No Wine, No Bargains, and Don’t Trust Your Senses: Reading Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses

Stunning and mysterious Fae lords. A world under the thumb of a mysterious and dangerous woman. The complicated relationship between mortals and immortal creatures. A long-ago war that shaped the future of mortals and Fae alike. And one young woman with a huge role to play in all of it. Some of A Court of Thorns and Roses, the first book in Sarah J. Maas’s series of the same name, reflects the story and themes of her Throne of Glass series. And some of it starts to go in a whole different direction.

In 2018, I read all of Throne of Glass in just a few weeks, and chronicled the whole thing here. This year, while we wait for the March release of Maas’s first adult novel, Crescent City, it’s time for A Court of Thorns and Roses!

As before, this is a first-read, so please: no spoilers for the series beyond the book currently under discussion.

That said, I’m going to talk Throne of Glass spoilers at least this once. But I’ll give fair warning.

Shall we go to Prythian?

 

A Shortish Summary of What Happens in A Court of Thorns and Roses

Nineteen-year-old Feyre is a skilled hunter and the sole provider for her family, who fell on hard times after her father made some iffy business decisions. Her mother is dead—naturally; this story has some roots in “Beauty and the Beast”—and her father is unable or unwilling to look after his three daughters. Feyre is the middle daughter, practical out of necessity but drawn to art; Elain, the youngest, is the sweet one; Nesta, the eldest daughter, is so cruel it’s almost unbelievable at first. They all live near the wall that divides the mortal world from the faerie land, Prythian—and these aren’t the nicest faeries. Humans don’t have good memories after the war that raged years back, but peace (of a sort) exists thanks to a treaty that required the separation of the human and Fae worlds.

When Feyre kills a wolf, it draws the attention of a High Lord of the Fae, who storms into their cabin (in wolf form; High Fae can shapeshift) and demands retribution. The dead wolf was one of his men, another shapeshifting Fae. Her life, says the snarling wolf, belongs to Prythian. She can choose death, or she can join this lord, Tamlin, across the wall.

Opting for the less deadly choice, Feyre finds herself the guest of Tamlin, whose manor seems empty apart from him, his friend Lucien, and a woman named Alis who helps Feyre. The Fae are all relatively nice to her, which disconcerts her after all the rotten things she’s heard about them. And they’re suffering under a kind of magic blight: things are going terribly awry, though no one will be very clear with Feyre about what that means. They’re also all trapped in masks, the result of something screwy that happened at a masquerade 49 years ago. There’s a mysterious “her” everyone is afraid of; a whole host of strange creatures; and Feyre begins to befriend her sorta-captor, who gives her everything she needs to do the painting she loves, wants to help her learn to read, and definitely isn’t telling her everything.

After a middle section of Great Rites; creepy creatures; the looming threat of the blight; the introduction of troubled and troubling Rhysand, who comes bearing handfuls of hints and bits of secrets; and a brief interlude where Feyre returns to the mortal lands and her mean sister turns out to be quite interesting, the truth—sort of—comes out: Tamlin and Lucien couldn’t tell Feyre everything. They couldn’t tell her about the curse he lived under, the work of nasty Amarantha, whose vitriol towards humans is unmatched, and who is also, oh, no big deal, the High Queen (and the former “most lethal” general of the High King in Hybern, across the sea). They couldn’t tell her what they’d done to try to break the curse. And they definitely couldn’t tell her the part she needed to play in breaking it.

Feyre learns all this after Amarantha has taken Tamlin and Lucien to her court Under the Mountain, where she holds many of the High Lords under her rule. When Feyre, foolishly but inevitably, goes in search of Tamlin, Amarantha makes her a bargain: succeed at three trials (or solve a riddle) and save Tamlin’s life. Fail, and die horribly. It’s no surprise that Feyre succeeds; it is a surprise, at least to her, that smug, powerful, insufferable Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court, seems to be on her side. As she makes her way through the trials, suffering, he helps, in his own way, but not without making his own bargain with her: When it’s all over, she’ll have to spend a week every month at his court.

And eventually, it is over. Feyre succeeds at every challenge, but Amarantha doesn’t accept defeat until a dying and broken Feyre finally solves the riddle. Rhysand and Tamlin, their full High Fae powers finally loosed, destroy Amarantha. The blight is over, and Feyre is dead—but the remaining High Lords give her the gift of High Fae immortality.

The Queen is dead, but the High King still rules across the sea, and war is probably coming. And when we last see Rhysand, he’s shocked at something mysterious he sees on Feyre’s face. She goes home with Tamlin in a fairy-tale ending, but things are certainly not over.

 

A Prologue of Thorns and Roses

I spent the first couple hundred pages of Thorns and Roses struggling with what felt like a lack of plot (especially on the heels of Throne of Glass, which is built of plentiful plot bricks). The tension is less about on Feyre’s life, her family, the situation in Prythian, and more about Am I into this hot Fae lord? Which is a perfectly valid form of tension, but this isn’t my first Maas rodeo; the answer was to that was pretty clear.

In many ways, the book still feels like a very long prologue to a more complex story. But a deeper look reveals how much of the book is plot—just plot stacked up in the details. Sometimes it’s in infodumps, like when Rhysand shows up to gloat at Tamlin (maybe on purpose, to drop hints for Feyre?) and after Tam and Lucien are taken, when Alis spells out everything she can. (Like the quickly forgotten but certainly relevant fact that Tamlin’s father’s court allied with the distant king in the years-ago war—on the side of enslaving humans.) But sometimes it’s in the existence of Fae-worshipping cultists, or the painting on the study wall and Feyre’s focus on the mountain, or in the words of a tricky but true faerie creature, or in the ways that terrible things always happen to humans who love Fae—but keep on doing it anyway.

Maas has her standbys, her turns of phrase and her tendency to describe overwhelming feelings, positive or negative, sex or desperation, in terms of “shattering.” She has tropes she loves to bits and adverbs I never want to read again. But she also knows what she’s doing, and there’s real pleasure in watching the way she moves her puzzle pieces slowly across the board until the full picture starts to come into focus.

And the full picture, here, is part Tam Lin, part “Beauty and the Beast,” and part signature elements of Maas’s stories: the Fae, powerful and beautiful and passionate; the seemingly human girl who’s going to become much more; the impossible tasks that she’ll triumph over anyway; and a worldbuilding backstory that’s only teased out in bits and bobs.

 

Little Bits of Myth

Feyre observes, “We mortals no longer kept gods to worship,” which suggests that there was religion of some sort. Later, though, she says to Tamlin, “We don’t even remember the names of your gods.” So humans worshipped Fae gods? Or did they worship Fae as gods? In the mortal world, the “Children of the Blessed” are a culty bunch of humans who do think Fae should be worshipped. They’re annoying, but they seem more decorative than meaningful—so far.

The main mythology that that we see is related to the imagery of the Cauldron, which Feyre sees on a mural in Tamlin’s house, where its shining contents are being tipped out to create the world. Like “Wyrd” in the Throne of Glass books, “Cauldron” gets used different ways: it’s good to be Cauldron-blessed, but “Cauldron, no” functions something like “Hell, no.” Or “God, no” depending on context. The Cauldron is multifaceted and tied to fate, as Alis says to Feyre: “That’s what Fate dealt, that was what the Eddies of the Cauldron decided.”

On Calanmai, the night of the Great Rite that so intrigues Feyre, magic bigger than the High Fae is invoked: Tamlin, as Lucien explains to Feyre, becomes the Hunter in search of the Maiden. All of the High Lords do this; “their magic comes from the earth and returns to it at the end—it’s a give-and-take.” So it’s … part of nature, in this world? Then how does a big cauldron in the stars fit in?

Magic, as Alis tells Feyre, likes rules. Amarantha probably broke a few, but magic still worked for her. Still, it seems like all of the rules of Fae-dom come from somewhere—the rituals, the rules, the powers that are different for each creature, the things only the High Fae can do. Why? How? What magic makes their bargains hold or their promises keep?

(Amarantha says of Feyre’s name “an old name—from our earlier dialects” and that is a hint if ever I’ve seen one, but I haven’t the foggiest what it’s a hint about.)

 

The Not So Nasty Sisters

When we first meet Elain and Nesta, they’re drastic opposites: Elain is so sweet, so pure; Nesta is, as her name suggests, nasty, cruel, angry. But when Feyre briefly goes back to the mortal world, her trip serves two narrative functions: it takes her away from Tamlin at a dramatic moment, and it gives her a moment to understand her sisters. She starts to see how Elain looked at their shabby old cottage as a home, a hopeful place, a shelter. And she’s forced to reckon with the sheer force of Nesta’s will—Nesta, who went after Feyre and Tamlin, trying to find her way to Prythian. Nesta, who resisted Tamlin’s glamour so completely that she was the only person who really knew where Feyre went.

Nesta, in these few pages, is granted something unusual: her anger is understood. Feyre gets it—gets that all that anger is because Nesta cares. She’s angry at their father for not fighting for them; she’s angry at the world for lying to her. In Prythian, Feyre gains the ability to get some perspective on Nesta, and it lets them understand each other, too. If the High Fae do come for Feyre’s family, they might not find them such easy targets. Nesta’s anger protects her from illusions: when she finds out that what happened to the Beddors was meant to be them, and when she realizes the threat hasn’t past, she starts planning. She’s smart and sharp and while I want her to come back into Feyre’s story, I also want to see her figure out “what a woman might do with a fortune and a good name.”

 

The Art of Being Feyre

Feyre has spent years of her life barely surviving, so it’s no wonder how often she thinks of her artistic passions as “useless.” That doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating to read as Feyre insists on shoving that part of herself away, again and again, certain that art is useless to a person who just needs to get by. It makes me wonder if her art is going to play a meaningful role later down the road.

What I have to remind myself, often, is that Feyre is a traumatized teen. Barely a teen, but still—her insecurity, her thrill at a powerful, beautiful creature paying attention to her, they’re all believable in context. She’s known scarcity for much of her life, and now finds herself in a lush world where desires she didn’t even know she had can be met with hardly a thought. Still, the structure can come off as very traditionally gendered: the young woman, the more powerful, far older man who knows everything the young girl doesn’t.

Feyre is so often the only person like her in a room: the only human, the only youth, the only one who’s had to struggle to take care of her family in a mundane, normal way, not the wars and treachery of the Fae. It can play into the “one-most-special-girl” trope, but it can also be seen from another angle: She’s lonely and isolated and scared, and the only people who might comfort her still aren’t her peers.

Surely none of us know anything about what that feels like.

 

The Comparisons Are Inevitable

The beautiful tough girl, an initially chilly Fae lord who warms up, a whole series of physical trials, and Maas’s signature phrases (listen, I wore silver eyeliner the other night; silver is not what tears look like, unless Fae cry something else entirely): of course it’s hard not to see the commonalities and differences between this series and Throne of Glass.

Spoilers for the whole Throne of Glass series! And also for a plot point in later ACOTAR books; read this section at your own risk if you haven’t read them all.

What really strikes me are the similarities among Feyre and the three men in her life, and Aelin and the three men in hers. Both have the hot, martial lordling they initially hook up with (Tamlin/Chaol); the fascinating princeling in some form of exile/disapproval from daddy who might be the most interesting character (Lucien/Dorian); and the distant, maybe even cruel, totally hot Fae who I suspect is going to become their one true love (Rhysand/Rowan).

(It’s not that I figured everything out about Rhysand, though it is pretty obvious where that’s going; it’s that when I read Kingdom of Ash, I wanted to know who the couple was that Aelin saw as she fell through worlds.)

Aelin has her music, Feyre her painting. But where Aelin spends a lot of time with hope, Feyre has little, at least at first. Both series also have a megabitch villainess and a nasty, nasty man; both involve a series of challenges/trials and the heroine winding up Fae, though one through blood and one through magic. (My notes at page 100: “place yr bets on her somehow becoming a Fae.”) And both clearly nod to Maas’s beloved Chronicles of Prydain, whether in a place name (Prythian), a villain (Erawan/Arawn), or the importance of a magical cauldron.

But as first books go, Thorns and Roses feels very different from Throne of Glass, which left me with a zillion questions and theories about the world and its mysteries. Here, the questions are more personal: How will Feyre deal with being Fae? How will she process the things she had to do to get out from Under the Mountain? What kind of tensions will arise between Tamlin and Rhysand when Feyre spends part of each month in Rhysand’s court? And, on the bigger-picture front, how will the king in Hybern react to Amarantha’s defeat?

I still want to know more about the world and the mythology, but there’s less to theorize on—largely because the narrative stays with Feyre, and our heroine’s perspective is limited by her experience and lack of education. Celaena grew up privileged, to a point, and knew a lot about her world and how it worked (and, of course, Throne of Glass is told from multiple points of view). Feyre’s focus has been on survival—and the fact that the men in her life tell her very little doesn’t exactly help.

 

Bad Fae, Bad Fae

Do we like either of the Fae lords Feyre spends time with in this book? They’re both playing a long game, and they’re both using Feyre as one of their pawns. And their versions of kindness could use some work. Yes, it’s lovely that Tamlin wants to help Feyre learn to read, and that he gives her the tools to paint; it’s less lovely that he’s using her from the very beginning. Even when he’s being good, he has a tendency not to let Feyre choose things for herself, or let her see the whole picture, and that worries me.

Rhysand, on the other hand, is insufferable from the start—though of course we’re seeing him through Feyre’s eyes, and she’s only got Tamlin’s opinion of Rhys to base her own on. But Maas writes Rhysand like his creepy behavior is part of what makes him attractive—that Feyre getting over or past that is the challenge. It’s clear that he’s got reasons for his actions Under the Mountain: His nastiness is so often a performance, all carefully calibrated so that Amarantha will see what she wants to see. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s manipulating Feyre. I know there’s an argument that him getting Feyre faerie-wine drunk every night in Amarantha’s palace was meant as a kindness, because she doesn’t have to remember what happens there. There are arguments like this for most of his choices; in some way, each one of them is helpful. But he’s still taking away her will. Do the ends justify the means?

 

What Next?

The evil queen is dead; long live … the evil king across the sea? Amarantha’s no longer a threat to humanity, but the High King was getting restless a hundred years ago—back when he sent his people to infiltrate all the courts and grew resentful of the limitations placed on him by the treaty. Amarantha’s actions probably kept him too busy to make his own move, but who knows what he’ll try to do in her absence. (Maybe the Suriel can tell Feyre a few more useful things?)

Also, I’m pretty sure it’s important that Jurian’s eye and bone weren’t found.

Up next: A Court of Mist and Fury!

Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of Tor.com, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.

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