Whether you like her or not, it is impossible to deny that Sarah J. Maas has become a driving force in the direction of YA fantasy. Her books frequently dominate bestseller lists and have very large fandoms. Her model of high fantasy is already being duplicated, cementing her influence. But, despite the recent heaps of success, one question still remains: is Maas a good writer or merely an inventive one?
The first time you read a Maas book, you are swept away into a strange world of fae, magic, love, and betrayal. It’s love at first read. The second time you read a Maas book, you notice something you may have overlooked before in favor of the exciting plot: her writing style. And once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it.
Maas’ writing style can be summed up in three words: melodramatic, hyperbolic, and repetitive. The dialogue is overwrought with Grand Statements that make what’s being said seem more important than it is. Her characters are given Important Titles that truly have no meaning behind them. I mean, think about it: what does Night Triumphant mean? You can try to force sense onto it (well, Rhys is High Lord of the Night Court and he’s powerful, but then again, he hasn’t been particularly triumphant in this series), but ultimately they’re just pretty statements that sound nice.
Aelin is referred to as the “Heir of Ash and Fire,” but again, this statement is an empty sentiment. Instead of showing us how mighty these characters can be, we are told of their grandness in larger-than-life terms. These titles add nothing to the character themselves, only telling us how we are to perceive them: as superior, as better, as the best.
Which brings me to my next point: so much hyperbole is put into these characters, it gets harder and harder to suspend your disbelief. Every character is not just good at something, they’re the best. Celaena was Adarlan’s Greatest Assassin before transforming herself instead into The Queen Who Was Promised at the center of a world-changing prophecy. Dorian has raw magic, which is the best magic because it can take any form. The Thirteen are the best Ironteeth coven.
Rhys is the most powerful High Lord in all of history (how was that measured, by the way?). Cassian and Azriel are the most powerful Illyrians, needing seven Siphons each instead of just one. Morrigan was the most powerful in the Court of Nightmares.
Do you see how tiring it gets? Why does everyone have to be the absolute best? Why can’t someone be just average? Why can’t someone be bad at something? It begins to strain incredulity when everyone is the unquestioned, utmost best.
Along these same lines are her cringy sex scenes. In trying to make the sex sexy (which… it really should do of its own accord), she uses strange language that borders on hilarity. Suddenly, he is “sheathing” himself into her or “feasting” on her. All the character’s focus is on “that bundle of nerves at the apex of [her] thighs” (when it would take far less words to just say clit).
In fact, her parts are either referred to in those hifalutin terms or the vague “me” and “inside.” Meanwhile, his parts are declared “proud” (whatever that means) or the now infamous “velvet-wrapped steel” (which sounds incredibly painful, by the way). Disregarding the feminist implications (which could be an essay unto themselves), the language just comes across as confusing.
Instead of focusing on the intimate connection between two people deeply in love (which would make it sexy), Maas insists on using uncomfortable euphemisms that will leave you either laughing or deeply concerned (Rhys once asked Feyre if he should consume food or her first and… that is not how going down on someone works, kids (Also, ignore whatever it means that when Feyre declares she chose “wisely,” I immediately thought “oh, she chose the food.).).
And again, along those same lines, characters will sometimes make Big Declarations to declare their intentions or character growth. These are the ones most likely to get you to roll your eyes. I don’t need grandiose language to know these characters have grown. The story will show me. It comes across as a bit heavy-handed, making sure you know these characters Will Not Be Held Down Anymore. There’s a fine line when writing these statements and it usually comes down to how often they’re used. And in Maas’ case… it’s a lot.
And this, of course, brings me to the other issue I have with her writing style: the repetition. After you’re read a few Maas books, you realized she has a few favorite words and phrases. This includes but is not limited to: reek(ing), x incarnate, eyes lined with silver (also a melodramatic, pretentious way to say crying!), made an obscene gesture, purred, snorted, and, of course, male. I never thought I’d say this, but Maas could really use a thesaurus.
This repetition often extends to plot (for example, A Court of Mist and Fury and Empire of Storms have essentially the same ending). Make a drinking game of any one thing Maas is notorious for overusing, and you’ll be in the hospital for alcohol poisoning.
I will say quickly of plot… Maas tends to lose control of it after three books. But this ultimately comes back to the melodrama and hyperbole because it’s always to make everything Bigger and More Complicated.
Also, it should be noted that Maas has plagiarized lines from other stories, which is a big no-no for writers. “Rattle the stars” comes from Treasure Planet, while “to whatever end” comes from Lord of the Rings (which I find it hard to believe Maas wouldn’t know, as she’s admitted Rowan is her own personal fulfillment for her teenage fantasies of Legolas).
She tweaked a line from Harry Potter, having Rhys proclaim, “Light can be found even in the darkest of hells” (far too similar to the original, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”). And, you’ll never believe this, “velvet-wrapped steel” is a reworking of a line from none other the Fifty Shades of Grey (the original line reading “steel wrapped in velvet”). And, if I’m going to talk about her writing style, I have to acknowledge where she actually pilfered phrases.
Despite all this (and a tendency to rely on tropes), Maas does have very real potential and underlying skill as a writer. And I can see how some would like her writing style as it is. Millennials and Generation Z love to be melodramatic and hyperbolic. And though we usually use it ironically, perhaps it strangely fits in a fantasy setting such as the ones Maas has created. And her worlds and characters do have a lot of appeal. Ultimately, the only real conclusion I can come to is that Maas’ writing style is not for me. It’s exhausting and tedious, but sometimes, sometimes, it’s worth the pay off.
9 thoughts on “The Words that Built the Story: A Study of Sarah J. Maas’ Writing Style”
i disagree STRONGLY
How would you describe her writing style?
Is this the first YA or fantasy series you’ve read? I’ve seen “sheathing” and “feasting” used A LOT in novels. Reading may not be for you if you can’t appreciate WORDS themselves. For example, saying “clit” is SO drab and boring. Enjoy a story and don’t feel so angry if the author’s imagination is far above your own plain and bland descriptions of what you see and experience in life!
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No, not at all the first YA or fantasy series I’ve read. Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of smut but if this is what it’s like, I’ll pass.
I’ve actually studied writing for years, which is why I started this series on my blog in which I study different writers’ writing styles. Personally, I don’t care for Maas’. I love a good metaphor, but these aren’t good metaphors.
Honestly, I’m often too wordy myself. That’s why I know it can be a weakness in writing. Sometimes it’s more effective to use one or two words, rather than many.
All of that said, please refrain from personal attacks when you comment on my blog. It’s okay to disagree with me, but it’s not okay to attack me personally over critique I’ve offered on an author’s writing style. I never talk about Maas personally, so I expect that same level of respect from others. I understand it can be hard to not take critique of a favorite author personally, but it’s not personal.
If you are interested in more of my thoughts on writing style, I’ve written posts about many other authors, including V.E. Schwab, Cassandra Clare, Neil Gaiman, and Laini Taylor. I write this series because I’m interested in studying and discussing different writing styles. It’s fun for me. And maybe by reading my other posts, you’ll develop an appreciation for dissecting writing styles too, even if we don’t always agree. Thanks for reading!
I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. I read a Court of Thorns and Roses a few years ago and gave up on her as a writer until a coworker recommended her to me again and said it gets better. I think it does get better into book two but it was a slog getting there and book two really only captured me in the last 25%.
SJM tries to create a mood or a feeling or a sense of things, but always by telling us, never by implication. As a reader, I like to feel like I should be able understand what’s going on between the lines as well as what’s actually described, but she puts it all out there right in the lines and leaves us very little depth to plumb after a first read.
My coworker also recommended Throne of Glass, and I’m disappointed to hear her obsession with the word ‘male’ hasn’t gone away. If she used it once or twice to make her characters seem more virile or masculine or animalistic I’d be fine with it, but nine times out of ten I feel like there’s a better, more effective word or phrase she could have used instead. Her writing seems to lack in depth and subtlety and I constantly have to remind myself to suspend my disbelief.
When I find myself mentally editing a book in my head to make it readable…it’s not a good sign.
I just wanted to add that “like calls to like” was plagiarized from Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy. She uses it so much in ACOSF and in a previous book in the trilogy I don’t remember but I looked at publication dates and Leigh’s definitely came first and Sarah reviewed it on goodreads saying some really complementary things so I’m pretty sure she just lifts Big Important Phrases from successful books and tries to pass them off as her own.
“like calls to like” is a variation on “like attracts like” which is a concept in chemistry. as far as i’m aware, leigh bardugo did not invent chemistry, so i don’t think that counts as plagiarism.