By Casey Wilson
“Promise of the premise.” That’s a phrase I first heard used by John Rogers, co-creator of TNT’s Leverage, in relation to what an audience can fairly expect from a given scenario. If you don’t fulfill the promise of the premise, the audience will leave unsatisfied.
I couldn’t help but think about that phrase as I read Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. The premise is this: Celaena Sardothien, the kingdom’s most talented assassin, is retrieved from the labor camp where she has been for the past year after her capture and is presented with a proposal. If she becomes the King’s Champion, she will be given her freedom after a few years of service. But in order to obtain that title, she has to win a competition against other assassins, soldiers, killers, and thieves. (It’s not quite as The Hunger Games as you might expect – the competition often seems to be an afterthought to the other threads of the plot.)
The promise, for me, was that we would see Celaena Sardothien, master assassin, in action. And to some extent, we do. She has many skills that we are allowed to glimpse throughout the book – there’s not a weapon she can’t handle. But – and there are a few (significant) spoilers in the rest of this paragraph, so skip to the next if you don’t want to know anything about how it all plays out – we never actually get to see her as an assassin. Other than events briefly referenced in her memories, and one demon creature that comes after her, she never actually kills anyone. She is not even allowed to kill her biggest enemy throughout the book – someone else has that responsibility. Perhaps I’m bloodthirsty, I don’t know. But for me, if you’re going to promise a master assassin, she has to actually assassinate someone. Show, don’t tell, and all. (For the record, I think there’s a very interesting story that could be told about Celaena’s year in the camps changing her and pushing her away from the life she led before, but that’s not really where the book’s interest is.)
Anyway, on to more spoiler-free topics! There is, as so often happens, a love triangle in the novel. Although I, like many people, can easily grow weary of the who-will-she-choose angle, I actually think that there is real potential in this love triangle, if it is executed well throughout the rest of the series. All three people involved have duties and responsibilities, both to the king and to each other, and those responsibilities weigh heavily on their relationships.
And there is one scene, toward the end, that I found extremely effective – to the point that it almost single-handedly invested me in everything that had happened thus far. (In lieu of describing it – at a risk of spoiling the context – I’ll say that it involves the phrase “Get up.”) Maas has, I think, a talent for small moments that read large, and that’s one of them.
I will admit that the novel revealed one pet peeve I didn’t know I had – there are a lot of exclamation points in the narration, and I thought few to none of them were actually necessary. But they either lessened as the book went on or I stopped noticing them, so either way it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story too much.
What I will say for the novel overall is this: don’t get too attached to the promise of the premise. The book has a lot more going on than its description would have you think, and you’ll be more likely to leave satisfied if you allow for that from the start. I’ve grown to like the book more the longer time I take away from it, largely because I went in expecting more assassin and less court intrigue and magic. But I think if you take the book on its own terms, it is a reasonably successful and engaging story.
Casey is a PhD student.