Sarah Maas stopped watching Game of Thrones several years ago. The bestselling fantasy author had come to find aspects of the swords and sorcery romp viscerally off-putting. The show’s brutal treatment of its female characters was especially difficult to sit through.
“I haven’t gone back to it yet,” she says, over coffee at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel. “I have some thoughts about the ladies and how things are done or not. I’ve heard the latest season is super empowering — I think I’ll binge on it once the entire thing is finished.” Her distaste for Game of Thrones’ use of sexual violence as plot device is palpable. And yet she and GoT creator George RR Martin have a certain amount in common. Each has written a labyrinthine fantasy saga, with a cast of hundreds and a multitude of interweaving plots.
The difference is that, unlike Martin, Maas has not become mired in her work and is actually coming to the conclusion of her sprawling epic. Empire of Storms, volume five of her six-part Throne of Glass series, has just been published and already made the New York Times bestseller list, adding to the 4.8m books the 30-year-old has already sold. A second crucial distinction is in the tone of her work. Throne of Glass and Maas’s other major sequence of novels, A Court of Thorns and Roses, are gritty, with compelling characters and storylines to sweep you off your feet.
However, the books are marketed as young adult fiction and thus do not indulge in the over-the-top sex and bloodshed too often a feature of modern fantasy (writers have been tripping over themselves to demolish the prudish image JRR Tolkien gave the genre).
Some novelists are sniffy about being categorised as YA. The label makes Maas, from New York, swell with pride, She grew up on YA writers such as Garth Nix and Robin McKinley and was an early champion of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. To be spoken of in the same breath as her literary heroes is simply thrilling.
“When I was growing up there were only so many young adult books you could read,” she says. “After that I had to move onto adult fantasy. It’s so different now — it’s wonderful. I was an early fan of The Hunger Games. I bought it the day it came out. I remember counting down to the release of the sequel, Catching Fire, and then almost bursting into tears when I walked into the store and there was this huge display. To see young adult writing finally get that recognition was surreal for me.”
She started Throne of Glass as a teenager, posting early drafts of what would become the first novel to the website FictionPress. The feedback was instant and overwhelmingly positive.
“This was back in the dial-up era. I would wait until the end of the day and then log on to AOL. I would get people saying they love the story. It really changed the course of my life. I wrote it from the age of 16 until 22. By the time I graduated from university, it had become the most reviewed story on the entire website. My readers were so supportive: They wanted to see it published. All of a sudden, I realised I wanted to be a published author, too.
Throne Of Glass is loosely inspired by the story of Cinderella. Maas started with an intriguing premise: What if Cinderella was an assassin and went to the ball not to dance with the prince, but to kill him? Thus was born her plucky protagonist Aelin Galathynius “It was inspired by the old [Disney] cartoon. I thought that the music that plays when Cinderella leaves the ball is really dark and intense. The music in that moment is really relentless. This is an epic freak-out. What if Cinderella did something to warrant this reaction? What if she was trying to kill the prince and they sent out the royal guard to hunt her down. The character jumped into my head: Someone who loved dressing up for these balls but also murdering people.”
Her heroines are self-empowered, progressive figures, fully in command of their destiny. A major influence was Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which Maas feasted on as a teenager. “For a show that’s nearly 20 years old, it’s weirdly progressive. Buffy wasn’t someone who was shoved in a box. She was the girly girl figure — she was into fashion, she was the cheerleader. At the same time, she was a slayer and a tomboy. Growing up, I felt I had to choose between those two parts of me. Buffy showed me you could like nail polish and also kick ass.”
She also took heart from the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Growing up, Maas identified with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo rather than Princess Leia. How inspiring that the central character of The Force Awakens is a young woman in control of her destiny.
“If you said you liked Star Wars when I was in school it was a one-way ticket to get thrown into a locker,” she says. “Now I love that it has become so mainstream. I was in London filming a video thing and they got me this lightsaber that made the authentic sounds. It was amazing.
“I was in heaven watching the new movie. I used to pretend I was Luke battling Vader. Leia was great — but Luke got to do all the cool stuff. I also wanted to be Han Solo — the cool smuggler. In the new one, Rey gets to do all the cool stuff. That moment where she got to pick up the lightsaber — I burst into tears. I was sobbing. I had waited my entire life to see that.
“I’ve seen the Force Awakens six times. The second time I dragged my parents to a theatre in the middle of New York City. When Ray picked up the lightsaber the entire audience cheered and screamed so loudly I thought the ceiling was going to come down. I realised I wasn’t the only one who had looked forward their entire life to see a woman pick up a lightsaber and have that epic duel.”