What if Cinderella hadn’t come to the ball to marry the prince, but to kill him?
That one thought, sparked from listening to the “intense” music in Cinderella, was the catalyst behind Sarah J. Maas’ eight-book fantasy series Throne of Glass. Enter Aelin Galathynius: the most famous assassin in the world, armed with a heart of gold, a wicked sense of humor, and a divine love for live opera (oh, and please don’t touch her expensive lavender-scented soap).
“Aelin came into my head—someone who loved dressing up for the ball but also had a very vicious job to do,” Maas told The Daily Beast of her series’ beloved protagonist. “Her character grew and changed from there, but I always wanted her to be a woman who was fascinating and complicated, like all women are.”
At just 16 years old, Maas began building Aelin’s world on paper, eventually publishing the series’ titular novel, Throne of Glass, in 2012. The now-37-year-old author has since expanded her fantasy world into subsequent series A Court of Thorns and Roses, or ACOTAR (2015), and Crescent City (2020), building an epic literary universe that rivals Marvel and that, according to many women, has gotten them to fall in love with reading. And with Maas’ next Crescent City book due to arrive in January, the hype isn’t dying down anytime soon.
On TikTok’s “BookTok”—the corner of the app where book lovers share reviews, analyses, memes, and opinions on popular novels—Maas’ three series have become a bona fide phenomenon. The #ACOTAR hashtag alone boasts 7 billion views, and the series has spawned everything from in-depth analysis podcasts to ACOTAR-themed workout programs. Once readers are thrust into the 16-book multiverse, they emerge with a fierce obsession for the characters, especially ACOTAR’s three leading male faeries, affectionately dubbed the “bat boys.” But it’s her original protagonist, Aelin, who takes the cake and is widely considered by many in the fanbase to be one of the greatest female literary heroines of all time.
“She’s just that bad bitch that we all want to be,” says 27-year-old Kate Price, who credits Maas’ novels with reigniting her love of reading after being obsessed years ago with The Hunger Games and Divergent.
Unlike many fantasy heroines before her, Aelin in no way follows the reluctant hero trope. In fact, she’s the complete opposite. Her tireless arrogance and brazen sense of humor often land her in danger, but are also what make her perfectly flawed. She’s strong, smart, incredibly resilient, and, contrary to the Hermione Grangers, Katniss Everdeens, and Elizabeth Bennetts of the book world, she absolutely knows she’s beautiful.
“I think a lot of times when I was reading fantasy when I was younger, even if it wasn’t written by a male [author]…it required the female main characters to be super badass, but in the sense that they had to take on masculine qualities—like they hate makeup, and they’d die to be in a dress, and they’re just so tough,” says 25-year-old Kayla Wells, who’s amassed 42,000 followers on TikTok, primarily thanks to her love of Maas’ novels. “I think [Maas] does a really good job of letting characters have a lot of different types of femininity and still being really strong and badass and cool.”
Because it’s female joy, it’s automatically dismissed as being frivolous, as being quote-unquote ‘fairie porn.’
Throne of Glass, which can best be described as a combination of the fabled magic of Cinderella and the prophetic nature of Harry Potter, would surely be a smash hit to rival Game of Thrones were it to be picked up as an eight-season TV series (HBO, I’m quite literally begging you). But its popularity isn’t as widespread as George R.R. Martin’s fantasy phenomenon. Why? Possibly because it’s written by a woman.
“We use terms like ‘romantasy,’” says 33-year-old Jack Sahlin, who started an ACOTAR analysis podcast (Book Talk for BookTok) along with her friend Amy Cheung. “Because it’s female joy, it’s automatically dismissed as being frivolous, as being quote-unquote ‘fairie porn.’”
“I think there’s just been this big stigma of it not being ‘real fantasy,’” adds Wells, who frequently deals with antagonizing comments on her TikToks, mostly from men, about why Maas’ novels shouldn’t be categorized as “high fantasy.”
By definition, “high fantasy” is an “epic fantasy set in an alternate world.” Maas’ detractors can sit around debating the merits and qualifications of her work all day, but the reality is that her books sell—a lot. Her three series—A Court of Thorns and Roses, Throne of Glass, and Crescent City—have sold roughly 12 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 38 languages.
While Throne of Glass was technically the first of Maas’ series, it’s A Court of Thorns and Roses that put her name on the map and consistently dominates book culture. ACOTAR tells the story of a land called Prythian, where a centuries-old war divided the nation between humans and High Fae (who are technically fairies, though they aren’t even close to Tinkerbell). Feyre, a starved 19-year-old who is forced to hunt to save her family, is taken captive to the faerie realms after killing what she thinks to be a wolf in the woods.
On a surface level, that story might sound like any other fantasy novel with a prophetic female main character. But what makes these books so unique—beyond the super hot, romantic faerie men who use witty banter as foreplay, make passionate love to the female main characters, and treat their partners as equal—is that the characters feel extraordinarily real.
“The first book, you have a young woman who has severe food insecurity, comes from a troubled home, and had to grow up too young—how many of us out there?” Sahlin notes, adding, “The amount of women that have told us that the [ACTOAR] books helped them through their own domestic violent partnership, or their own breakup, has been fascinating.”
Indeed, Maas tells us: “In Feyre, I tried to create a really relatable protagonist who just happens to live in this heightened fantasy world. She’s had struggles and traumas, but through the help of her friends, she begins the long healing process and finds true love like we all dream of.”
But while all three Maas series may have millions of people (women, especially) in a chokehold, like any widely popular phenomenon, it’s not devoid of criticism—some of the biggest complaints being the overwhelming heterosexuality and lack of diversity among the main characters. Many fans on TikTok, for example, have voiced their disappointment at one of the leading Black characters being killed off in the second Throne of Glass novel.
Raelyn Couto, a Black 30-year-old fan who devoured the entire ACOTAR series this August and has now moved on to Throne of Glass, said that while she would definitely love to see more POC representation, she does appreciate the way Maas has seemingly responded to the criticism by writing in more diverse characters in her later novels.
“I feel like she did it in a way that didn’t make it stand out, like, ‘Hey, here’s me trying to be diverse.’ That being said, I would like more main characters of color,” Cuoto says, adding that despite those shortcomings, she still looks to these books as a form of escape. “Especially for people who used to read a lot of fantasy as kids, it’s nice to feel like it’s still relatable to us.”
That sentiment can be heard all over BookTok and beyond, as Maas’ series keep sucking readers into a rich, layered, and ongoing multiverse that bolsters the conversation around women-led fantasy. And hey, since multiverses are all the rage these days, maybe Hollywood will one day take notice and bring Aelin to the big screen. Rest assured TikTok already has ideas for that.