“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
– William Faulkner
My ambivalence toward the works of Sarah J. Maas is hardly a secret. Her debut novel, Throne of Glass failed to impress me and the second book in the series, Crown of Midnight was no better. Both reduced what could have been a sprawling tale of revolution and vengeance into the uninspired shlock of an unconvincing love triangle peppered with moments of mediocre fantasy intrigue. So why did I come up with this wild idea to read the third book of Maas’s Throne of Glass series as though I were an editor?
I blame alcohol. And the general public.
Because I was working with the public during the stressful holiday season and could not vent my frustrations at them, and because I may have poured a little too much Bailey’s Irish Cream into my glass one night, I decided to buy a secondhand copy of Heir of Fire and put whatever editorial skills I have to work in the hopes that I would a) discover why so many people adore this series, and b) learn a thing or two about writing. And while I didn’t come any closer to figuring out why these books are so popular, I did learn a thing or two about writing. Or rather, I learned a thing or two about bad writing.
I’d originally planned to keep my thoughts recorded in an orderly fashion, with page numbers and examples listed in a notebook, but I quickly realized that if I did that I’d fill several notebooks with my findings, never finish the book, and likely throw it at the wall. So I jotted down my thoughts in the margins and refrained from throwing the book at anything at all.
A List of Problems in Heir of Fire:
Do I need to say that there will be spoilers? Also, this is not an exhaustive list of the notes I made. It’s just the highlights.
- Page 1: The opening chapter opens with Celaena lounging on a rooftop, and within one sentence it turns into a description of regional flatbread.
- Pages 5-12 We get several pages of exposition about Celaena’s path to this city, but there’s no real point to it, as her journey doesn’t factor into the rest of the plot, her character development, or anything else.
- Page 17: We hear, again, about Celaena’s grand plan to kill someone and do stuff. Apparently. We don’t hear what the plan is. If this is meant to make the plan more mysterious, it doesn’t work. It also doesn’t make Celaena seem smart. Anyone can run about saying, “I have a super secret plan to do stuff and win the things!” but unless they reveal that plan at some point, they’re full of hot air.
- Pages 22-30: Chaol and Dorian have what appears to be a long conversation, but it’s really a long sequence where Chaol ruminates over his lost love (again), wonders at Dorian’s magic (again), ponders recent history (because how else do we get backstory wedged in), and neglects to actually communicate with Dorian in the guise of “keeping him safe”. Because, obviously, not telling your best friend vital information is a good way to keep him safe.
- Page 65: “Celaena loosed a breath…” This is not the first time the phrase “loosed a breath” appears. Nor is it the last. Why do we have to “loose breaths”? Can’t we just “sigh”? Do we always have to use an abundance of words when one will do?
- Page 113: Chaol’s in an important meeting, which is exactly why his mind is on the fact that he and Celaena once had sex on his desk. Really?
- Page 121-127: Manon and the rest of the Thirteen are sitting down for lunch in the cafeteria when the school bully comes up to them… I mean, they’re sitting down in the army cafeteria when a bully from another unit of witches comes up to them and makes a bunch of threats. I’m sure we’re supposed to see this as part of a fierce, inter-squad rivalry, but their behavior (endlessly threatening violence for every little thing) reads as immature. I can’t help but picture them as spoiled junior high students, not century-old warrior witches.
- Page 135: The storyteller, Emrys, prepares to tell a story about wicked faeries. I was looking forward to reading it. What did I get instead? “Celaena leaned against the stone wall, shoveling food down her throat as the old man wove his tale.” Because writing a story within a story that would relate back to the main story would be too much effort, I guess.
- Page 193: “Aedion slid those heirloom eyes to the captain.” Please tell me why there are so many descriptions of people’s eyes? I mean, am I the only one in the world who doesn’t look at her best friend and think, “ah yes, her pale blue eyes, which were the color of a clear spring sky”? We don’t need descriptions of characters’ eyes every other page. Readers are not stupid. We don’t need to be reminded of a fact every thirty seconds.
- Pages 241-245: Celaena remembers her parents arguing about her future when she was a little girl. Her mother refused to have Celaena educated about her inborn magic. I guess because the outside world is scary, she wanted to protect her daughter from the scary things, and she thought the best way to do this was to not give Celaena the tools she needed to protect herself. Good job, mom.
- Page 265: Manon flies with her wyvern, Abraxos, for the first time in a scene that reads like it’s straight out of the charming 2010 children’s movie, How to Train Your Dragon.
- Page 279: “But Celaena let out another dead laugh and walked out the door.” Because who doesn’t want even more of Celaena’s pity parties? I would have thought the time for Celaena to own up to who she was and what she could do would have been in the first book, not the third one. Apparently not.
- Page 286: Celaena has never really been trained to use her magic. Her parents didn’t bother to educate her about it, and anyway she was a child when her parents were murdered and she was exiled. Rowan insists on treating her like a coward or an idiot for not knowing what she was never taught. Please tell me why he thinks insults and violence are acceptable teaching methods?
- Page 388: “The next corpse appeared a week later, setting a rather wretched tone for the crisp spring morning as Celaena and Rowan ran for the site.” The use of ‘rather wretched’ in this instance might be meant sarcastically, but I can’t tell. There are so many qualifiers in the rest of the text that it’s hard to tell if it’s sarcastic, or if the writing is just weak.
- Page 417: After 1,241 pages across 2.5 books, Celaena finally remembers that she is heir to a throne currently suffering under a usurping tyrant. She didn’t think too hard about her people or her fellow prisoners from Endovier in book one, when she was focused on her lost beauty and which boy she preferred. And oh, yeah, the tournament. But I’m supposed to believe that she flipped a switch and is suddenly 100% engaged in reclaiming her throne?
- Page 421: Dorian bursts into Sorcha’s room with terrible news! The evil king is still evil! He’s killed a bunch of people! Again! For the hundredth time! And now they both feel sooo guilty because they were too busy cooing over each other to see it coming. Because it didn’t come up before. That would have involved writing about court politics instead of yet another forbidden romance.
Or should I say, “looses a breath”?
By the time I got to page 450, I stopped caring about anyone in the story. I’d been promised a new badass female character (Manon) and was treated instead to junior high school politics with swords and iron teeth(?). I skimmed the rest of the book and found a high point where Celaena finally comes into her own as someone who might one day be worthy of leading a kingdom. The story could have ended there, but instead it slogs on for another 100 pages while the other characters get caught flat-footed in their so-called schemes.
Suffice it to say that I still don’t understand what makes these books so appealing, unless it’s supposed to be the angsty romance or the endless violent threats most of the characters throw at each other. I guess it’s supposed to make them seem like badasses, but I’ve never believed that a person grows strong by threatening those around them. Add to that the fact that the writing tilts from hesitant to clunky to overwrought, and you come up with a combination I find unappealing. Even if I’d managed to connect with the new characters in this volume, I wouldn’t want to slog through another 3,000 pages to find out what happens to them.
What’s the take away?
- Be careful when using qualifiers. Qualifiers are words used to modify the meaning of another word by limiting or enhancing it. Words like seems, sort of, very, perhaps, probably, unlikely, generally, somewhat, rather, slightly, kind of. Writing that uses too many qualifiers sounds unclear, hesitant, or like the writer has no idea what they’re doing. Maas’s writing is filled with qualifiers. I want to ask her if she meant for them to provide sarcasm and/or irony, or if she was in too much of a hurry to come up with better phrases than these: “It would have been really, really nice…” (p. 276) or “…a taste she’d initially spat out by now very, very much enjoyed” (p. 4). Qualifiers are helpful when used judiciously, but using too many of them weakens your writing.
- Don’t drop a character’s entire backstory at once. Have you ever talked to That Guy who tells you his entire life story after knowing you for five minutes? That Guy is boring. We don’t want to talk to That Guy. We try to get away from him so we can talk to someone interesting. A backstory is like that, too. I will admit that Maas mostly succeeds with Celaena’s backstory, dropping clues when necessary but not hitting us with it all at once. She fails with Manon, though, whose first two chapters gave me temporal whiplash with the way they flipped back and forth between her past and present.
- Use unusual punctuation marks sparingly. Maas likes ellipses and em-dashes. She uses them liberally, and it’s distracting. Like the students who tally the number of times their teacher says, “Um” in a single class, I found myself counting the em-dashes on a page. I know they’re tempting to use, as it provides a simple means of clarification, but like a strong spice they should be used sparingly. If you’re constantly interrupting yourself to explain what you mean, there’s something wrong with the story’s overall clarity. Address that, and you won’t have to use so many em-dashes. There are few excuses for using an ellipsis. Most of them occur when you’re omitting something from a long quote. If you’re not quoting something, you probably don’t need to use an ellipsis.
- Grammatically correct writing can still be ugly. Maas’s writing is grammatically correct. That doesn’t make it elegant or beautiful. Does writing need to be flowery, purple prose to be beautiful? No. Tolkien, for example, thought the phrase “cellar door” was the loveliest phrase he’d ever heard in English. Nothing flowery there, but it’s a beautiful phrase. Lyrical prose helps to bring a story to life. Prose that is merely grammatically correct just sits dully on the page.
- Edit, edit, edit. Editing is vital. Without it, you’ll have characters wandering around the countryside for no reason, entire sections that make no sense in the grander scheme of the story, and a book full of amateurish writing that could easily be cleared up with a few rounds of careful editing. It takes more than a quick once over and a spellcheck to ensure a book, article, or any other piece of writing is clear and concise. Maas’s books need more editing. My writing needs more editing. Everyone’s writing needs a few rounds of editing.
I actually don’t regret reading Heir of Fire in spite of the low rating I gave it on Goodreads. Like the Faulkner quote above says, you have to read bad writing so you can identify it. I doubt I’ll ever understand what makes Maas’s books so appealing, though. It will be one of the mysteries of my life. I find the characters to be either tedious or insufferable, an overarching plot to be non-existent in the first three books, and the prose to be amateurish. Maas wears her influences on her sleeve, but doesn’t meld them into the story in a meaningful way that could add to its depth. There were so many ways the Throne of Glass books could have been remarkable, but those opportunities were squandered. Instead, we get a series of romances taking precedence over what little political intrigue there is, and six books rushed to publication long before they were ready.
And what will I do with the book I bought for this little project? I’m going to recycle it. I don’t want it on my shelves, but I can’t donate it to the library or sell it to a used bookstore thanks to the highlighting and copious notes I took in it. I would, as Faulkner suggests, throw it out the window, but I can’t take the screens out of my windows. If I recycle it, then perhaps that paper will be remade and find a new life in a better book.