Kingdom of Ash Review
I waited months for Kingdom of Ash, the 7th book in Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass series to come out (yes, I know that other people who found the series earlier had to wait way longer, but I'm impatient and pain is relative). And it did not disappoint.
The book made me cry tears of joy, anger, wonder, and sadness. I cried so much that I may have dehydrated myself. It also made me laugh and squeal and sweat with anticipation. I loved this book so much that while I was reading it, I thought the only thing I'd be able to say in this review would be, "It's perfect. Go read it now."
But alas, nothing is perfect.
A couple of the critiques I read about Kingdom of Ash focused on the book's length. At 997 pages, I guess it can be kind of a slog for some, but I would have happily read more. Those 997 pages gave me time to say a proper goodbye to the characters and their world, which brings me to my assessment of Maas' worldbuilding.
1 & 2. Establish the laws of your world and follow them: I have nothing bad to say here. Over the course of the series, we learn the history of the relevant kingdoms without heavy exposition. We discover the existence of different worlds and learn how they can interact with each other as Aelin, the main character, does. Similarly, we learn how magic works by watching Aelin train to use hers.
And the laws are all followed throughout the entire series. The Ironteeth witches are motivated to fight for Erawan because they think he'll be able to break the curse that keeps them from returning home to the Wastes. Aelin's desire to open a portal to another world and bring Nehemia back after she'd been killed in Crown of Midnight led her to develop a deeper (and very useful) understanding of the Wyrdmarks. After Aelin escapes Maeve's captivity in Kingdom of Ash, her companions begin to doubt her ability to lead effectively because she refuses to use her magic, but it turns out she's just trying to amass enough power to strike a deathblow to the Fae/Valg queen who tortured her for months.
On the grand spectrum of fantasy worlds, this one is middlingly complex. There are demons and gods who are really just beings who travelled from a different world and got trapped in this one. Magical powers are hereditary and using them is physically draining, but they can be restored with enough rest. Even the political structures are typical of this kind of fantasy world, with monarchs whose lives are inexplicably connected to one another even though they may live oceans apart. But don't get me wrong; the world may be relatively simple, but it was built exceedingly well.
3. Don't break your audience's trust: This is tricky, because for 99.99% of the series, I was pleasantly surprised by Maas' choices.
There was a scene in Kingdom of Ash where the armies of Anielle, led by Chaol, are preparing to fight a horde of Erawan's soldiers. During this scene, Maas' devoted an entire paragraph to describing a dam that held a river from feeding the Silver Lake. I turned to my friend while I was reading and said, "I bet she's going to have the good guys break that dam and use the flood to drown the enemy army." Of course he had no idea what I was talking about, but he humored me and nodded along anyway.
Maas' defied my expectations when Chaol and his team discussed using the dam, but dismissed it as too dangerous and destructive. She defied them again when she had Erawan's army break the dam, forcing Aelin to use her massive store of power to evaporate the water before it could hurt any of the good guys.
Such a small thing -- a slightly longer-than-necessary description of a dam -- turned into a device that tied up so many loose ends and introduced new conflicts. That's good writing.
But there's also the scene near the end of the book where Maas stacks the odds so high against Aelin and her allies that it seemed to me utterly unrealistic that they still won in the end (that's not a spoiler; you knew they were going to win). Here's what they had working against them:
- They were vastly outnumbered and out"gunned"
- They were entering the fight after a grueling trek through the snow and woods
- Maeve had joined forces with Erawan
- Erawan had brought powerful Valg princesses over from his home world
- Aelin and Dorian (the two most powerful characters) had lost the majority of both of their powers in a fruitless attempt to banish Erawan from their world
AND THEY STILL WON! To me, this stretched the fabric of possibility much too thin. I understand that this a world where people can turn into animals, control elements, and travel between worlds, but that victory just isn't believable.
Ultimately, I think this comes down to a brief lapse in Maas' storytelling ability. I think it's likely that she felt pressure to make as climactic an ending as possible, and tried to do that by making Aelin's inevitable victory suuuper impressive. She just took it a bit too far.
Sarah J. Maas is a brilliant worldbuilder, a fantastic writer, and a pretty damn good storyteller. It's impossible to accurately score Kingdom of Ash, let alone the entire Throne of Glass series. All I can say is that I look forward to the day when my memory of the series is hazy enough that I get to read it again, and experience some of it for what will feel like the first time.
Put a score on that.