Review: Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas

I am a little late to the party with Empire of Storms. I waited with baited breath for release announcements but, as often happens, life got in the way and I only managed to finish it over the Christmas break. So for any of you who are in the same boat, have weathered the hype and are wondering whether it’s too late to get into the latest installment of the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, keep reading to find out why it’s worth it.

This review contains a SPOILER FREE section and a very SPOILERY section. These will be clearly marked.

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STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

(this section DOES NOT contain spoilers)

Sarah J. Maas’s writing style is beautifully descriptive, evoking rich settings and an almost palpable atmosphere. This is very much in keeping with the epic fantasy genre but isn’t to everyone’s liking. Those who like sparser, minimal writing, won’t find any of that within the pages of Empire of Storms. Having said that, the run-on sentences, ellipses, multiple adjectives and adverbs of A Court of Thorns and Roses and A Court of Mist and Fury have been significantly pared down in this book. The writing is tighter and easier to read, which surely is a sign of Sarah’s developing skills as a writer with each new book she puts out.

Maas has developed a complex plot with many moving parts and a detailed world with a variety of actors, each with their own agendas, in the way of the best epic fantasies. Empire of Storms gives us a broader look into the different nations, peoples and political machinations of Maas’s imagined world. I’m always curious whether the various subplots are developed by the author from the very beginning or whether they grow organically as the author discovers the story through writing. Since Sarah J. Maas has been writing the Throne of Glass series since the age of 16, she has had more than enough time to weave a story of satisfying complexity.

And to those of you who are a little worried the detailed world building could make the story clunky, do not fear – though there is description aplenty, the story does not lag. The pace is relentless and each chapter is taught with tension, action and challenges aplenty for our favourite characters. You will be hard-pressed to find a lull in which to take a breather. There’s a little slow-down toward the end of the book, but the slow build makes the heart-rending finale all the more impactful.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT, RELATIONSHIPS AND WOMEN

(this section contains SPOILERS)

The single greatest achievement of Sarah J. Maas’s writing in the Throne of Glass series is the character development of the heroine Celaena/Aelin, as well as the supporting characters. Maas is not afraid to throw the worst at her darlings; to have them hit rock bottom and, when they’re there, to force them further, lower, deeper. I often struggle to believe the development of heroines and heroes in many fantasy epics, dystopian narratives and other stories requiring a seemingly normal, inexperienced, untrained and, often, patently incapable, characters to face and defeat the ultimate evil over the course of one to three books. How do they develop the skills to fight, the resilience to get up when they repeatedly get knocked out and the courage to face certain death? These strengths develop through challenge and loss and time, and they leave the subject irretrievably changed (sometimes in not particularly endearing ways).

J.K Rowling achieved this masterfully with Harry Potter, and Robert Jordan similarly took fourteen books to break down and rebuild Rand Al Thor in his The Wheel of Time  series. In the end neither Harry nor Rand were recognisable from their earlier incarnations, and neither was particularly likeable. Celaena/Aelin has faced challenges and losses that would break the bravest warriors; losing family and friends, being tortured and enslaved, forced to kill and compromise her values again and again. Through these trials she develops into the kind of person who might be able to save the world (if she can escape her iron box, that is).

The other great strength of Maas’s character development is the development of the key romantic relationships in the series. You won’t find insta-romance here! Each relationship is built upon a foundation of shared values, experience and need. Aedion and Lysandra both know what it is like to be considered “whores” and to compromise their values, their souls and their bodies for the greater good (Maas’s word, not mine): Lysandra as an enslaved sex worker and Aedion as “Adarlan’s whore,” doing the bidding of a corrupt king to protect his ruined kingdom. Dorian too, marked by the loss of his “fragile” human love, finds a match in Manon, who is powerful and lethal beyond measure and virtually immortal. And although it seems a little to neat and unrealistic for all major characters to find love, their relationships are so fraught with internal and external conflict that they become worthy subplots in the tangled web of the developing story.

Finally, I really appreciate Sarah’s straight forward approach to incorporating the every-day realities of women’s lives including menstruation, pregnancy and using protection. These issues are rarely discussed in fantasy as the genre has traditionally been dominated by male voices and perspectives (the “band of brothers” trope, found in the likes of Lord of the Rings, for example, being all too common). I loved Maas’s consideration of how menstrual cramps and the need for panty liners might impact a heroine on an epic quest.

DIVERSITY AND KEEPING THE READER IN THE DARK

(this section contains SPOILERS)

While, overall, I got lost in the story and loved every second, I did also read it with the critical eye of a developing writer: looking for successful and unsuccessful elements I could learn from. And while I never want to put down another author’s work, I do think we can all do with reasoned feedback, reflection and taking the opportunity to improve in all aspects of our writing. As such, there were a couple of things that I wasn’t very keen on in Empire of Storms. Take my opinions with a grain of salt, as everyone’s experience is different.

Firstly, Empire of Storms is written in the third person limited from a variety of points of view. This is great as it gives the reader more of an insight into the perspectives, feelings and personalities of some really great characters, including Manon (fave!) and Lysandra (who I became unexpectedly attached to). However, there was a lot that went on behind the scenes to which even the heroine, Aelin, did not let on. She dropped hints about calling in old debts and her hopes that help was coming, then pulled strings in the background, only for all her machinations to come neatly together in the end in the form of allies and armies turning up on the very beach where our main characters found themselves in need. I found this to be a little too easy with Maas choosing not to confront the challenges of Aelin raising armies in time to defeat their enemies.

However, admittedly, I have not read the novellas, so it might be the case that for readers who had already met the new characters in the novellas and witnessed their conflict with and ultimate debt owed to Aelin, could have seen it coming. Also, this strategy did work to build conflict between Aelin and her companions, who she kept in the dark, and tension within the plot, as the reader couldn’t be sure until the last moment that help was coming. Ultimately, the help didn’t come soon enough to prevent Aelin from being once again enslaved, so I can live with being led on just a tad.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice (and be concerned by) the frequent appearance of blonde hair, blue and green eyes and pale or golden skin. Compared to previous books in the series (and compared to other young adult fantasy/sci-fi faves like the Lunar Chronicles), Empire of Storms was seriously lacking in diversity. There was plenty of opportunity to meet characters from other nations during the trek through Eyllwe’s marshes, which was not capitalised upon. The brief appearance of Nehemia, did not go far enough to balance the overwhelmingly white cast of characters. In this day and age, diversity should not be an afterthought, but an integral part of the development of characters, plot and setting from the beginning of the drafting stage. Representation matters.

I’m excited and hopeful to see the direction in which Maas takes the series going forward, including learning more about other peoples of her world and seeing how Aelin is transformed by the traumatic experiences beginning with the finale of Empire of Storms.

I recommend Empire of Storms for lovers of epic fantasy, young adult fantasy, and romantic fantasy.

I have also reviewed this book on Goodreads. Take a look at my profile, add me as a friend and let’s chat about books!

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