Sarah J. Maas on the Inspiration for Queen of Shadows That She’s Kept Secret for 14 Years

Sarah J. Maas on the Inspiration for Queen of Shadows That She’s Kept Secret for 14 Years

18006496Sarah J. MaasQueen of Shadows is the fourth book in her Throne of Glass series and one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the fall. Fans online have commented that they have not be this excited for a book release since Harry Potter, and our editor Kelly Gallucci has to agree. Kelly’s chatted with Sarah before about her Beauty and the Beast retelling, A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR). But yesterday she was lucky enough to spend pub day at Bloomsbury where she talked to Sarah about just how crazy things get when Celaena returns to Rifthold with fire in her eyes, determined to rescue her cousin and restore magic to Adarlan. We’ve got the inside scoop on the moments in this book that had Sarah in tears, the character death she doesn’t regret, and the inspiration for this book that she’s kept secret for 14 years.


READER BEWARE: Major, massive, book-ruining spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.


Bookish: What are three words to describe how you feel now that Queen of Shadows is out in the world?

Sarah J. Maas: Excited seems like such a bland word. What’s a mixture of excitement and relief? Relifement, relaxment… I’m excited that people can read the book and relieved that it’s out there now, worldwide. There’s no more fear of spoilers.

But I’ve been finished with this book for four months. I’m so focused on what’s happening next and getting the next book out on time for both series for my fans. It’s an endless cycle of deadlines and pushing myself to be the best writer I can be and to improve with every book. I just turned in the fifth Throne of Glass book and I’m finishing up edits on the second ACOTAR book, so… hustling.

And the third word would be zen. At this point I’m really proud of the book and how it turned out. Of course, I’m always worried about how readers will react to a book, but I like this book so much that I’m feeling pretty zen about it being out in the world. Hopefully readers love it as much as I do.

Bookish: What’s one secret about this book you’ve been keeping?

SJM: Lysandra turning into a ghost leopard. That is my favorite scene I’ve ever written. I could not keep my ass in the chair when I was writing it. I listened to the E.T. soundtrack—specifically the part where E.T. and the gang finally take off on their bikes and escape. It’s the best music from any movie ever. There’s magic in that music. When Lysandra turned into a ghost leopard I was listening to it. I was just screaming, “It’s happening! It’s happening!”I’m as much a passenger as I am captain of this. It’s constant roller coasters and out-of-control emotions. I had been planting all these seeds in the book and finally shit went down. I had someone today say to me that Lysandra is their patronus. I was like, “Yes!” Readers have been asking for a while which character I most connect with, or who I’m most like. I’m most like Lysandra.

Bookish: Chaol is one of my favorite characters—even if it took four books to learn how to pronounce his name. He struggles in this book to reconcile his version of Celaena with who she really is. Can you tell us about your own experience of watching Celaena evolve from the girl assassin to the queen?

SJM: In hindsight, I regret not changing Chaol’s name to Clark or something [laughs]. I tell people all the time that when I got the idea for Throne of Glass, I was inspired by this piece of music from the Cinderella soundtrack. What I don’t tell people is that there was a second piece of music that shaped the rest of the series, and that’s the finale from Swan Lake. I’m a huge ballet fan, and when I was listening to this finale piece, I saw in my head the scene where Aelin and Dorian shatter the glass castle. It was such a powerful image with this incredible music, and I knew in that moment that was where I wanted her to go. This was 14 years ago, and that was the goal I’ve been working towards with this series. I couldn’t talk about that second piece of music—which ended up being even more important than the Cinderella song in some ways. When I saw that scene, I knew she was more than just an assassin and that she had a great destiny. Every step I wanted her to take, from that first moment in the salt mines to shattering the castle, would be the journey for her to become queen.

Celaena was born from the Cinderella music, but Aelin was born from the Swan Lake music. During the years I was writing the series, in high school and college, I got to know her. When I was finally ready to pursue publication, I wound up rewriting everything. I really believe in trusting my gut and listening to what my characters want to do. Even though I had all these plans for her, I let her guide the story where it needed to go—all while laying out these seeds and steps to get her and Dorian to that point where they shatter the castle.

Celaena’s taken this journey from a young, spoiled, selfish, and immature teenager to a woman willing to fight for something bigger than herself. But in writing her, I’ve grown with her. I started writing this as a teenager and I’ve grown up, too. It’s weird to look at scenes from Throne of Glass and remember where I was in my life writing that. My journey outside of these books is sort of woven in between the words.

Seeing her grow through the series is really fun. She always surprises me because I let her lead the way. Sometimes I’m like, “We’re going to do this really awesome scene that I’ve been building towards for two books!” And then she’ll be like, “Mhmm, no we’re not doing that.” I never go wrong when I trust my gut. The times when I try to force the characters into doing something I had planned, that’s when it falls apart.

It’s been 14 years and I haven’t gotten sick of these characters or this world. I’ve turned in the fifth book and I was having anxiety when I wrote the words “The End.” I thought, “Oh god. I only get to draft one more book in this!” Then I was like, “Nope, there are going to be 20 books and it’ll never end!” I’ll never let go. I won’t be like Rose in Titanic.

Bookish: We’ll keep reading them if you keep writing them.

SJM: Maybe you’ll be the only one left in the end [laughs].


Bookish: Celaena goes by Aelin in this book, a sign that she’s finally accepting her destiny and title. Do you still refer to her as Celaena in your own mind or is she Aelin?

SJM: There’s a split because I feel like they’re two different people. I refer to her as Celaena from The Assassin’s Blade to Heir of Fire. In Heir of Fire she has a scene where she reaches across to little Aelin and they merge into Super Aelin. After that she was Aelin to me. But it’s so hard to talk to new readers about it, so I err on the side of caution and refer to her as Celaena in case people haven’t gotten to the end of Crown of Midnight. She’s always been Aelin, but she had been Celaena the assassin and now she’s the fire-breathing bitch-queen.

Bookish: Glad you brought that up. The word “bitch” is every enemy’s favorite insult for Celaena/Aelin. It’s one of the oldest ways to insult a woman, dating back to the 18th century, and even Celaena says that she thinks people would get more creative over time. While a few have taken steps to reclaiming it, like Nicki Minaj calling herself a “boss-ass bitch,” it’s still a word that most women bristle at. What made you use the word and with such frequency in this book?

SJM: My editor was the first person who pointed out the use of “bitch” and the history of it. That got me really thinking about. It’s one of Celaena’s trigger words. In the first Throne of Glass book someone calls her a bitch and she beats the shit out of him and says, “It makes no difference if my name’s Celaena or Lillian or Bitch, because I’d still beat you, no matter what you call me.”

Lorcan uses it in this book and I enjoyed writing Celaena’s freakout reaction. One of my favorite scenes is when she says, “You know, I’m really rather tired of being called that. You’d think five centuries would give you enough time to come up with something more creative.”

“Bitch” is really the only curse word that I’ve had actual thoughts about. I use “rutting” as the f-word. Even when characters say rutting, in my head it’s like no that’s an actual f-bomb. Anytime someone curses in the books it’s usually a delightful combination of f-bombs.

Bookish: That’s exactly how I read it.

SJM: My editor pointed out that in historical times—not that this book is based in any kind of history—the f-word was used more for the act than how we use it now, as an insult. That word fits in some fantasy worlds, but it didn’t really feel like it fit in mine. There’s a frequency to the cursing in the books.

Sometimes I find made up curse words a little cheesy. Your characters are literally slitting each other’s throats and you have these kind of hunky-dory cutesy alternate curse words. It doesn’t jibe.

And if someone calls someone something really awful, it’s the c-word. In Queen of Shadows, Aedion calls Aelin a filthy name at one point and he is calling her the see you next Tuesday. Obviously I can’t drop that word in the middle of my book. But I think it’s good to have some realistic cursing, and I love to curse, too.

Bookish: You write women who truly appreciate one another. I found myself wondering while reading if we’d ever see a lesbian relationship in the series, because I think you write interactions between women beautifully. Is that something you ever thought about?

SJM: There’s one lesbian relationship in the Thirteen, Manon’s group, which is vaguely hinted at. If I were to include it I’d want to make sure I did it right. Representation is important to me; I want to make sure all different types of relationships are in the books. In book five there’s a gay, male-male relationship. I want to include those things, but I don’t want it to be in there just to have it in there. I don’t want to force it. But if a character walked into my head and that’s who they were I’d be like “Yes!”

Bookish: Does the healer (Yrene Towers) from The Assassin’s Blade ever return?

SJM: Everything that happened in that little story—Celaena giving the brooch to Yrene, showing her that kindness—comes full circle. I do believe what you put out into the world comes back to you. It’s no coincidence that Chaol’s going off to the Southern Continent where Yrene Towers has maybe been… and maybe she’ll come back if he returns… with an army. Maybe.

Bookish: That theme is present in this book too. More than once in Queen of Shadows we see debts being repaid for kindness Aelin shows.

SJM: It’s one of those things I get very moved by, that an act of kindness can save your life. Especially with Manon—she’s the one who saves the day in this book. I love the scene where she’s written the message on the wall. I cried and cried. When Aelin sees the giant writing saying “WITCH KILLER—THE HUMAN IS STILL INSIDE HIM” I was thinking, “What’s happening?! Almost friends! Almost.”

Now that I’m thinking about it, in “The Assassin and the Healer,” when Celaena decides to help out Yrene she feels this tug in the threads of the world. She decides to give the girl her brooch and her money to go become a healer and fix her life. And in the scene where Aelin saves Manon, she feels a tug as well. I did not plan this. It’s weird that these two moments of kindness wind up having huge repercussions.

Bookish: In our world, witchcraft is often linked with violence against women. Did that history play into your shaping of the Ironteeth witches?

SJM: Oh yeah. The scene in Heir of Fire where Manon is in the little cottage and farmers have come in—that was very much based on how we see women being targeted by men and violence against women. I liked the idea that readers may start reading that scene and think she was going to be the victim. Then she shuts the door and you realize she’s actually the predator. I love the idea that these witches are apex predators who hunt humans and see men as being for breeding and eating. These witches don’t actually eat flesh. Drinking of blood is more about power. They’re not like, “Oh this is so delicious. I gotta get me some blood.” They’re thinking, “You’re a man and a stupid human.”

The witches’ culture is a weird combination of things. I’ve always been obsessed with Baba Yaga from Russian folklore, and she has iron teeth in some versions. I had this beautiful storybook about her legend called Vasalisa the Brave, and there’s a really terrifying illustration of Baba Yaga where she has those iron teeth. It planted itself in my mind.

I don’t know how I came up with the idea of the teeth being retractable. I think I wanted them to be hot and not terrify people at times, but then have this ability to flick their wrists and have their iron grill come out.

The witches live in a matriarchy. I loved the idea of women being in power and also of it being a broken society. Just because women are in power doesn’t mean things are perfect. I couldn’t get the history of witches out of my head. I knew Manon would come into play way later in the series, and then I got the idea for that scene in the cottage. I knew I needed to start her arc then. I wanted Manon’s journey to feel earned. I couldn’t do that unless I started her story early on. By the end of Queen of Shadows, when she has that meeting with Dorian, you can kind of see where she’s going.

The Thirteen is like a motorcycle gang. I love them, but they’re also terrifying. I couldn’t survive with them. I’d be like poor Elide, hiding out, limping through the halls with my chains—and not cool chains to go with my grill, slavery chains. I picked 13 as a number for them because witch covens are traditionally 13 members, but also I’m very superstitious. So when I was creating the Thirteen I wanted something that terrified me, so I figured I’d call them something that freaks me out. But ever since I’ve written about them, I kind of love that number. Now I worry, “Wait. Is that an unlucky turn? Will I get hit by a car?”

Bookish: Redemption, who is granted it and who isn’t, is a major theme in this book. Can you talk a bit about that?

SJM: Chaol probably gets the most redemption, in a way. He’s very broken at the beginning of this book. He has to figure out what he wants, who is he now, and how he sees the world and his place in it. I never write things to be preachy, but I do find characters can go on very interesting journeys when they have these super highs and lows.

In Throne of Glass, Perrington violently assaults Celaena in front of Chaol and he does nothing. He and Dorian barely even look at the mass graves in Endovier until she comes into their lives. But even then they don’t really take a stand when their empire is doing really horrible things. So from the start both Chaol and Dorian are on this eye-opening path towards becoming men. They’re both very much boys at the beginning, in the same way that Aelin is a girl at the beginning.

There are interesting ways to play with characters who are broken or have made bad choices. But some people can’t be redeemed; some people are evil. Maybe that’s very Old Testament of me in that I don’t think there’s any coming back from that, but these characters who are in this gray area can go in either direction.

Sometimes people don’t get the chance to prove themselves again, like the king. That was another scene I cried while writing. The king is whispering, “My boy,” and I was thinking, “Poor king. But goodbye, you’re dead.” That’s definitely going to haunt Dorian going forward. Hard moments need to have consequences.

Arobynn couldn’t be redeemed. He’s a dick; I once called him a douche canoe. He did despicable things to Celaena, but it was what he did to Lysandra growing up that made him absolutely unforgivable. That’s why it was more important for Lysandra to make the fatal blow. I had a reader ask me if it was hard to let Arobynn die at Lysandra’s hand: It wasn’t. I hadn’t planned for that until I was writing it, and I realized it would be a gift for Aelin to give that to a friend. Aelin had been focusing on killing him and hurting him for so long, and to be able to let that go was very much about healing herself. But Lysandra needed to be the one who did it, so she knew he was dead and she could move on as well. That was another big crying scene for me, because Lysandra’s someone who had horrible things done to her and she made a decision in that moment to have a better life.

Sarah J. Maas is the author of the New York Times, USA Today, and internationally bestselling Throne of Glass series–Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, and Heir of Fire, and the series’ prequel, The Assassin’s Blade–as well as the New York Times and USA Today bestselling A Court of Thorns and Roses. She wrote the first incarnation of the Throne of Glass series when she was just sixteen, and it has now sold in twenty-three languages. Queen of Shadows, the fourth book in the Throne of Glass series, was released worldwide on September 1st, 2015.

Kelly Gallucci
Far too busy rereading the Harry Potter series, Kelly finds that her greatest literary sin is that she neglected to read classics like The Shining and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In between overseeing the editorial content for Bookish, holding interviews with authors like Isaac Marion and Lauren Beukes, and creating book recommendations for Kanye West—Kelly’s trying to catch up on the books she missed out on. She just finished The Great Gatsby and might be in love with Fitzg. Kelly received her B.A. in English Writing from Marist College and her M.A. in Screenwriting from National University of Ireland, Galway.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this article, there was some really interesting insight into the Throne of Glass series :) But I noticed the bio at the end of the article is outdated–Sarah doesn’t live in SoCal anymore, and it only mentions Throne of Glass when Sarah has many other books published now, like A Court of Thorns and Roses. Just thought it would be helpful to point out.

    • Thanks, Kait! It looks like the bio on her personal website is more recent, so we’ll swap that out. Glad you enjoyed the interview.

  2. I adore Sarah J. Maas. She’s such an incredible storyteller and she’s humble and friendly. This interview with her shows her humility in how much she cares for her readers.

    I started reading SJM’s books this summer and I loved every one of them. I started on ACOTAR first and I fell in love with her lyrical prose — the beautiful retelling of Beauty and the Beast and other tales. When I was halfway through it, I knew I had to read the Throne of Glass series. This interview with her has provided so much insight towards the series and I loved it. Great questions, by the way, Kelly!

    I have so much love for SJM’s books and I’ve just finished Queen of Shadows — it was perfection. I cannot wait to read her upcoming books.

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