It's no secret that I love Sarah J Maas's Throne of Glass series. The first book was wildly fun and addictive in a somewhat fanficcy way, the second book was dark and twisty and horrible and wonderful, and the third book dug deep into character development and shrugged off any YA roots for an intense epic-fantasy level story. It's a difficult series to recommend to people, as its eventual quality and depth aren't necessarily clear from the opening pages, but it's definitely worth the attempt.
So, does Queen of Shadows live up to its predecessors? Yes. In fact, it surpasses them, as Maas's writing only grows stronger with each passing book.
Like Heir of Fire, this is a really character-driven fantasy novel masquerading as action/adventure. Yes, there's lots of fights and lots of danger, there are monsters and demons and an overarching need to save the world, but most of the focus is on the characters and how they develop in response to this world-changing threat. It's enthralling, but it's far from plot-plot-plot.
And that suits me fine. One of the great benefits of a long series is that we can really get to know the characters and see the far-reaching consequences of their actions. We can see the immediate pain that characters cause one another, and then we can see the scars of that months or years later. A single glance or word can pack a huge emotional punch.
And Sarah J Maas writes such amazing characters.
Aelin continues to be an incredibly rich and fun protagonist. She's been criticized before as a "Mary Sue," because she's pretty and powerful and so must be an overpowered cliche, but she's hardly flawless perfection. She has a lot of skill as an assassin, but she pays a severe emotional price for that. She's a very dark, vengeful, violent character, and while that makes her compelling, it's hardly held up as a strength.
But Maas's best character work may be with some of Aelin's deadly enemies, the witches in the employ of the king. Although you could never, never describe these characters as "nice," Maas still manages to make them emotionally compelling and even sympathetic... while also being vicious, bloodthirsty, and cruel. Her perspective character Manon has a complex and fascinating character arc, continued here from Heir of Fire, as her loyalties are challenged, and her sense of honor clashes with her
One final character that needs mentioning is the courtesan, Lysandra. Although she's a new addition in this book, she has a long history with Aelin from her days as an assassin. Aelin has dismissed her for years as vapid, vain and useless, because of her own biased assumptions and because of the things that Lysandra has done to survive, but the fact that Lysandra has survived is a testament to how wrong Aelin is about her, and their developing trust and friendship is one of the strongest parts of the book.
Of course, this isn't a perfect book. Although there's lots of action and lots of tension, it doesn't entirely flow together, plotwise, with a couple of interludes that had to happen so certain characters could meet or someone could learn something, but which otherwise felt like detours. Fine if you're enchanted by the characters, but if you're very plot focussed, it could get frustrating. And when things do get very plotty and climax-y in the final hundred pages, some of the book's spell was broken for me -- but I'm very hard to please when it comes to Big Dramatic Conclusions, and it was more "this wasn't QUITE as enjoyable as the rest of the book" than "this is disappointing."
Overall, if you've read as far as Heir of Fire and felt "meh" about it, this book probably won't change your opinion on the series. But if you haven't picked up this series yet, definitely give it a try. Once you've got past the first few chapters of the first book, you'll find a rich fantasy world full of drama, emotion, and some of the best drawn female characters in any fantasy YA... or any fantasy series, period.