Title: A Court of Thorns and Roses
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Length: 416 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¾
After killing a wolf in the woods outside her village, Feyre is ripped away from her miserable life with a crippled father and ungrateful sisters by a faerie who demands her life in exchange for the wolf’s. He takes her north of the wall that separates the mortal world from faerie realm of Prythian. Feyre slowly adjusts to her new life and, despite her lifelong hatred and mistrust of faeries, begins to warm to her companions–Tamlin and Lucien–after learning that she will never be able return to her home in the south. Yet the longer she spends in the faerie world, the more aware Feyre becomes that something is terribly wrong there. Prythian, she discovers, faces a threat that even its seven powerful High Lords cannot stand against.
Note: this review is mostly spoiler-free. I’ve included some spoilers in my Goodreads review.
I want to say something before starting my review: A Court of Thorns and Roses is marketed and published as YA, and its characters and plot do resemble those found in YA–but just to be clear, this book is not really YA. It includes strong language, fairly explicit sexual content, and a significant amount of violence, traumatic scenes, and scary imagery. I’ve read YA with dashes of all those things, but they pervade this story to a degree that I feel confident calling it an adult novel. I promise I’m not for parents censoring their children’s reading material…just for shelving adult books where they belong. If thirteen-year-olds find them there, that’s on them.
I may be one of the last people to finally read and review this retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” and the Scottish ballad “Tam Lin.” (That’s right, for those of you keeping score at home, this is the third “Tam Lin” retelling I’ve read this year. I swear I didn’t know that going in.) This review probably won’t say anything the rest don’t. Ah, well.
ACOTAR was a very uneven read for me. On one hand, I found Sarah J. Maas’ prose exquisitely rendered, though it did tend towards purple prose and over-description and, perhaps because of the first-person narration, became a little repetitive after a few hundred pages. Nonetheless, I would’ve kept reading for the lovely writing alone. I was also intrigued by the first several chapters. I went in somewhat blind, but got that it was at least “Beauty and the Beast”-inspired by the time a literal beast–later revealed to be the faerie lord Tamlin–broke down the door of Feyre’s cottage. I remained intrigued throughout the rather slow first half. It lost me a little after that, but the suspense and drama of the last fifty pages or so really redeemed the whole book for me.
The world-building is done well and is just original enough to work. I’ve been burned by so many YA fairy books that most of the fantasy elements in this one really satisfied me. The one thing that sort of thew me and disappointed me was the fact that the island on which Prythian is located is so obviously Great Britain. I mean…there’s even a neighboring “damp green” island called Hybern, as in Hibernia, the Roman name for Ireland. But I guess that’s okay.
I mean, Westeros is also just a fantasy version of Britain, right?
The characters leave a little to be desired. Feyre, the heroine and narrator, is cast from the Katniss Everdeen mold–the jaded, hungry poor girl whose self-sacrifice goes unappreciated by her family. I mean, Maas even makes her signature weapon a bow and arrow! (I’m still waiting for that unrealistic trend to get old.) Feyre’s plight is sympathetic, and I appreciated her passion for color and art as well as her bravery. But being stuck in her head got old after 400+ pages. She has a tendency to make extremely rash, uninformed decisions and her complete refusal (or inability?) to follow instructions or listen to advice lands her in some very sticky situations. I mean, when she’s told to lock her door and stay inside at all costs after she’s already encountered frightening, life-threatening things that have terrified and almost killed her…why wouldn’t she just do it? Why would she instead deliberately disobey because she’s pissy over not being invited to a party? I get it, we need a story–but surely Maas could’ve crafted a story that doesn’t rely so heavily on Feyre acting like such a dunce. While she is, at times, a very active heroine, she also has to be saved by others. Frequently. It frustrated me to no end. So did hearing her inner monologue and jumbled-up rambling thoughts, especially as she becomes increasingly self-depreciating and depressed towards the end. (Also, throughout the entire course of the novel, I have never–thank God!–read about a MC who is nauseous/almost sick/actually sick more than this one. She almost loses her cookies in nearly every chapter; I’m not exaggerating!)
So tl;dr, I wanted to like Feyre
and her silly name, but something about her didn’t jibe with me, or even feel very consistent. (For example, she goes from loathing and fearing faeries with every inch of her being–something she’s been taught to do since infancy–to thinking of Prythian as her home in the space of maybe six months.) She starts off strong and promising, and I wish she had been quicker to think on her feet and more resourceful than she really was.
Tamlin, the oh-so-creatively named Beast/Tam Lin character, never impressed me much either. Sure, he’s noble and good and concerned with the welfare of his people (and all people, in fact), but he seems a bit lacking in real personality. My favorite Tamlin moments are when he isn’t quite himself, when his feral, trickster side–the best part of any fae character, to be honest–comes out. They also talk him up as this “great legendary thing,” yet he never does much but growl and break tables. That’s part of the plot, of course, but it does make for a bit of a let-down. I also sort of wish Maas had picked a different name for him. After all, Feyre’s name is neither Belle nor Janet, the names of the heroines from the original tales being retold here!
I will say that Feyre and Tamlin do have great chemistry. It’s obvious within the first hundred pages that Tamlin will be the love interest, and call me crazy, but I never got a particularly creepy vibe from him. Knowing both stories, his duplicity in his courtship of Feyre didn’t surprise me. I mean…he’s a faerie, after all. (That, and in “Tam Lin” Janet doesn’t learn about the title character’s curse until she returns to Carterhaugh pregnant with his baby.) And yes, most of the “sexual content” I mentioned above comes from these two, and turn up the air-conditioning, because it gets steamy! They do face considerably fewer obstacles than the average Beauty and the Beast pair–Tamlin can shapeshift into a beast, but usually looks like a handsome (if masked) young man, and he is kind and considerate towards Feyre, generally speaking–but I sort of put that down to its being a combination of two different stories and the specifics of the plot.
The supporting characters have a lot more going for them. Lucien, Tamlin’s emissary and best friend, is wonderfully snarky and shared some enjoyable barbs with Feyre. He comes across as a very puckish character, as in he literally reminds me of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He made me laugh out loud more than once, his
balls bravery in the face of horrible consequences impressed me, and he just has far more…presence than Tamlin does. Lucien, with his smart mouth and fox mask, is more memorable than Tamlin.
And then there’s Rhysand, the night to Tamlin’s day, if you will. If Lucien is puckish, Rhys and his black wit are actually deadly. That said, I would hardly call Rhys evil in spite of having–and using–some truly fearsome powers, but by the time he shows up, the story has turned grim and aside from providing a bit of gallows humor, his character fits right into the tone of the second half. And unlike Tamlin, I’m looking forward to reading more about him in the sequel.
My major gripe with all the High Fae (the faeries that, like Tamlin, Lucien, and Rhysand, most resemble humans) is this: why are they, like every other YA fairy character, described as breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly gorgeous? Why is this also a trope that won’t die? Maybe the ethereal beauty that hides the deadly magical abilities of these immortal beings–uh, Twilight much?–is the number-one reason ACOTAR got published as YA. (sigh) Even the ancient Greeks, lovers of all things aesthetically perfect and pleasing, had some ugly gods in their pantheon, you know. A less-than-perfect faerie boy thrown in here and there might help me appreciate Rhys and Tamlin’s supposedly flawless good looks a little more.
But griping aside, that brings me to the plot. Tension may drip from all of the final 150 pages, but the plot is nonetheless predictable if you know either of the aforementioned tales…and probably even if you don’t. The antagonist, though her identity is shrouded in mystery for more than half of the novel, is predictable to the point of being boring, too. She’s absolutely sadistic, sure, all the gruesome details of which Maas subjects her readers to. But I found nothing compelling and nothing unique about her. And some of the major events in the second half of the novel felt lifted whole-cloth from other YA stories. I will say, though, that the final thirty pages captivated me. Even for such a bleak, violent story, the final twist was unexpectedly cruel and twisted, and Feyre’s actions took me by surprise. I knew what the final outcome of it all would be, but getting there was still a heck of a ride. Chemistry or not, I didn’t entirely buy that Feyre and Tamlin were in love enough justify the horrific things Feyre had to endure for his sake, either–but after she did endure them, safe to say I was hoping for their happily ever after. For all her stupidity, Feyre earned it.
This book is more than 400 pages long, though. The plot only really picked up around the halfway mark, and the real action only in the last hundred pages or so. The pacing, then, was the real problem here. Though since I actually preferred the first half, for all its slowness, to most of the second half, I…really don’t know how I would’ve solved that problem, oops. I guess I just liked the lush world-building better than the soul-crushing hopelessness and gratuitous violence. (Come to think of it, pacing has been an issue in all the Tam Lin retellings I’ve read…)
In summary: I did like A Court of Thorns and Roses. It’s not the best version of Tam Lin I’ve read this year, and I wish I’d been able to connect with (and, well, just like) Feyre and Tamlin more than I did. While I’m not a huge fan of grimdark fantasy, ACOTAR is sort of Grimdark Lite, and there are moments of pure beauty and joy written so lushly by Sarah J. Maas that I want to find the second book and read it right now. In my experience, the first book in a series is rarely the best. And at the end of the day, this is still head-and-shoulders above the rest of YA fairy stories (though since it’s not really YA, I don’t know how much of a compliment that is).