Sarah J. Maas, the author of <i>House of Flame and Shadow</i>, surrounded by fans at Book Club Bar in Manhattan. Credit - Evan Angelastro for TIME
It’s 9:30 on a freezing Monday night in January and there’s a line stretching down the block outside of the Book Club Bar in the East Village of Manhattan. The occasion: a midnight release party for fantasy author Sarah J. Maas’ new book, House of Flame and Shadow, the third entry in her Crescent City series. The twist—there’s always a twist where Maas is concerned—Maas is on her way to surprise the throng of almost exclusively female fans willing to wait in the cold for a chance to get their hands on her book the minute it becomes available.
For the occasion, Maas wears a glittering black Valentino skirt that calls to mind the motif of starlight that plays throughout her books. When she enters through the shop’s front door around an hour later, fans are so busy sipping on themed drinks (like the sparkling purple White Raven’s Special) and getting ready for a round of trivia that, at first, she goes relatively unnoticed. There are a few stunned gasps. Then the cheering begins.
“I feel like this will go down as one of the best nights of my life,” a beaming Maas tells me as we catch up at the second stop of the evening, a Barnes & Noble where she will count down to midnight with an even bigger crowd (some of whom are decked out in full Crescent City cosplay, including flowing wigs and pointed fae ears). “There’s such a positive energy.’”
If it sounds a little corny, it’s hard to blame her for being caught up in the moment. After all, so much has led up to it: Maas has already sold more than 38 million copies of her books worldwide. She is a titan of fantasy fiction, with three best-selling series—Throne of Glass, A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR), and Crescent City—that are a driving force behind the meteoric rise of a whole new subcategory in the genre: romantasy, a portmanteau for “romantic fantasy” that has exploded in popularity over the past year. On BookTok, the reader-centric corner of TikTok that has become an increasingly powerful force in the publishing industry, Maas’ novels are a viral phenomenon. The #ACOTAR hashtag alone boasts over 8.5 billion views on the app, with users touting everything from podcasts breaking down complex plot points to fitness challenges to tattoos to immersive in-person events inspired by the series. Demand for Maas’ books has surged in response, with her publisher, Bloomsbury, announcing in October that sales of her work had increased by 79% in the first half of 2023—a boost for the publishing house that’s been described as akin to the “Harry Potter effect.”
“My fans are a force of nature,” Maas, 37, tells me as we talk over Zoom in the days leading up to the new book’s release. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
She’s reached a critical point both in her career and her writing—a direct crossover between two of her three distinct fantasy worlds that grounds her 15-plus books within one overarching multiverse. It’s an ambitious move that feels like it could be the start of something totally new, like when Samuel L. Jackson showed up at the tail end of Iron Man, except these are book series with werewolves, angels, and preternaturally attractive fairies. It’s a massive moment for Maas, and the publishing industry, and not without risk—her book is sure to be a best-selling blockbuster, but there’s the ever looming question of what comes next. Can she continue to top her own success?
It’s also something that the author’s fervent fanbase has been greatly anticipating. As the clock inches closer to 12 on the eve of House and Flame and Shadow’s release, the excitement surrounding the expansion of the Maas-verse is palpable, and seems to make one thing abundantly clear: as long as her readers have anything to say about it, Maas is here to stay.
Amid the dystopian novel craze of the early 2010s, Maas’ brand of fairy tale-inspired high fantasy was a boon for the ever-evolving young adult fiction scene (both Throne of Glass and ACOTAR were originally shelved as YA, despite controversy over the series’ explicit sexual content). But after eight Throne of Glass books and four ACOTAR installments, Maas made her first true foray into adult fantasy (where she has since remained) with the 2020 publication of Crescent City book one, House of Earth and Blood. At that point, Maas had already decided the series’ second book, 2022’s House of Sky and Breath, would end with its human-fae hybrid heroine Bryce Quinlan making a magic-fueled jump into the world of ACOTAR.
“For years and years, I had sprinkled little hints throughout all of my books that they were part of a megaverse,” Maas says. It proved a savvy move from a reader perspective, prompting deep rabbit holes of fan theorizing on Reddit and TikTok. “Then, when I started writing Crescent City, I had this idea out of the blue that, bam, this is the moment. I just felt like, ‘I can f-cking do this. It’s going to be amazing.’”
But getting the first Crescent City installment over the finish line was no easy feat. In 2019, around a year after her son Taran, now 5, was born, Maas began experiencing increasingly frequent panic attacks. “I was having such rampant anxiety and depression that it was devouring me,” she says. “That was probably the lowest point in my life, both emotionally and creatively.”
She started going to therapy—which she describes as an ongoing process that’s changed her life—and poured her mental health journey into the most recent ACOTAR novel, which was published in 2021. “When I wrote A Court of Silver Flames, I was in the very earliest stages of my own climb out of a pit of despair,” she says, tearing up at the memory. “So I crawled out of that pit alongside [the book’s protagonist] Nesta.”
More From TIME
Maas’ emotional vulnerability is reflected in her writing and is a big part of what keeps her readers coming back. Ahead of her arrival at Book Club Bar, I spend some time mingling with the night’s attendees, who are ready and willing to tell me all about why they love her work. “Sarah embraced the fact that Nesta was struggling and didn’t shy away from that,” one fan, 34-year old Briana Oliver, tells me of A Court of Silver of Flames (second only in her personal Maas ranking to perennial favorite A Court of Mist and Fury, book two in the ACOTAR series). “Nesta going through this depression and finding solace in books was very relatable. She doesn’t need to be anything other than who she is.”
Many of Maas’ readers, or “Maassassins” (these days, a fanbase isn’t a fanbase if it doesn’t have a quippy name), are relative newcomers to her work. I hear from several fans who say they first picked up one of her books in the last few years, with some citing the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic as the catalyst for the start of their Maas-verse journey. But there are recurring themes that run throughout their stories—that Maas reinvigorated their love for reading, or validated their affinity for the fantasy genre, or made them feel less alone. In a genre historically dominated by male authors, that’s no small thing.
“I've read a lot of fantasy, most of it written by men,” 29-year-old Jackie Montalvo tells me. “Men’s writing doesn’t always do it for me. So to read a series written by a woman and see the difference fills me with happiness and joy.”
Alongside her more recent devotees, Maas also has fans who were cheering her on long before she was a published author. In 2002, Maas, then 16, began uploading chapters of what would eventually become her debut novel, Throne of Glass, to the once-thriving online writing forum FictionPress. The story—a loose retelling of Disney’s Cinderella in which the heroine is a deadly assassin rather than a damsel in distress—became one of the site’s most popular submissions and earned Maas a significant following.
“The people who read the earliest versions of Throne of Glass made me realize the world and characters meant something to someone other than me,” she says. “That was so encouraging as a young writer.”
Her inclination toward the endless possibilities of the fantasy realm took root early. “I'd loved fairy tales since I was a kid. Then I discovered there were fairy tales for grown-ups” she says, naming authors Garth Nix and Robin McKinley as two of her early inspirations. “That opened something in my mind, heart, and soul. I realized I not only loved stories like that, I wanted to write stories like that.”
Under the working title of Queen of Glass, Maas went on to share rough drafts of what was later revised and turned into the first three books in her Throne of Glass series. With her FictionPress readers urging her on, she then pulled her work from the site in 2008 to pursue traditional publication. “That support kept me going,” she says. “I knew there was an audience out there for this book.”
Bloomsbury acquired Throne of Glass in 2010 and the first book in the series hit shelves in 2012. Two more installments followed in quick succession, each climbing higher on the New York Times’ best-seller lists. But it was the 2015 debut of ACOTAR, originally marketed as a darker reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, that would propel Maas’ success to new heights. In addition to the series’ popularity online—where fans gush over its strong female leads, steamy romances, and trio of Fae-warrior love interests (affectionately known as the “Bat Boys”)—a TV adaptation co-written by Maas is currently in development at Hulu.
When it comes to the romance aspect of her romantasy tales, Maas doesn’t skimp on what the genre’s fans refer to as “spice.” But her on-page love stories largely strike a chord because of the deep emotional connections that underlie her characters’ physical attraction to each other. “Romance isn’t usually my thing,” 25-year-old Isabella Scala says of her preferred genres. “But these books are my escape.”
Maas attributes her ability to craft male characters who appeal to so many of her female readers to the relationship she has with her husband, Josh, who she’s been with since she was 18 and with whom she shares two children, Taran and 2-year-old Sloane. As Maas chats with me from her New York City home office, Josh briefly interrupts our video call to bring her a matcha latte. On release night, he’s by her side smiling and fielding questions from fans throughout the evening.
“I'm really blessed to have someone who treats me like an equal and celebrates all my successes,” she says. “The baseline standard is that these males respect and cheer for the women in their lives, and know that they're these incredible people who deserve to feel special and loved.”
For all her focus on the way her books make her readers feel, not all of them have felt seen by the work. Over the years, Maas has drawn fire from those who say her books lack diversity or feature characters of color and LGBTQ characters who exist only in relation to white, heteronormative protagonists. “I'm constantly learning and trying to do my best,” Maas says of the criticism, noting that she now employs sensitivity readers to help ensure respectful representation. “When I make a mistake, I learn from it. I want my writing to be reflective of how diverse my fantasy worlds are and for every person who picks up my books to feel seen and welcome.”
Nearly 12 years—and many thousands of pages—into her career as a published author, the appetite Maas’ readers have for her work is seemingly insatiable. And the book world has taken note. In March 2023, Maas signed a new four-book deal with Bloomsbury on top of a pre-existing three-book contract that included House of Flame and Shadow. It would be shocking if announcements of more TV and film adaptations don’t follow in due course.
Even with her new title mere hours away from release, a faction of the Book Club Bar crowd is already thinking about the future of the Maas-verse rather than wondering if the long-awaited crossover will play out as they’ve hoped. Some variation of “please write faster” is a common refrain when I ask what they would tell Maas if they ever got the chance to talk to her.
Later, when Maas is surrounded by fans still reeling from her surprise arrival, it seems clear from the adoring looks on their faces that’s ultimately not what they’ve decided to share with (or demand of) her. But it’s all in keeping with what defines this symbiotic relationship—they trust her to carry their favorite stories forward just as she trusts them to continue returning to her characters and worlds.
“I want my readers to come away from my books with the knowledge that they can fight for what matters to them,” Maas says. “My books have happy endings. They’re supposed to be hopeful.”
Write to Megan McCluskey at email@example.com.