A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) is the first book in a young adult fiction series. I don’t usually read young adult (YA) fiction. In fact, up until some months ago, I didn’t even know what it was. Yes, I read Harry Potter (some of the books at least) but that was a movement. It was our movement. You couldn’t be eleven in 2004 and not be a nerdy Potter fan.
But that was my only significant brush with YA. I never read Twilight (I tried, I really did) never read The Hunger Games or the umpteenth others that it inspired. And despite my love for ‘fairy tales gone wrong’ I haven’t read the ‘Cinderella as a cyborg’ or ‘what if Sleeping Beauty never woke up’ renditions.
There is some discrepancy about who the target audience for YA books is. Some claim that the age-group includes anyone who is a teenager. Others feel that it ranges from 14 to 18 year olds. At any rate, I think we can all agree that this age range is incredibly diverse. What I was reading/thinking at fourteen certainly wasn’t what was on my mind at eighteen.
Which is where this book made some enemies. Author Sarah J. Maas laid on the sexual content quite thick, and not everyone was pleased about it. I can completely understand this; most parents wouldn’t want their teenager getting her sex-ed lessons from a fantasy novel. But also, the situations in this book are weird. There is a lot of ambiguity, and some lines are crossed in truly unhealthy ways.
Even before I read the book, I had heard all sorts of horror stories. And for some reason, the notoriety made this all the more interesting. And so, I ordered my first YA novel. And I have so many things to say about this.
Please note; this review will contain spoilers. I can’t discuss a book without mentioning specifics. So, do what you must.
Also, I don’t do book reviews very often (read: never) so I was a bit confused about how to structure this. And then I decided that trying to inject order would just distract from the utter mess that is this book (I mean that in a good way, believe it or not). So what I’ll do is mention the story and then talk about specific characters and incidents that stood out.
The story revolves around nineteen-year-old Feyre. She is a huntress who kills a wolf in the woods, only it isn’t a wolf; it’s a faerie (yes, that’s how it is spelled in the book). She discovers that she has violated some treaty between humans and faeries and must pay with her life. Enter Tamlin (and when I say ‘enter’, I mean ‘breaking and entering’) handsome, pissed and can turn into a beast.
He agrees to not kill Feyre if she agrees to live with him; forever!
When she gets to his enchanted side of the land though, it is clear that something is wrong. That is, something other than the fact that she is the prisoner of a handsome man-wolf-bear thing.
There is a curse, a lot of politics and the promise of love. The usual ‘will our hero be able to save the day?’ cliché and, this book was surprisingly addictive. I read it in three days, which is incredible for me as I am an incredibly slow reader. And yet despite this, I’m not sure how I feel about it.
I’m sure you can guess based on my exceptionally vague recounting of the plot that this is a fairy-tale retelling. Predominantly, there are two inspirations that stand out.
The first is obviously Beauty and the Beast, the classic story and the Disney film. The main plot (beauty, beast, curse) is present and some of the characters are definitely inspired by the animated film.
The second is a really interesting Scottish folk-tale titled Tam Lin (Sarah J. Maas doesn’t do subtle). This actually reminds me of Beauty and the Beast sometimes. Here is a retelling that pretty much captures the essence.
Long story short, Tam Lin is a handsome man, he is kidnapped and turned into a faerie by the faerie queen. He is knighted and tasked with guarding the forest. One day, a young girl named Janette ventures into the woods and plucks a rose (yes, the ‘rose’ happens here as well). This leads to her meeting Tam Lin. They fall in love, he tells her that the faerie queen has him under her spell, and Janette rescues him. There is a lot more that happens but this is the gist.
And everything that I have mentioned so far features very heavily in the novel.
World building is a huge part of YA fiction, so I have to talk a bit about that. The source material is very obvious in the way Maas sets up her novel. From the name of our leading man, to the ‘beast turning into a human’ plot point to the fact that there is a curse, and in how the curse is broken. All of this points towards the aforementioned sources.
That being said, she does inject a lot of atmosphere around the base sources. The Faery courts, all of the politics that surrounds them, the tension between humans and Faeries all of it is really detailed. And I did appreciate that. Although, as I said I don’t really have anything to compare this with, so I’m not sure how it stacks up against other YA fiction. But, if you like world building, this book has a lot of that.
Now, the fun bit. Let’s talk about the characters.
She is our main protagonist. The novel is also in first person, so she is basically our vantage point. We see this world through her eyes, and I can’t say whether that helps the book. It is actually surprising how unsure I am about this girl, because there are points when I like her and other times when I really don’t like her. And I think most of this is the writing’s fault.
Sarah J. Maas is not the best writer, and her protagonist suffers because of this. And let’s just discuss the most annoying example.
Feyre loves to paint. Which I thought was an interesting hobby for her particularly because she can’t read. This of course juxtaposes with Belle from the Disney film, who loved books. But, Maas needs to realise that once you tell us that she likes to paint; we know. Yet the author feels the need to force-feed Feyre’s love for art down our throats, over and over again. Literally every second page of the book has her thinking about how she’d like to paint something. And since Sarah J. Maas doesn’t do subtle, this is actually spelled out for us. Think, “oh, I wonder if I could paint that…I could never paint that…I wonder if I could get some paint today…oh, I’m about to die, I wonder how it would look if I painted it.”
The word ‘paint’ is so overused that by the end of the book it isn’t cute any more. It is just annoying.
Also, while for the most part we are stuck in her head, I just wanted to meet other characters who were much more interesting than our lead. And maybe this was deliberate, but when the book is in first person, and we are literally stuck with a character can she please be marginally less annoying?
Like Feyre, Tamlin swings between being likeable and being really, really unlikeable.
There were some scenes where he reminded me of the Beast from the Disney film, these were also the instances where I liked him the most.
For example, on page 60, Feyre is a guest/captive in Tamlin’s manor. She has been bathed and given clean clothes to wear. She is invited to dine with them, and this happens.
They watched me, too closely to be casual. Tamlin straightened a bit and said, “You look … better than before.”
Was that a compliment? I could have sworn Lucien gave Tamlin an encouraging nod.
“And your hair is … clean.”
Perhaps it was my raging hunger making me hallucinate the piss-poor attempt at flattery…
I actually wrote ‘Aw’ in the margin of the page, and flagged it. Also, Lucien (who is Tamlin’s emissary and best friend) just adds to the Disney homage. Because the name ‘Lucien’ means ‘light’. Get it? Like candle light (Lucien could be a stand-in for Lumiere). This is also really sweet because while this is still a bizarre coming of age story, Tamlin happens to be immortal. So the fact that despite being ancient, he’s nervous about flirting with a girl makes him a touch adorable.
Okay, where are we going?
But then, parts of the book seriously make me question why I ever thought he was cute. Particularly towards the end. So, the curse involves a faerie queen, Amarantha (who also happens to be the worst villain ever, and we will talk about her later). She is lusting after Tamlin.
But because he refuses her advances, she curses him and his court (he is one of the Faerie lords by the way, this adds nothing to his character, it just makes him the equivalent of a prince). The only way to break the curse is by winning the love of a human girl. And by the end of the decided time, Feyre still hasn’t said the three words to him, hence Tamlin has to basically go and live with Amarantha “under the mountain” (which is a place).
Feyre finds out about the curse, and goes off to save the man she loves, as you do. When she gets to Amarantha’s court, Tamlin is sitting next to the queen like a doll on a gilded throne. And Amarantha doesn’t want to let him go, so she tortures Feyre in a throne room full of people. This would be fine, but uh Tamlin, the ‘love of her life’ so to speak, is also there. And he does nothing.
Days go by, and Amarantha comes up with new ways of making Feyre suffer. Tamlin does nothing. Part of me couldn’t help but ask why. Part of Feyre is wondering the same thing. And then I decided that he’s probably under another spell, and can’t help the woman he apparently loves. Feyre reaches the same conclusion. Until Lucien (on page 353) tells us that Tamlin isn’t under a spell at all.
His actions are of course justified; I just don’t buy the justification.
The Messiest Romance (EVER)
We can’t talk about our leads without mentioning the scene that had readers gasping for breath. And me seriously questioning whether a teenager should be allowed anywhere near this book.
At some point, a festival takes place. During this celebration, Tamlin is drunk on magic and has to choose a ‘mate’. Basically, he loses all sense of propriety and will pounce on the first female he sees. Feyre is told about this, and told to lock herself in her room.
But, does she leave her room despite the warning? Of course! In fact, she leaves her room not once, but twice.
The first time can be forgiven because there is some ambiguity about whether magic made her do it. And the situation is also explained to her vaguely, so she might not have understood its gravity. The second time though, Lucien has told her in no uncertain terms that Tamlin will be out of his mind, will likely attack her if he sees her and that she should not leave her room.
At this point she has also already had a brush with some other faeries who, she has in fact been rescued from them. And yet despite this, she leaves her room because she’s craving chocolate. No, I am not making this up.
So Tamlin sees her, of course, he is really creepy with her and he bites her neck. I have read this scene more than ten times, and I still don’t know whether he is man or beast when this happens. So apart from raising serious consent questions, this could also be our introduction to proper bestiality. I do believe this scene scarred me for life.
Arguably the most morally ambiguous character in the book. Also described as the most beautiful man Feyre has ever seen in her life. According to fan-art, this is what he looks like.
This is also why the book should never be made into a movie. I mean why muddy this image? (Rhaegar Targaryan much?)
I think he was also the most interesting character of the lot. He’s not a nice guy (at all) but he also forms an interesting contrast with Tamlin. Specifically, in two ways.
Firstly, while Tamlin refuses Amarantha’s advances Rhysand doesn’t. This leads to people calling him “Amarantha’s whore”. But it also saves the life of his people. Tamlin on the other hand has to sacrifice a bunch of his knights because of the curse and the curse wouldn’t exist if he had accepted Amarantha’s advances. I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.
Secondly, while Rhysand does some questionable things to Feyre (getting her drunk on magic, the usual) it is also clearly mentioned that he never takes advantage of her. This forms a contrast with the scene mentioned above, where Tamlin basically attacks her. Yes, he’s not in control, but the scene is so vivid, as is Rhysand’s obvious restraint, that they stand out.
By the end of the book, you do question who you’re rooting for.
The Most Convenient Curse Ever
Initially, I had planned on giving Amarantha a separate little section. But, she is such a predictable villain that she doesn’t deserve this. What I will mention is that there is so much build up for her character, by way of Voldemort. That is, they literally will not say her her name for most of the book because she’s that terrifying. But then she turns out to be an idiot and a McGuffin.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the curse. Basically, Amarantha wants to toy with Tamlin for refusing her, so she takes away most of his power (and that of the faerie realm in general). To break the enchantment, he has to find a human girl, who is brave enough to be a huntress, and skilled enough to hunt a wolf. She also has to hate faeries, enough to kill them. Basically, she has to be Feyre.
To be fair, the curse in Beauty and the Beast always has the potential to be little more than a McGuffin, since it exists to get the pair to fall in love. But that is why the most successful iterations focus not just on the love, but also on the ‘beauty lies within’ shtick. They also emphasize that the Beast has to evolve, he has to realize that some things matter more than appearances. This, is what ultimately saves him.
In this book, the inner beauty bit doesn’t exist at all. Tamlin doesn’t evolve as a person. Neither does Feyre. When the story ends they are exactly who they were at the beginning. Save that they are not racist any more. And good for them, but without that classic piece of the puzzle, the story isn’t as compelling.
Should You Read It?
Absolutely. As I mentioned before, all the faults of the book actually make it really fun to read. It is a very simple story, it is written in a very simple way and yes the world is detailed, but it is also so unimportant that you can ignore it.
The good bits are really quite pleasant, the annoying bits are insignificant enough to be ignored. All in all, this a light read that will take no more than a weekend. And, it convinced me to delve further into YA.