The Crescent City series marks bestselling young adult author Sarah J. Maas’s first foray into adult contemporary fantasy and it definitely takes advantage of its newfound narrative freedom to tell a darker, gritter sort of story. And, to be clear, it often feels as though this is the space Maas was born to write in, one that’s full of the same intricate world-building and feisty heroines that were the hallmark of her young adult novels, but mixed with darker themes, more explicit violence, and plenty of morally gray characters whose motivations can’t always be trusted.
But where the series’ first installment, Crescent City: House of Earth and Blood, spent a lot of time introducing us to this sprawling new world of Midgard and the variety of beings—from humans and shapeshifters to mer folk, angels, and witches—-that inhabit it, it was still primarily concerned with the story of Bryce Quinlan, a half-human, half-Fae young woman whose determination to solve the brutal murder of her best friend drove much of the story. In House of Sky and Breath,, Bryce finds herself plunged deeper into the history and politics of Midgard and the series’ world expands by an order of magnitude as a result.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that House of Sky and Breath isn’t perfect. Its sprawling scope encompasses nearly a dozen main characters with multiple romances and competing narrative threads and its story is so complicated it manages to make the novel’s eight-hundred-plus page count feel like it’s somehow not quite long enough. Its ending is full of the sort of cliffhangers meant to drive readers mad with theories and speculation until the next book in the series arrives.
And, yet, it’s an exhilarating, propulsive read, full of all the action-packed adventure and steamy romance we’ve come to expect from Maas’ work, just with everything somehow turned up a notch. The book is massive, but you won’t feel most of its pages, and by the time you reach its end, you’ll be positively desperate for more.
In House of Sky and Breath, Bryce’s story is still very much center stage, as is her romantic relationship with former Fallen angel Hunt Athalar. (And trust me, when Maas said this sequel is “steamier” than its predecessor she was very much not kidding. Whew!) The pair are working toward defining a new normal for themselves in the wake of the events that closed House of Earth and Blood, from dealing with Bryce’s new abilities to anticipating the arrival of a new Archangel to replace the dead Michah Domitus and learning who they are as a couple without the threat of imminent death hanging over them.
As a heroine, Bryce remains as delightful as ever: spunky, surprisingly big-hearted, and loyal to those she loves. This installment delves a bit further into Bryce’s Starborn heritage, exploring the specifics of her growing powers and why various factions throughout Valbara (and beyond) are so interested in what she can do, and how they might harness those abilities for their own ends. Hunt, for his part, has plenty of self-discovery of his own to do in this story, as he must finally decide who he is—-and what he’s willing to fight for—now that he’s a free man once more.
But House of Sky and Breath also begins to unspool a much larger and more intricate tale that is something much bigger than the adventures of a college grad and her friends. The brewing rebellion against the god-like beings known as the Asteri (who claim to possess the power of the stars), mentioned mostly in passing during the first book and seemingly confined to a different continent, becomes a central narrative thread of this sequel as war creeps slowly closer to Lunathion itself. And, as a result, we learn more about the history of Midgard and what it might have been like before these powerful creatures arrived.
We’re also more fully introduced to many of the characters who only briefly appeared in House of Earth and Blood, and familiar faces like Ruhn Danaan, Ithan Holstrom, and Tharion Ketos are given arcs of their own that have nothing (or at least very little) to do with Bryce and their relationships between and among one another are given the chance to deepen and flourish.
Admittedly, however, House of Sky and Breath does feel very much like a novel that’s in the middle of things. The story ends with the fates of several characters left very much up in the air. Secrets are revealed left and right, and unexpected twists abound. The book’s size means it can feel as though it drags in places (I’m not sure any of us are as invested in the world of the River Queen and the politics of the Blue Court as Maas seems to think we are) and with so many more characters to service it can feel as though we don’t get enough time with our favorites as we might like. (For all the mystery surrounding women like Jesiba Roga or Fury Axatar in the first novel, neither gets much to do here.)
The story also lacks a bit of the emotional center that Bryce and Danika’s friendship provided in the first novel. Yes, despite having passed on, Danika’s presence is is still very much felt in House of Sky and Breath, but as Bryce slowly realizes that there were aspects of her friend’s life that she wasn’t aware of—and that quite frankly she didn’t have any reason to know—she starts to question how important their bond was. (Something which occasionally feels a bit silly given the events at the end of the last book.)
That said, every flaw in House of Sky and Breath will likely be erased by the book’s ending, the sort of gutsy, inevitably controversial storytelling twist that is either going to make fans utterly ecstatic or mildly furious. Reader, I am firmly in the former category—-my mouth not only hit the floor for the duration of the final fifteen or so pages, but I also cannot imagine the way this will all play out in Maas’ subsequent books to come. It’s maddening and exhilarating and nothing that I expected. And I loved it beyond all logic. I can’t wait to see where we go from here. Light it up, indeed.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.