ONCE UPON A TIME, Sarah J. Maas was a 16-year-old girl in a big city dreaming of faraway, picturesque places. The hustle and bustle of Manhattan was no bother to her, not when she had the distraction of her imagination. She listened to music when walking to school or taking the bus ... and sure, pop songs by the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys were in her rotation (she was a child of the 1990s, after all). But the main soundtrack of her daydreams was classical.
The score of Disney’s “Fantasia” enchanted her. So did the sounds of the 1950 animated version of “Cinderella.” She couldn’t stop thinking, though, about the hurried violins and anxious horns that tracked the princess’s exit from the ball. It sounded so ... threatening.
“Just for a chick who’s leaving the party?” she wondered. Surely there was a different story that would better fit the frenetic energy of that score. “What if she was a thief?” she thought. “What if she was an assassin who just tried to kill the prince?”
Cinderella, she believed, could be a little more dangerous, a little more complex. So that 16-year-old girl began writing a book inspired by the Cinderella tale her mind had spun. She called it “Queen of Glass.”
Teenagehood led to adulthood, as it does, but all the while, Maas kept working on that idea. Even through college: Between ages 16 and 22, she drafted a series of four or five books ... before scrapping them all to start fresh. She’d grown as a writer, she knew. But she remained focused on her dream: “Even if it took me until I was 90 years old, I just wanted one book to publish. That would be it.”
It didn’t take until 90. Maas published her first book — “Throne of Glass,” a slight tweak to her original title — at 26. Then she turned it into a series of seven more novels. And then her mind kept spinning with even more stories; a second series, “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” came next, and a third, “Crescent City,” followed.
The once 16-year-old is 37 now, and the stories that began as figments of her imagination have gone on to sell more than 38 million copies around the world. And Sarah J. Maas is just getting started.
NOW, OUR STORY CONTINUES in the present: At this particular moment, I am sitting with Maas in New York, that big city that raised her where she currently lives with her family.
We’re in a midtown Manhattan cocktail bar with TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager for a broadcast and digital conversation with Maas about her latest romantasy, “House of Flame and Shadow.” The latest installment of her “Crescent City” series, out Jan. 30, is her 16th book — and perhaps her most anticipated.
Inside this lush, dimly lit bar, I picture imaginary patrons — there aren’t any at 11:30 a.m. on a Wednesday — huddled intimately in its burgundy booths, faces silhouetted in candlelight while whispering secrets beneath dimmed chandeliers. It’s exactly the place to talk to the author of dark and twisted fantasies.
Excuse me: romantasies, as readers have come to christen the genre that combines romance and fantasy fiction.
I’ll tell you three things about romantasy: First, a romantasy is marked not only by its elements of romance and fantasy, but by its specific anatomy: [a girl] from [a kingdom/world] must save it with help from [a love interest] who begins as her [friend/enemy/forbidden lover/suitor by force]. It usually contains “steam” or “spice” or “smut.” It’s usually labeled new adult, for readers in their late teens or 20s.
Second, romantasy has largely become a mammoth of a genre thanks to BookTok, the corner of TikTok where readers thrive. BookTok is a mighty place, with 220 billion views on TikTok to date and an ability to thrust authors to the top of bestseller lists.
And third, one cannot talk about romantasy without talking about Sarah J. Maas.
For her TV sitdown, Maas is perched on an upholstered stool across from Jenna beneath beaming lights erected at the bar’s center. As the cameras roll, I’m marveling at Maas’ clothing: She’s in Gucci, a checkered tailored jacket with a matching mini skirt. Her boots — black, knee-high, patent leather — are stilettos that make me gasp in envy.
And she is enthusiastically telling Jenna how “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” influenced her.
“That was one of the first times I saw a teenage girl getting to not only save the world, but also be a teenage girl. She would fight the vampires, fight the monsters, but then she still was wanting to go to prom,” Maas says. “I’ve always been drawn to writing women that can’t be placed in any definable category. … They can be very feminine, but then also go kick the you-know-what out of the bad guy and save the world and look good doing it.”
But even before Buffy, there were books that opened her door into fantasy, she says, like Garth Nix’s “Sabriel” and Robin McKinley’s “The Hero and the Crown.”
“Women fighting, slaying dragons — I had no idea that such things existed,” she says.
Maas’ own heroines are fighting and slaying and, indeed, looking good while doing it. They’re falling in love, too, because this is romantasy.
Maas has been publishing books in her three series since 2012, when “Throne of Glass” first debuted. But BookTok, a community that began thriving during the pandemic, helped her become publishing royalty. She is the most popular author on TikTok, according to a 2021 study. “A Court of Thorns and Roses,” specifically, is a BookTok darling, with over 8.5 billion views on the #ACOTAR tag.
Now, I could certainly try to explain what “ACOTAR” and all of Maas’ other books are about. I’d start by saying that they have these magical people called the Fae and journeys through womanhood that are heartbreaking and triumphant. And, of course, I’d say that there’s love and sex.
A lot of sex.
But the truth is, whatever I say couldn’t possibly honor the magic and wonder these books bring to its readers. There’s a secret sauce Maas has that the rest don’t, and the proof is in the vastness of the fandom. Her most dedicated fans are consumed by her material. This is a fantasy author with 1.5 million followers on Instagram. Her romantasy peers — Rebecca Yarros, who wrote the uber-popular “Fourth Wing,” and also Jennifer L. Armentrout, Carissa Broadbent, Caroline Peckham, Susanne Valenti, Stephanie Garber — haven’t yet passed the half-million mark.
“I’m sitting here today because of social media,” Maas tells Jenna. “I will admit, I’m not really on it that much, mostly because I need to focus on my children or my writing.”
Yes, she’s a mom now, too, of a 5-year-old son, Taran, and a 2-year-old daughter, Sloane. Parenting and working is a juggling act that she says she’s “figuring out as I go.”
“Before I had kids, I was writing two books a year, but I also had no social life. I was basically Gollum in my little writing cave,” she tells Jenna. “(For) all working parents, it’s a tough thing to have a job. You need to show up and focus on the job, but then to also be able to focus on your children — make sure they feel loved and safe and important in your life. And my kids bring me the most joy.”
When I sit down with Maas after her discussion with Jenna, I ask her about pioneering the romantasy genre. She might just be the queen of romantasy, I say.
This makes her cackle.
“I’m deeply honored that anyone would call me queen of anything, considering I spend most of my days covered in the fluids of my children,” she says. “But I think it is so wonderful that people have become aware of the joys of romance and fantasy all in one. That’s what I grew up loving to read. It’s what I always wanted to write.”
The following section has spoilers for the “Crescent City” series and its latest book, “House of Flame and Shadow.” Skip to the next section of this story to avoid.
MANY SJM FANS SAY that her romantasies are a majestic merger of this trio: the poetic romanticism of a Taylor Swift album, the extraordinary world-building of the “Harry Potter” series, and the jaw-dropping crossovers of the Marvel movies.
Fans of Maas exist on a spectrum: On one end are people who appreciate her exciting stories in a casual way; at the middle are folks more intrigued and perhaps currently on a journey through SJM’s catalog. And at the far end are those deeply obsessed with these books. (Can you guess which end of the spectrum I fall?)
For those on that far end, the easter eggs are everything. Placed in her books are little winks at people, places and things from her other franchises. Initially those little winks seemed just that — little winks. But then, in 2022, came the cliff-hanger ending of the book Maas last published, the second in the “Crescent City” series called “House of Sky and Breath,” when its heroine is dropped into the “ACOTAR” world. It set up a crossover event for Maas’ next book and, with it, readers reopening the case of whether the author had been plotting this all along.
I had to probe Maas about her planning process.
“For several years early on, I just idly loved the idea of little pieces from these worlds overlapping a little bit,” Maas says. “It wasn’t until about four or five years ago that I had this idea out of the blue: What if I took that to the next level? What if someone just went to another world? What would that be like? And once I had that idea, I saw the ending of ‘House of Sky and Breath.’”
Writing it was so emotional — “I was a mess,” she says — and the real ones get it: It cannot be understated just how much of a big deal that ending was.
I previously predicted that the next “Crescent City” book would be a “Captain America: Civil War” moment, meaning the title implies it’s a Captain America movie, but it’s actually more of an Avengers movie, where all your favorite characters have come together.
Having now read “House of Flame and Shadow,” I’m going to give a new Marvel comparison: This book is more of a “Spider-Man: Homecoming” moment, in that it is, indeed, a Spider-Man movie, but Iron Man and Happy are sometimes there, too. But, let’s remember that when Bloomsbury announced “HOFAS” in 2023, it also shared that Maas signed a new four-book deal in addition to the three books she already had under contract. So she has a whole lot of books coming.
In discussion with Jenna, Maas says she knows what four of those books will be about. Those releases are set up in what she calls a “taxiing position.”
The one she plans to publish next is in the “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series, she says, which already has five books. “I’m very, very excited about that one,” she adds.
As for the “Crescent City” series, the ending of “House of Flame and Shadow” feels, very much, like it could be the conclusion of these books. But in conversation with Jenna, Maas confirmed the “Crescent City” journey indeed will continue.
“You will have to wait a bit,” she says of the fourth book. “On the airport taxiing line, it’s a little down, but I know who the book’s about. I know the big ideas of what I want to happen.”
Later, back in the dimmed corner of the cocktail bar, Maas tells me more about her “taxiing line.”
“There’s one book that I’m going to be writing after this next ‘ACOTAR’ book that I’m very excited about. I’m not going to say what world it’s in. I’m not going to say anything,” she grins as she puts her palms up to me.
“It’s a story that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time,” she continues. “I think it’s going to be a very emotional book for me to write, just in terms of the world I’ll be writing and the characters that might pop up.”
Then she adds coyly, “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
While the newest “Crescent City” book indeed explores connections to “ACOTAR,” I clocked possible easter eggs that may indicate ties to her third series, too.
“The gates between worlds could open again, possibly to other places,” Maas tells me. “I’m not committing to anything. But I love the idea of being able to play in all three worlds.”
SARAH J. MAAS REALLY, REALLY loves a love story. She tells me this with a matter-of-fact shrug. “If books don’t have romance in them, it’s like …” she shakes her head. “I usually make it up. I’m like OK, then they fall in love after this, and they’re all happy, and they all have a thousand children.”
In Maas’ books, her characters have big-time, earth-shattering love stories. There are pairings her readers are riding for to the end. Side characters also have romances of their own, hetero and queer, that are just as magical.
It’s all very dreamy … and also, very steamy.
Here is where we briefly talk about the smut. Smut, for those new to it, is just a word for sex scenes — and Maas’ will leave you blushing. (Chapter 41 in “A Court of Silver Flames” — hello!) Maas jokes to Jenna that she sometimes can’t look her family members in the eye.
“One of the most mortifying moments of my career was, I think, after ‘A Court of Mist and Fury,’ my mother-in-law pulled me aside,” Maas says. “She goes, ‘Were all those scenes inspired by you and Josh?’ I wanted to just walk into traffic. I was like, ‘No, Linda, they are not.’”
Now, I glance at her husband, Josh, who has been present all morning for this shoot, never ceasing to beam at his wife as he watches her being interviewed for national television.
These two, they are in love — and I suspect it’s in the big-time, earth-shattering way. They met when Maas was a freshman at Hamilton College and her future husband watched her get out of the car on move-in day. He was a junior, a resident assistant, and they started dating shortly after disclosing their romance to the residential offices. They married in 2012.
“I am lucky enough to have a partner that I’ve literally grown up with. I’ve been with him for over half of my life now,” Maas tells Jenna. “He was my first boyfriend, my first anything. This sounds very cheesy to say — but I think I can write about true love because I get to live that every day, and have someone that supports me and cheers for me, and is just rooting for me, and isn’t threatened in any way by my success.”
In Maas’ fantasy worlds, love interests often exist as fated “mates,” with invisible strings between them that are powerful and often poetic. Readers can see the literary metaphors, like complementary powers between two characters. But other times, there are no metaphors, with their connection initially seeming random.
“Sometimes, I will write a scene with two characters that I’ve planned for them to get together, and then they have no …” She shakes her head slightly at me. “It’s like holding two dolls and being like, now kiss! And they won’t. … And then sometimes a different character will walk in and they will just” — she snaps.
“It feels like magic in a way where, as much as I tried to plot out things years in advance, I let my characters guide a story. And they usually wind up with the people that they need to be with and who offer them the most growth and joy.”
I go the philosophical route with my next question: We’re talking about fate here, but at what point is a character the agent of their own fate? What happens if someone rejects their mate? (Listen, if I were Fae and I didn’t like my mate, whatever God chose for me is not my business.)
“That’s something I find to be very interesting,” she replies. “What if the forces that be put you with the wrong person? Or what if you just decide, eh, I’m not interested. … There’s a lot to explore within the concept of mates and your agency about it.
“I’m not going to say if I am exploring it in future books or not,” she continues, “but it definitely offers a wealth of things to explore with this concept of freewill and what is true love. Is it something that’s destined? Or is it something that you make? Is it both?”
SOME MAY CATEGORIZE MAAS’ books as “chick lit,” aka literature that appeals to women, but let’s take a moment to honor that. The girlies love their romance and their faeries. But you know what else they love? Sisterhood. Girlhood. And Maas has a fundamental understanding of what that means and truly looks like.
The mental and spiritual journeys of her female protagonists — through love and friendship and world-saving — are the bedrock of Maas’ stories. She tells me about “A Court of Silver Flames,” the latest “ACOTAR” book that follows a character named Nesta, whose biggest enemy of all is herself.
“When I reread that book, it’s very hard for me to go through because so much of Nesta’s journey was my journey. Not in a literal way, but I felt very similar to how she feels at points in that book,” Maas says. “When I reread it now, I feel sad for my past self. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, you were so mean to yourself, you were suffering so much.’”
She adds: “I feel very proud when I look at that book. And I feel proud for Nesta for going through that. And Nesta, when she gets to the end of that book, she’s not ‘perfect,’ she’s not healed. She’s still growing in the same way that I am still growing and learning about myself.”
From a young age, Maas has been acutely aware of that never ending spiritual journey. She conceived the “Throne of Glass” idea when she was just 16, but she knew enough about girlhood even then to believe Cinderella had much more of a story to tell.
“I always try to give a sense of hope in my stories. Not just hope for a happy ending, but also hope for growth and self love,” Maas says. “My heroines that I write about, they go through a lot, and I always want people reading my books to come away with joy and hope that tomorrow can be better. That tomorrow’s worth fighting for.”
Or, as Maas has written in her books: “There is a better world.”