A Court of Thorns and Roses: Prickly Feelings

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Court of Thorns and Roses (or ACTOAR, as it is fondly acronymed) is Sarah J. Maas's second offering in the way of YA fantasy. Before ACOTAR (and its sequels A Court of Mist and Fury and the upcoming A Court of Wings and Ruin), Maas was solely focused on her hugely popular Throne of Glass series, which currently sits incomplete at five full length novels and one collection of prequel novellas. I only managed to make it through the first book in that series, the titular Throne of Glass, and it was not a particularly enjoyable experience (see why here). Although the series likely gets better as it goes on, and the fact that it is so beloved by so many is certainly a testament to that, I have decided not to continue with it, and to give ACOTAR a try instead. Unfortunately, ACOTAR did not sweep me off my feet as it seems to have done for so many others, and as I wished (even willed) it to do for me. 

“I love you,’ he whispered, and kissed my brow. ‘Thorns and all.” 

ACOTAR tells the story of Feyre, a young huntress responsible for securing food for her impoverished family. After accidentally killing a faerie in wolf-form, Feyre finds herself bound to a magical contract of eternal imprisonment in the dangerous faerie lands of Prythian, specifically under the charge of Tamlin, a High Fae and Lord of the Spring Court.

ACOTAR functions on one level as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. While I like this aspect of the story, it also inevitably ends up ruining some of the twists. The trouble with fairytales is that we know how they end. The Beast aspect of the tale is also somewhat lost in this novel. For one, the beast-figure, Tamlin, is extremely attractive, as all High Fae are. The curse in the original story is translated here as a mask that is permanently fixed onto his face, which is not something that alters his appearance in any way, other than maybe obscuring his nose. Tamlin is monstered by Feyre for the mere fact that he is Fae, which she deems as dangerous, due to their history of human enslavement. This horrific legacy, rather than a monstrous physicality, is what must be overcome by Feyre. I love this interpretation of the fairytale.

I was disappointed with pretty much the entire final third of the novel. I couldn't help but groan when Amarantha assigned three tasks for Feyre to complete while Under the Mountain. It felt very Throne of Glass to me, and that's not a good thing in my books. It is funny to see Anglo-Irish colonial history somewhat reversed, with Hybern (i.e. Ireland) containing evil tyrants and posing a terrible threat to Prythian (i.e. Britain). While some might find this 'problematic', I'm simply eager to see if Maas incorporates any Irish legends into the later books. Fingers crossed for banshees (but no leprechauns).

Regardless of his motives or his methods, Rhysand was keeping me alive.

One aspect of the novel that has deservedly received a lot of controversy is the character of Rhysand and his interactions with Feyre, which consist of multiple forms of abuse (notably physical and sexual). In short, Rhysand forces Feyre to wear revealing clothing at balls she attends with him, where he proceeds to drug her by means of faerie wine (i.e. getting her blackout-drunk) and subsequently has her perform very public lap dances for him. This becomes a routine. Feyre is constantly waking up with no memory of the previous night. Conveniently, Rhys has Feyre body-painted before each ball. When Feyre wakes up, she can see where she has been touched, due to the displacement of the paint, and where she has not been, due to its preservation. This is essentially a plot device that works to let Feyre know she has not been sexually assaulted. But, at least in my reading of the text, she has been.

Admittedly, I can be easily swooned by these bad-guy types, so I am hesitant to announce my disgust at fans' enjoyment of the pairing. As you might have guessed, I'm very interested in the mythology of Persephone, and Sarah J. Maas is clearly setting up Rhysand and Feyre as stand-ins for Hades and Persephone. This is one of the main reasons why I'm eager to read the sequel. The problem for me lies in the fact that Rhysand and his abusive behaviour is excused, even ultimately declared to be good, by Feyre. In doing so, Maas crossed the line from depicting abuse to condoning it.

“Her name is Feyre,” said the one in charge—the beast

And now for something much more trivial - names. While I know that Feyre is supposed to sound like ‘fay-ruh’ (thanks to the handy pronunciation guide provided), I remain unconvinced. This is mostly because I read the name simply as an ‘f’ in front of ‘eyre’ (as in Jane Eyre) and thus pronounced it in my head as ‘fair’. But there is also the small matter of distinguishing Feyre’s name from some of the other words that litter the text, namely faerie and fae. I initially wondered if Feyre was pronounced as faerie (fey-re), but decided that it was too ridiculous. While Maas’s pronunciation guide clarifies that it is not, the mere possibility that ‘fairy’ appears to be the protagonists name is no less ridiculous in my opinion. Moreover, the first syllable in (and dominant part of) her name is canonically homonymous with fae, the collective noun for a species that is in opposition to Feyre, a human. It blurs the difference in a way that was perhaps intentional, especially if we consider it as a kind of foreshadowing, but which ultimately just irritated me. I think I’ll give Maas the benefit of the doubt in this case, but I’ll also hold onto my head-canon pronunciation.

“Let me make this clear for you, girl: you can either come live at my home in Prythian—offer your life for the wolf’s in that way—or you can walk outside right now and be shredded to ribbons. Your choice.”

Something that irked me both in Throne of Glass and A Court of Thorns and Roses is the feeling that the plot only exists to place the female characters in situations where they will encounter men. This niggling feeling returned to me over and over again while I was reading ACOTAR. I'm wary of appearing disparaging towards romance plots and sub-plots, because I truly love them, but sometimes the main plot felt like a conceit. But this is just a feeling - I'll try to make my mind up when I read the sequel. I'm crossing my fingers that the new female characters (assuming there will be some) aren't just rivals for male attention and/or brick walls for Feyre to talk at (i.e. Alis).

To end on a positive note, there are aspects of ACOTAR that I admired. I liked that Feyre's sexuality was not simply lying dormant until she met Tamlin; she was not a virgin, and her sexual history was dealt with in a refreshingly realistic way. I enjoyed Feyre's sisters, especially in their second appearance, though I wish they had featured more throughout the novel. Maas's worldbuilding was not only executed expertly but was also very intriguing. I want to know more about Prythian's various courts and all its inhabitants, Fae or otherwise.

However positively I wish to end this review, those uncertain feelings still remain. There was something 'off' with this book for me that went beyond the Rhysand controversy. My prickly feelings won't stop me from reading, at the very least, ACOMAF and, most likely, the upcoming ACOWAR. The fact that I have written this is evidence enough that I care deeply about this series.

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