The War Comes Home: Reading Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Wings and Ruin

Feyre Archeron has come into her own, mastering most of her powers and finding true love, but war still looms. Before she and her friends can face Hybern’s evil king for once and for all, they have information to gather—and Feyre herself is a spy in a house she once thought of as home. Everything depends on whether they can find the resources and the allies to make a final stand against the king, his armies, and his Cauldron.

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 in the comments for the series beyond the book currently under discussion.

 

A Shortish Summary of What Happens in A Court of Wings and Ruin

In the Spring Court, Feyre plays a very dangerous game, pretending to have returned to Tamlin while really working against him and Ianthe to undermine their power, to turn Tamlin’s own people against him, and to learn as much as she can about what Tam is up to on behalf of the king. She manipulates and twists and sneaks, all while trying to maintain everyone’s mental shields against twin Hybern royals who are trying to poke around in people’s minds.

When she gets all her plans in place, Feyre makes her move to leave—but not without first killing the twin royals (who tortured and killed humans for funsies), torturing Ianthe, and reluctantly deciding to take Lucien with her. Their escape takes them across Autumn territory and briefly into the clutches of Lucien’s brothers—before Azriel and Cassian swoop in with a dramatic rescue.

Back in the Night Court, everyone braces for war. Hybern is on the move. The pressing issue is how many of Prythian’s courts will stand against him—will join with Rhys and Feyre and friends. While they work to call a meeting of the High Lords, Lucien skulks around Elain, his mate, who seems lost in herself, erratic and vague. Amren works with Nesta to try to master the powers she wrested from the Cauldron, and Feyre tries to learn to fly.

When Hybern launches an assault on the Summer Court, Feyre and Rhys and company join the fight, despite the price on their heads. It’s a bloody warmup for what’s to come, but also works to convince Summer to join up with them (and to rescind the blood rubies). In the end, everyone comes to the meeting, even Tamlin, who claims to be working against Hybern from the inside. And everyone but Autumn joins the cause.

The armies clash, and Team Night Court wins a battle—but it’s not the war. With the Cauldron in his possession, Hybern has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve, hiding his armies, kidnapping Elain (who has developed a seer’s powers), and moving the battlefield to the human territory (first razing whatever he finds in his way). As things grow bleak, help arrives: a human force led by Feyre’s father; the firebird queen from across the sea; and the warriors from Miryam and Drakon’s land, long thought missing. In the end, it takes everything to beat Hybern: the Bone Carver, the Weaver, and Bryaxis; Nesta’s Cauldron-power, Elain’s quiet strength, and Feyre’s magic; the many winged legions, armadas, and ground forces; an unleashed Amren in her true form; and, for a moment, Amren’s life, and Rhys’s too.

But only for a moment. Feyre convinces all the High Lords—even Tamlin, who does love her, in his way—to give Rhys a spark, bringing him back to life, and he brings Amren with him. When the war is over, it’s time for the next step: renegotiating a Treaty. And figuring out how to live again.

 

Mist and Fury in Hindsight

With Wings and Ruin done, I want to go back to Mist and Fury for a minute. Much as Mist and Fury reshapes Thorns and Roses, this third book gives a new perspective on the second. Which is to say: the second book is the best of the three. The balance Maas strikes between action and growth is careful and considered; while I could’ve done with a little more training, given how skilled Feyre is in Wings and Ruin, the ways in which Feyre comes to heal and to understand people, and to love them, works quite gracefully. The secrets revealed in Mist and Fury make sense; the hints are satisfyingly tantalizing, and the end of the book offers just enough resolution and action to take the sting out of the fairly epic cliffhanger.

Also I just love the scene where Feyre and Amren break into Summer’s secret location to steal the weird, whispery book.

All of that said … friends, this one was a struggle. I grew frustrated with Wings and Ruin, and there are several reasons why. Let me start with a scene that knocked me straight out of the book. To be fair, this comes fairly late in the story (page 511), but it made me reconsider, well, the entire war:

It took me a heartbeat to realize why the Hybern soldiers were thrashing and clawing at themselves, some were trying to crawl away. But then one of them collapsed, and sunlight caught on his face. And even with the distance, I could tell—could tell it was water now bubbling out of his lips.

Out of the lips of all the Hybern soldiers as Tarquin drowned them on dry land.

These are soldiers who’ve just surrendered.

War is hell. I get that. I’ve seen the movies that go to great lengths to remind us of that. And many of these Fae have the memory of the last war to contend with—a war in which Hybern and his horrid commanders did truly awful things. But this isn’t a series about the capriciousness and cruelty of the Fae. It is a series that spends a good deal of time unwinding Feyre’s prejudices about the Fae, and that has as its central hero and love interest a Fae male who puts on the pretense of cruelty to protect the people and places he cares deeply about. It’s a series that wants us to be on the side of Feyre and those she fights beside. But in this book, they start doing the very things we’re meant to loathe Hybern for.

We don’t know Tarquin, who drowns these soldiers, all that well. He was friendly to Feyre once,  until she stole the Book out from under his nose. His victims are part of an army that attacked his territory, and anger is justified. But this—this drowning that happens twice—goes beyond vengeance and into straight-up cruelty. And this action goes utterly unremarked apart from Feyre observing it. Nobody cares. Nobody cares that the opposing army is also made up of Fae. This isn’t Throne of Glass, where the invaders are literally aliens from another world that possess humans like grotesque magical parasites. This is Fae-on-Fae warfare, and because the opposing army’s leader is cruel and evil, apparently the entire army deserves to die horrible deaths.

This doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe it’s the state of our world, the battle lines and us vs. them mentalities, that made me cringe throughout much of the warfare, as Rhys turns enemies to “red mist” and unleashed powerful creatures chew through enemy lines. Maybe it’s that, and also the fact that Hybern becomes something of a cartoon villain. The only other Fae we meet from that kingdom are a pair of dubiously described evil twins who love to torture humans. Obviously terrible folks. But does that make the only solution murder literally everybody?

I’m also struggling with the things Feyre and Rhys are fighting for, and the things that barely get mentioned. They don’t want humanity to be subjected to slavery: good. They don’t want to live under Hybern’s rule: understandable. The class war between High Fae and lesser faeries gets some lip service, but not much. And there’s a lot wrong with their Fae culture that never gets addressed. There’s no mention of the crushing misogyny that makes even their allies sniff at the fact that Feyre is a High Lady. There’s no discussion of how rape culture runs rampant among the Fae (and that their brand of “maleness” has a lot to do with why). There’s no talk of disbanding the Court of Nightmares, where Rhys lets some of his people give in to their worst desires, or figuring out how to grapple with Illyrian misogyny.

I know: they have to fight one war before they can wage the next. But it just doesn’t seem to matter to our heroes. It doesn’t help that Feyre’s actions with Ianthe are straight out of Amarantha’s playbook, and that she keeps snooping in Lucien’s mind. Feyre sees herself as a monster in the Ouroboros, but she’s long since stopped asking what kind of person could do the things she does. Now she just does them, out of righteousness and fury, after all the work she did to heal in the last book, it feels backwards.

 

Let the Scary Things Out

That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy in Wings and Ruin, but all of the above did color a lot of how I felt about the book. In some ways, the contrast is interesting: the same people who can be so kind and thoughtful as to build a library sanctuary for traumatized Fae can turn around and destroy faceless soldiers by the hundreds or thousands. What allows them to divide those parts of themselves? What are they putting in a box and not looking at?

But amid all of this, there’s a narrative thread that I really love: the separate choices Feyre and Rhys make to bargain with the scary, not-Fae-or-human creatures of their world. To enlist the Bone Carver, Feyre has to look at the bleakest, scariest parts of herself in that mirror—but not just those parts, as she eventually reveals. She has to look at her entire self, and come out whole.

(I’m not sure I love the suggestion that hardly anyone can do this. If that’s the case, this entire world needs a lot more healing.)

She has to look into the mirror because the scary things aren’t just on the outside: she and Rhys are also terrifying. They have too much power (and why is Rhys the most powerful High Lord?). They’re part of a gang of what amounts to superheroes walking around unchecked. Are they really so different from the Bone Carver, from his sister the Weaver, from the creature that lives under the library? Or are those beings—at least some of which seem to be old gods—reflections of what overpowered Fae could easily become?

I’m not sure this reflection is entirely intentional, especially given that the Bone Carver and the Weaver are too-easily dispatched in the war. But Bryaxis is out there somewhere. I hope it’s having fun, in a non-murdery way. And Feyre’s connection to, and kindness toward, the Suriel comes full circle in one of my favorite scenes in this series. It’s a scary thing, and it’s a dreamer. It can be both. There’s so much hope in that.

 

The Secret of Lucien

I would very much like to read about Lucien’s road-trip to find the firebird queen. (If Chaol gets all of Tower of Dawn for his quest, why not?) Lucien was my favorite side character in Thorns and Roses; he was the friend I wanted Feyre to have, but the friend who also needed to get out from under his boss’s shadow. And here, he finally does, slowly, carefully, and not without having to really take some time to figure out his place in all of this. (At least, that’s what I choose to believe he does in the Night Court when Feyre first brings him there.)

Lucien, interestingly, is the only male who’s required to do absolutely nothing about his mating bond. It’s hard not to see that narrative choice at least in part as punishment for his actions with Tamlin—of course it needs to be Elain’s choice if she eventually wants to go to him, but in terms of story choices, they didn’t have to be mated.

The reveal that his father is not the High Lord of Autumn is certainly an interesting one, as is Maas’s choice to complicate the previously extremely shitty character of Lucien’s elder (half) brother, Eris—the one Mor was supposed to marry. Why does this male in particular need all of the hints that he isn’t so terrible? That he protected Lucien and, by not marrying Mor, was saving her from a worse fate? What’s going on with him?

I cling to Lucien’s story a little bit because it’s the one that doesn’t wind down with the classic happy ending, and that’s a bit of much-needed balance in this book’s ending. He has a mating bond, but the female he’s bonded to is still healing, and may never accept him. He might inherit the Day Court, but he hasn’t yet. He’s redeemed himself to a degree, and he has a way forward, but it’s clear he still has work to do.

 

Words to Your Mother

The Cauldron of myth is real. It’s a real object, and one that clearly has the power to take the world apart.

So who, what, and where is the Mother? The High Fae “brought” her to Prythian—from where? What happened to her? How does such a sexist society have a primary female deity? And why does Rhys suddenly start referring to a tapestry of Fate and Death hauling them off to the Otherworld? I wanted to know so much more about how this world was shaped: the rites, the holidays, the oddness of having a birthday on the Winter Solstice (it moves around, no? Maybe not here?). Not everything added up in Throne of Glass, but there was a solidity to the worldbuilding. The bits and pieces just haven’t don’t gel as well, here.

I just have so many questions. Tell me about the other Fae lands! Do they have different cultures? Different powers? Where did the king in Hybern come from and how did he get so nasty? If Fae live for centuries, how old are they when they inherit? Are any of them, you know, ordinary looking? (The absolute equation of youth, beauty, and heroism gets difficult to swallow. If you are old, you are probably evil, if not absolutely rubbing your hands together with evil glee at the thought of obtaining youth and power, or eating people to pretty yourself up again.)

At one point, there’s a reference to the three faces of the Mother, which suggests she’s a triple goddess analogue: maiden, mother, crone. But I can’t stop wondering how her mythology works in a world where Illyrians clip their females’ wings; where Mor’s family did what they did to her; where just about everyone’s backstory has mother trauma of some kind. It doesn’t help that the only priestess we get to know is deeply corrupt. What is going on with the stories this world tells itself? (And why is Maas broadening the references—names, stories—she brings into this one? I’m genuinely curious where some of this is going: Lord Thanatos? The Ouroboros? A firebird?)

 

The Spies in the House of Hybern

Jurian isn’t crazy. Jurian was never crazy, and that came as a relief, because he seemed … fine, for a guy who spent hundreds of years as just an eyeball and a bone. His ploy to stick close to Hybern and lean the king’s plans made sense, and made for a pretty satisfying reveal.

Tamlin doing the same thing was a little less convincing. When he saved Feyre on the cliff, I thought it wasn’t going to be that he was spying on the king—but that in his own warped, possessive way, he really did love Feyre and couldn’t bear to see her chased down like that. That he couldn’t fix everything, but he could help in this moment. Early in book two, he claimed there would be no conflict with Hybern, which made me think he was cutting a deal with the king already (probably trying to sell him the Night Court intel he got from Feyre).

The revelation that he was also a mole felt more like a desire to begin redeeming the character (or to spare Feyre the guilt of him dying as an enemy, if he’d stayed on Hybern’s side) than it felt narratively earned. I can see how it could have played out—Tamlin always wants to protect and keep what’s his, and after Feyre’s actions his people don’t trust him, so he needs to earn that back—but there isn’t enough on the page to show that convincingly.

 

A Happy Ending—For Some

For the first time, in this world, there are queer characters. Thesan’s lover is never named, but they’re obviously open about their relationship. So are Nephelle and her wife, for centuries. Everyone knows Helion likes to take males and females to bed. But for Mor, being bisexual with a preference for females is a weight, the secret reason why she’s been stringing Azriel along for decades.

Waiting this long to discuss Mor’s sexuality and then making it one more layer on a backstory full of grief and abuse and violence—it’s not great. It’s not as clear a trope as Bury Your Gays, but (to borrow a phrase from Christina Orlando) it’s a sibling trope: Burden Your Gays. Mor’s story adds to an unfortunately large canon of tales in which being queer is a horrible, painful secret, a burden to overcome. And if Mor—the Morrigan—feels she has to hide and twist herself, how does everyone else in this world who isn’t straight feel? Why not let Mor be the strong, free woman she otherwise is? She’s not perfect; she has fears and pain and struggles just like everyone else. Why add this one? Why not grant her the same grace the book is so eager to grant Feyre: the freedom of being and accepting exactly who she is? I’m all for Maas shaking up the deep-seated heteronormativity of her books, but I’m not sure this was the best way to do it. (Also, why is Mor so pissy toward Nesta?)

 

Life After Wartime

To be fair, many of the things that bothered me in Wings and Ruin also existed in the first two books: the endless beauty of absolutely everyone; the scheming female villains who receive so much more scorn than the males; the speed with which Feyre masters most of her powers (at least flying took a bit); the number of times people “croon” things that they simply aren’t crooning. But Thorns and Roses was first in the series, and I was patiently waiting to see where things went. And Mist and Ruin balanced out the first book, working in a ton of character development amid the action (of both kinds).

Still, there are little moments in Wings and Ruin that are full of grace, like Lucien commenting, in wonder, that there are children laughing in the streets of Velaris—that life can go on, and does, and happiness is still part of it. Nesta’s fearlessness with Amren and their study-buddy partnership makes perfect sense, and is a reminder that not every friendship—not every relationship—looks the same.

Even the strongest, toughest people have been through rough stuff, and have their own traumas to deal with, and Maas keeps this theme at the center of her story. When Mor says to Feyre, “We’re all broken. In our own ways—in places no one might see,” she might be hinting at the secret she eventually shares. But she’s also talking about every one of their inner circle, about Feyre’s family, about the fact that you can never know what battles a stranger is fighting. You can never know what traumas a High Lady is still processing, either. I love the time this takes—that there’s no magical cure for Feyre or for Rhys, for Nesta or Elain, and that each of them works through things in their own way, without anyone trying to tell them what to do to heal.

And Nesta remains fascinating—especially given the Bone Carver’s careful consideration of her, and what her power might be or mean. Her love-hate semi-friendship with Cassian feels a little forced, but partly that’s because Cassian and Azriel needed to be developed more in this book. Without giving them stronger, more distinct personalities, it can feel like Maas is nudging each of Feyre’s sisters toward each of Rhys’s chosen brothers because it’s the tidily romantic thing to do.

But it’s a fairy tale, right? And we know how fairy tales end. Wings and Ruin is clearly the close of part of this story, which makes me think Frost and Starlight will be the bridge to another part. Maybe that’s Nesta. Maybe it’s Lucien. Maybe it’s Jurian’s true story, not just the one everyone else told. Maybe it’s Vassa and her mysterious keeper (who is definitely the Bone Carver’s big brother, no?). I still have a million questions, but I’ve accepted I’m not going to get all the answers. Maybe some of them, though?

 

Next up: A Court of Frost and Starlight!

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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