3 out of 5 stars
Format: Audio book - YA fantasy - Goodreads summary:
"'Nothing is a coincidence. Everything has a purpose. You were meant to come to this castle, just as you were meant to be an assassin.'
When magic has gone from the world, and a vicious king rules from his throne of glass, an assassin comes to the castle. She does not come to kill, but to win her freedom. If she can defeat twenty-three killers, thieves, and warriors in a competition to find the greatest assassin in the land, she will become the King's Champion and be released from prison.
Her name is Celaena Sardothien. The Crown Prince will provoke her. The Captain of the Guard will protect her. And a princess from a foreign land will become the one thing Celaena never thought she'd have again: a friend.
But something evil dwells in the castle—and it's there to kill. When her competitors start dying, horribly, one by one, Celaena's fight for freedom becomes a fight for survival—and a desperate quest to root out the source of the evil before it destroys her world."
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I really went into this expecting the worst, so call me pleasantly surprised. It wasn't as bad as everyone warned me it would be. The biggest downside is I have no idea how anyone's name is spelled BUT I know exactly how to pronounce it ;) Perhaps listening to this on Audible was a bad idea because the narrator made everything seem SO dramatic. I usually listen to books at 1.25x speed, but I literally couldn't because the narrator was stressing me out. Everything was fast and hard and way over dramatized, so by the end (even at 1x), I was rolling my eyes, desensitized to the oohs and ahhs of Celaena's journey. I think I would've picked up on the little bits of humor better if I'd been reading it from the page. Regardless! Still a fun story overall.
***CAUTION: HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD***
SETTING: I adored the setting and thought Maas described the salt mines, the glass castle, and the grounds beautifully! The world felt rich in culture, and she did enough world-building to ground us, but still allow us a little wiggle room. I love with authors leave room for the reader's imagination, and it's a balance I'm constantly trying to strike in my own work.
Celaena: Maybe I should've saved Celaena for last... I have major issues with her. The first of which is, she doesn't scare me at all. We spent a ton of time talking about the things she had done (in a very bragging manor, by the way), but I never really got to see her whoop ass. Even in the end, her big mega fights were super short. I think my favorite part was her launching herself off the side of the castle to save Nox because it SHOWED us the kind of person she is. Daring, loyal, kind even at the risk of her life and her position in the tournament.
Aside from that, people sneaked up on her a lot for an assassin, and she was really childish for someone who grew up killing people and slaving in the salt times. She didn't seem hardened but arrogant about how cool she was and how she could beat these guys. I didn't feel like she'd wizened up at all from her life experience, which really annoyed me.
Chaol: God bless him, he really tried. I loved his plan of laying low, but our arrogant hero over there can't seem to manage even the simplest of instructions. He is my favorite kind of YA character: broody and mysterious. And I really felt the sizzle between him and Celaena even though I think Maas was trying to throw us off that scent. I want him and Celaena to live happily ever after, and you better not spoil anything for me because I'm just now reading Book 2!
Dorian: Typical, not special, sort of swoony with a side of slime. He just read like every other prince in every other YA fantasy. And he didn't really stand out for me. I felt ZERO chemistry between him and Celaena, and it was hard to imagine their kissy scenes. And omg the pool table scene? I normally am a sucker for a good trope, but come on. First, why do you give your assassins game time? And though billiards go back a few centuries, it felt like the scene would've been better suited for a smoky bar. When they said "gaming room" I thought like cards, or dice, or gentleman's games. Not pool sticks and blonde chicks being all like "can you teach me?" *eye roll*
Okay back to Dorian. He felt more like a prop than a person- a mere complication on our way to Chaolena.
Nehemia: Maybe my favorite. Not sure why she was allowed to live in the castle, eat their food, keep her own guards and her title. But whatever. She's awesome and I LOVE seeing representation of women of color in YA (Not nearly enough, but we're getting there). I expected a little more of her as a character, but she was interesting and different from the rest.
I assume she's only a few years older than Celaena, but she was so wise! This is what I was missing in Celaena's own journey. Nehemia seemed to have grown and changed since her kingdom was taken. Her backstory made her who she was. Not so for our hero. I also love a good friendship, but I was SO convinced Nehemia was behind all this. I don't trust anyone, y'all. I knew in my heart she was the one summoning the beasty, and was warning Celeana/Lady Lilian to back off so she wouldn't get hurt. But I've never been more glad to be so wrong.
Lady Kaltain: Who invited her??
The King is gross, Duke Perrington is gross, Cain is gross.
BELIEVABILITY: Aanndd here we go. This is the section when I get up in a tizzy and play Monday Morning Quarterback.
But what the literal HECK?? Celaena has to use a fake name. Okay, sure. I'm assuming in this world, portraits aren't readily available, so even a sketch of the most wanted assassin in all the land (before her prison days) don't look exactly like her. People won't recognize her. But we're at a castle with dozens of ex-cons and a pile of guards to make sure this King's Champion thing doesn't blow up in their faces and NO ONE REALIZES THAT "LADY LILLIAN" IS SWORD FIGHTING?? This competition isn't exactly a secret, and yet no one else in the castle seems to realize this "Lady Lilian" is competing in said tourney with a bunch of criminals. I kept waiting for the explanation, but it never came. It was so confusing, that by the end, I wasn't sure about any of the following:
- I assume Nehemia thinks Lady Lilian (aka Celaena in disguise) is a guest of Prince Dorian. At the very least, a lady of nobility. This new girl is cozying up to a freakin' princess, after all.
- But then Nehemia sees LL practicing swordplay- was even in the training room with LL! All the while, she calls Celaena by her fake name. So... she still thinks she's a lady? Like on the same level as Lady Kaltain? (who's utterly useless btw)
- Lady Kaltain is so convinced LL is a real lady of nobility that she feels threatened when Prince Dorian flirts with LL, thinking LL will woo the prince and snatch the crown before she can.
- HAS SHE NOT SEEN LL TRAIPSING ALL OVER THE CASTLE ARMED TO THE HILT?
- I'm so confused.
- Fake name or no, Prince Dorian's attraction to her felt super forced. He knows she's an assassin, former slave and prisoner. Why is he making out with her?? I'm all for breaking the classist barrier, but give me a break. Nothing about his character leads me to think he'd genuinely enjoy Celaena's company or her kisses. Now Chaol is another story...
The Fae/faerie part of the story came out of left field for me, but I went with it. Magical beasties "shredding people to ribbons" (Maas's fav phrase, btw), weird AF word marks. Sure, why not dead Fae who speak to us in dreams? I went with it.
The pool table though... couldn't get over that one. Is it just me, or does that feel REALLY out of place? Anachronistic is Maas's love language, methinks.
STYLE: No complaints about the style, though I wonder if I would feel the same if I was reading vs listening to the audio book. My only issue with Maas's ACOTAR Series is the beginning is super slow and she over-formats her text in my opinion. Tons of italicized words to show emphasis and holy ellipses batman. But it's so worth it, I don't even care. So, listening to the book might have spared me these little author tics.
It's no secret Celaena is not the best hero Maas has ever written (ahem...Rhys). I wanted MUCH more time in the actual trials. I feel like the magical beasty was a side-plot which somehow took over and became the main plot. And they didn't really intersect after that, which made the whole inciting event of this king competition feel like one big plot device. "How can we get a bunch of people in a castle so we can pick 'em off one by one?" "We have a tournament of villains!"
The pace and flow was spot on for TOG. The dialogue felt natural (even though the narrator had like one level for Chaol) and the action/sword fighting sequences were incredible! Though it's a little Hunger Games meets high fantasy for my personal tastes.
I also read somewhere that Maas was inspired by the "what if" question of "What if Cinderella was sent to the ball to assassinate Prince Charming?" ...I thought I was getting that book. Shame on me for going off a blogger's interpretation, but I was SUPER disappointed that literally nothing happens at the ball. Like Maas thought it needed to be there just to clarify this was based on a fairy tale.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The weak hero and the believability issues made this a 3-star book for me. But I definitely plan on continuing the series. This is Maas's first book, and I've read her ACOTAR series and the woman only gets better! There's some kind of drug in her words that keeps me coming back for more. I wouldn't spend your money on this book because I only do that when I want to read something again, BUT if you have a credit to burn on Audible, go for it. Support your local libraries and borrow a copy! Overall, a fun book that I think will launch us into a cool world by one of my all-time favorite authors.