“When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.
As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it…or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.” – blurb from the author’s website.
I picked up this book in part because a stranger commented on one of my book posts on Instagram and recommended it in response to my picture full of Tamora Pierce books and caption that said “Tell me about your favorite feminist YA fantasy novels.” I don’t think A Court of Thorns and Roses bears much similarity to Tamora Pierce’s books beyond the protagonist being a woman and her love life being relevant to the plot. I don’t think I would call this book feminist, either, beyond the degree to which most romance novels where the woman makes it out alive are just a little bit feminist by virtue of not fatally punishing women for having desire. But here, the protagonist is thoroughly punished for her love, and there are no women in positions of power that aren’t sadist basket cases. So if you’re looking for something like Tamora Pierce, I’d say skip this book.
The other reason I read this book is that a couple of friends had mentioned that they read a lot of romance (and romance-adjacent) novels and enjoyed this series. And in response to some of my complaints about the book detailed below, one of them said “I don’t think you’re supposed to think this hard you’re just supposed to think about the attractive fae specimens,” which is totally fair. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, by all means, read away.
Before I start discussing the content, let me just say that the cover design for the edition I bought is fantastic. Love the art, love the font, love the loud colors and the layout. A++ cover and part of why I went ahead and bought the book. Now, let’s get into it.
This book felt to me like it was having an identity crisis about whether it wanted to be primarily a romance/erotica novel or primarily an action fantasy novel. This is not to say you can’t do both thoroughly and well; I believe that is possible (although I haven’t seen it). I’d say the romance writing was mildly successful, and Maas’s decision to complicate the dynamic in the last act by involving the anti-hero Rhysand with protagonist Feyre in various compromising scenarios was a good one. But in most of the scenes with primary love-interest Tamlin and Feyre, Maas attempted to play with the tension across several scenes, only to shyly gloss over the payoff in a sentence or two. Similarly, there was plenty of danger, mystery, and action throughout the story typical of a fantasy novel, but it was sloppily strung together with exposition speeches and time skips in place of character development, all set against a vaguely imagined world (it was unclear to me that there was anything to the world beyond what was shown on the map in the front of the book until at least halfway through). Both the romance and the story left me wanting more depth.
The characters in A Court of Thorns and Roses are pretty uninteresting and one dimensional. Feyre is the classic “I am good at everything and am going to do everything anyone tells me not to.” Most of the fae characters seem to be slight variations of three trait sliders: hateful, snarky, and flirty. Examples: Lucien is very snarky, low to medium hateful, and low flirty. Amarantha is max hateful, medium snarky, zero flirty. Tamlin is all over the place depending on what the readers’ boner and the plot needs of him. The only interesting character was Rhysand (and sometimes Lucien but Maas didn’t do much with him), whose motives were complex and personal and fed behavior that made sense for his character. Side note, if all the high fae in Prythian are immortal and super hot, why is everyone so hetero and monogamous?
I cannot remember a plot point in recent memory that I have been more annoyed by than the riddle in the last act of the book. It is so ridiculously easy that Feyre would have to be pants-on-head stupid to not get it regardless of her mental state at the time, especially because she had !!!more than two months!!! to think about it. Riddle below:
“There are those who seek me a lifetime but never we meet,
And those I kiss but who trample me beneath ungrateful feet.
At times I seem to favor the clever and the fair,
But I bless all those who are brave enough to dare.
By large, my ministrations are soft-handed and sweet,
But scorned, I become a difficult beast to defeat.
For though each of my strikes lands a powerful blow,
When I kill, I do it slow…”
In case you are also as dense as Feyre, the answer is “love.” It is simply inconsistent and poorly thought out to have the same character be stumped by such a simple riddle but also be able to figure out that Tamlin had a literal heart of stone and therefore wouldn’t die from being stabbed in the heart. She figures this out just by piecing together bits and pieces of clues she’d heard over the last several months, all in the heat of the moment after having just killed two innocent, otherwise immortal people. But in two months she can’t come up with the answer to a riddle that she knows was only given to her in the first place because she failed to break the Beauty-and-the-Beast-style curse on the Spring Court by telling Tamlin she loved him.
Speaking of Feyre killing two faeries, there’s a lot of gore, torture, and death in this book, hence the Saw comparison, but it has virtually no meaningful impact. None of the injuries that happen in the present of the story persist because of faerie healing (or in the most gruesome torture case, faerie transformation; hence the Twilight comparison), and no one who dies is a named character or anyone that readers have any emotional investment in. The blood and gore feels like it’s just there for shock value, but the author seems unwilling to truly shock us with something consequential.
Lastly, Maas’s sentence-level writing killed me. I just now flipped through the book for about a minute looking for a page with no em dashes–this kind–and could not find any. I want to run a text analysis script on this book to count the words-to-em-dashes ratio. There were also a ton of ellipses, and between Maas’s overuse of both, her writing was often stilted or confusing. Maas mostly uses the dashes for Feyre to interrupt herself in her constant deluge of over-explaining narration. In a lot of cases, the dashes are simply unnecessary or could easily be replaced by commas. She recycles several off-putting or eyebrow-raising phrases like “chills spider-walked down my spine” and “my bowels turned watery” and “my bones barked,” and describes the fae mostly in terms of muscle tone, “male body,” and tanned or “sun-kissed” skin. I would like to fight with her editor.
Why did I finish this book if I had so many complaints? Part of it is because it’s useful to read things I don’t like to completion to learn more about my own preferences. Another part was that I was holding out hope that the last act would make the rest worth it. Yet another part is that in a way it’s reassuring for my own hopes to return to writing: if this book that I for the most part think is not a very good book can be so popular and sell so well, maybe I don’t need to worry so much about the requisite skill and artistic vision of what I would want to write and instead focus on just getting something out there. And the last reason I finished it is that I wanted to see where else the steamier parts might go.