Celeana Sardothien is the world's most notorious assassin at the tender age of 18. She's also been a slave in the salt mines of Endovier for a year, after being captured by the ruthless king of Adarlan.
After a year of grueling work in the mines, Celeana is given an offer she cannot refuse. The King is holding a competition to find a new Champion, and Crown Prince Dorian, in an attempt to piss off his dear old dad, picks the most famous assassin in the country. If Celeana beats the other 21 candidates and wins, she will receive a full pardon, serve as King's Champion for four years, and then be completely free, to do as she wishes. Chaol Westfall, the Captain of the Guards, and Dorian's best friend, thinks it's all a terrible idea, but has no choice but to go along with it. It's also his job to oversee her training.
So Celeana, even though she hates and fears the King greatly, agrees - as the option is being whipped and starved and slowly wasting away while slaving in the salt mines. If she fails to win, she'll be sent back to the mines. As the contest progresses, she starts making real friends for the first time in her life. Now she just needs to survive long enough to win the competition.
The ridiculous tagline on the cover of the book claims that Celeana has a heart of ice - she totally doesn't. Having seen her homeland conquered by the same King who sentenced her to seven lifetimes of slavery in the mines, and having her parents brutally murdered (I have theories as to who said parents were, although I suspect the author is saving that for later in the trilogy), then being raised by a merciless assassin to kill for money isn't exactly something that creates a trusting, hopeful and affectionate individual. The one person she learned to trust in the Assassin's Guild was killed before her arrest, and other attempts at forming friendships while training as a hired killer did not end well.
In the prequel novellas, Celeana starts out as quite dislikable, she's arrogant, prickly, condescending and vain. In the year that passes in the prequels, she develops and changes quite a lot, in part due to the training she receives in the desert, but mostly due to the influence of Sam Corland, her fellow assassin. She learns about friendship and trust and becomes more selfless and caring. Of course, not everyone is fond of her new-found sense of independence and benevolence, which is exactly what leads to her being betrayed, arrested and ending up in the salt mines. The Celeana of the book has had a long year to learn that she's not invincible and that it doesn't matter how skilled an assassin you are when chained and starved and enslaved. She knows how precious freedom is, which makes her all the more determined never to return to the mines.
The book features somewhat of a love triangle, with Dorian, the charming Crown Prince and Chaol Westfell, his best friend being the rivals for her affections. Maas does a good job establishing the female characters in the book, there's both a noblewoman who hates Celeana and wants to snare the Prince, and a foreign Princess at the court on a sort of diplomatic mission, who becomes Celeana's friend. Even the female attendant who takes care of Celeana is pretty well depicted. I wish the personalities of the two men were as clearly established.
Dorian comes across as rather spoiled and indolent, actually, drawn to Celeana mostly because she's new to him and different, and not one of the many noblewomen he's probably already flirted with and/or seduced. Because his father's plans for conquering and enslaving most of the established world are so cruel, it's no surprise that he seems reasonable because he's not really supportive of this, and ineffectually tries to stand up to the King occasionally. He's young, and talks to his mother about wanting to marry for love. There's quite a bit of talk about how horrible his younger brother is, but I still wish Maas had given us more concrete proof as to why we should root for him. The fact that he early on keeps teasing Chaol about his attachment to Celeana, but then swoops in and makes a move himself, also makes him come across as rather douchy.
The Captain of the Guards, Chaol, fares a bit better, but mostly because he gets more page time, so to speak. He's the one who trains her every day, and is slowly convinced that while she's trained in pretty much every deadly art, she's not actually a crazed killer out to assassinate the King, the Prince or other members of the court. Clearly a lot more reserved than his friend, he keeps being embarrassed when people question his growing feelings for the assassin, and once his friend the Prince makes a move, he loyally retreats. I get the impression that Maas is intending for him to be the winner of the two suitors, but this is the first book, and if the tropes of YA have taught me anything, nothing will be properly settled until the third and final volume.
I liked the prequels, and the book quite a lot. There's some very cool world building, and the author writes good, strong and diverse female characters. The main thing that annoyed me with the book is that there was an underlying mystery running parallel to the competition plot, where various contestants are brutally murdered and eviscerated, with their organs being eaten. I thought this was completely unnecessary, and would have liked the story better without it. Still, the next book is out on my birthday, and I'm interested in seeing what happens next.