In keeping with my resolution to read more, I finally got around to reading the viral fantasy sensation, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. Please note that this will contain spoilers and discussions of sexual assault.
I really struggled to get through this, but I’d like to start with what I really liked about the book. It started off interestingly enough; we’re introduced to our protagonist, Feyre, and her family and their miserable circumstances. Inciting incident is that she kills a wolf who ends up actually being a fae whose master comes to find out who killed it. Feyre is then whisked to the Spring Court, supposedly ‘a life for a life’.
I knew this was a romance series so I knew where the plot was going, but one thing I really enjoyed about ACOTAR was how Maas subverts our expectations. The last third of the book was unexpected, so much so that a friend was urging me to keep reading to make it to the good bit. I’m glad I did, but it was quite difficult to read. Maas’s command of writing is powerful and the book being in first person means we’re well and truly immersed in the torture that Feyre is about to endure.
Maas manages to create a haven for Feyre in the first half of the book, something I think we’d all love. Spring is my favourite season so the idea of living somewhere eternally in spring, with blooming flowers and bright meadows of lush, green grass really appealed to me and I could see how Feyre easily fell in love with the Spring Court and its High Lord, Tamlin. However, Maas’s writing then also guts us. Everything Feyre loves is ripped away from her, she’s forced under a claustrophobic, dark mountain and forced to endure torment, humiliation and trials in order to free Tamlin and the rest of the Fae. I really felt Feyre’s pain and struggled through these chapters and whilst it shows masterful writing, I doubt I’ll be able to reread it again because of this.
The scenes where Rhys humiliates and drugs her were the hardest to endure. I’ve always said that I rarely see sexual assault and rape necessary in entertainment. It often just feels exploitative and there for the shock value rather than adding anything necessary to the plot or characters. Or worse yet, it’s used to make (usually a female) protagonist feel empowered and ‘give them something to fight for’ whilst rarely acknowledging the lifelong trauma they will endure because of it.
Whilst Feyre is not raped, she is painted and then dressed in what is essentially translucent lingerie, drugged and made to be Rhy’s ‘companion’. We do learn that this is the lesser of the two evils and Rhys never touches her anywhere other than her wrists or waist, but the scenes are so uncomfortable. You feel Feyre’s humiliation and hopelessness as she eventually comes to yearn for the drugs, just to escape her circumstances for a few hours. Meanwhile Tamlin does nothing.
I wanted to throttle Tamlin during this last third. I get that the villain, Amarantha, wanted to get a reaction from him, but it’s so infuriating seeing Feyre endure so much whilst he just watches. But when he does finally steal a few moments with Feyre, instead of asking how she is, consoling her etc, he tries to make a move on her! No ‘thank you Feyre for all you’re doing’, ‘you can do this Feyre, we’re here for you’. Nothing but nearly screwing the entire thing up.
I’m not going to lie, by the end of the book I loved Rhys more than Tamlin. Tamlin always felt like he needed to protect Feyre, but as soon as he couldn’t, he gave up. Rhys empowered her to fight, healed her and protected her from the worst of Amarantha’s ire.
A few characters stood out amongst the cast. Alis, Lucien and Rhys were definitely amongst my favourites. Feyre’s sisters were definitely amongst my least. They were so snotty and self-entitled that I just couldn’t get to grips with them. I don’t think we’re supposed to like them at the moment, but damn, they sucked.
Moving on to what kind of ruined the book for me, there are a few points that make me not want to reread ACOTAR anytime soon.
Firstly, I could not relate to Feyre at all! I empathized with her, feared for her and did actually care what happened to her, but she needs to grow a backbone! This book was so infuriating simply because Feyre refused to stick up for herself and allowed Tamlin to make decisions for her. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same in her position which is maybe why it annoyed me so much. I tend to read books with strong female mc’s who can fight their own battles or at least have a more active role in their story. I know it’s supposed to be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but I’d rather just watch the Disney film (animated of course). It felt like even Belle from the original film had more urgency and sense of self than Feyre.
Then we move on to Amarantha. I felt like the villain lacked motive. I get that power is motivation enough for some people, but Amarantha still answers to the King of Hybern so she’s not even really made it to the top of the food chain. She’s also not building powers to move against him so it really felt like she lacked an endgame plan besides being a bitch. She was cruel because the villain needed to be cruel.
There was also the case of the trials and the riddle. Why? I really didn’t understand why she agreed to them. If power is what Amarantha craved, why even risk the chance of someone beating her? I get that she’s old and powerful and underestimated the lowly human, but it annoyed me. What annoyed me more was the answer to the riddle being love and no one guessing it until just before Feyre died!
I’m aware that I’ve read many books and these sorts of tropes are commonplace, but the book is a romance, she’s under the mountain to retrieve her lover. What other answer would it be? And on that point, Feyre can’t work out the answer to the riddle is love until just before her neck is broken, but she can piece together that Tamlin has a stone heart from a few snippets of conversation and a very commonplace turn of phrase. It really didn’t make much sense at all.
Plus (spoilers for the series ahead), I knew Rhys would be her mate. I didn’t anticipate the circumstances in which she would find out, but as soon as he looked confused before he winnowed away, I knew. Whether it was intentionally predictable or not, it was still slightly annoying.
Just to wrap this negative section up, my last gripe was actually with the writing. I really do love Maas’s style of writing and her command of language but she really needs to find ways to express emotion other than ‘knees buckling’. Throwing a ‘vulgar gesture’ is another repetitive phrase. My editor's brain was wondering how her editors missed Feyres knees buckling every other page. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s repeated so much that repetitive phrases in Maas’s books are apparently quite a common complaint.
Overall I did enjoy reading ACOTAR, but it gets two stars from me. I doubt that I’ll reread it in the future and the end being a bit predictable really brought down my rating. I see why people love it and I’m excited to continue the series.