believed poetry came from honey mead the gods bestowed on certain people almost at random. 

Who knows. I do think that all the other stuff—good plots, proper grammar, imagery, etc—helps to more purely convey an author’s vision and make it easier to enjoy and access the “spark” that makes a work successful.  And I also think that a work will never be a “classic” without those elements.  But also, clearly, a story can have those elements and not be a “classic.”

In a way, the publication history of the story—being raised up from a humble internet forum to a New York Times best-selling book—is something of a Cinderella tale itself.   And by all indications, Sarah J Maas has made the most of it, managing to replicate the “fun” of the first book, despite many people poking fun at the same errors I have. Replicating success is not always so easy, as numerous flash-in-the-pan writers have found.  I don’t think The Throne of Glass will ever be a classic work taught in schools, but not everything has to be.

There’s nothing wrong with having fun.


One thought on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun–A review of Sarah Maas’ “Throne of Glass.”

  1. Wow, good review, John.  Makes me want to read it. I started the LoTRs now though, so guess I’ll be busy with that for awhile. Love, Mom

    Like

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