4 out of 5 stars
In may 2015, I made an enthralling discovery. I love traditional high fantasy, and I adore a well-written romance. I just never thought that these two genres could be combined in a truly meaningful way – but oh, sweet joy, was I ever wrong!
A Court of Thorns and Roses draws upon the fairy-tales of The Beauty and the Beast, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the ballad of Tam Lin and the myth of Hades and Persephone, all the while being something entirely different. While these are indeed stories featuring some heavy-duty sexual tension, this tension tends to be expressed symbolically. With ACOTAR, Maas has begun to incorporate the wonderful world of smut in her stories, and although the story’s setting is a type of pre-industrialized semi-rural society, comparable to the setting of e.g. The Beauty and the Beast, it has an undeniable modern air about it. Although one can argue that the struggle to survive in a harsh, uncaring environment obliterates traditional gender roles and codes of conduct, there’s no denying that the viewpoint character, 19-year-old Feyre, talks, thinks and behaves like a sexually liberated, empowered and independent modern young woman.
Before I read ACOTAR, I’d only ever imagined elves like the ones, Tolkien conjured: ethereal, otherworldly beings. When I read the synopsis, portraying Tamlin as “one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world”, I thought he was some sort of flower-fairy, a male Tinkerbell prancing about in his fine robes, fluttering his glittering wings. Consequently, I had a hard time imagining how such a dainty creature could ever be considered lethal.
Little did I know that Maas’ faeries are made from a very different mold. Anyone familiar with Maas’ stories knows that her heroines tend to be surrounded by wildly hot guys (except for the really bad fellows like Duke Perrington in the Throne of Glass-series), and the high fae males in ACOTAR are no exception. Although civilized and cultured, they have a feral, savage and carnal side to them. Physically, the males are chiseled, strongly muscled and wickedly handsome. Whenever they perceive some sort of threat or feel the need to establish dominance, they snarl, growl, prowl and hiss. Compared to Tolkien’s elves, these guys are beasts. Insanely hot, intensely sexual beasts. My smut-loving heart can’t help it: I’m a fan.
The story is told in the first person perspective, featuring 19-year old Feyre as the protagonist. Feyre’s life is all about her constant struggle to provide for her father and two elder sisters, as she’s the only one brave and strong enough to face the harsh reality of their life of poverty and hunger. In our first encounter with Feyre, she’s out hunting in the snow-covered woods, starving and freezing, when she spots a giant wolf. Although she does suspect that it’s a shapeshifted faery, Feyre makes the kill with only a brief moment’s hesitation. In her mind, faeries are evil creatures, who have brought mankind nothing but sorrows, and, regardless if it’s a wolf or a faerie, Feyre feels justified in slaying it.
As it turns out, the wolf was indeed a shapeshifted fae male, and one night soon thereafter, a furious semi-anthropomorphic beast confronts Feyre with her actions, demanding that she pays for her crimes. The beast sweeps her away to Prythian, the land of the faeries, but her abductor turns out to be a powerful fae male, Tamlin, who – much to Feyre’s confusion – treats her as if she were a guest, not a murderer. Tamlin absolves Feyre from her crime, insofar as she stays in Prythian for the rest of her life. Like the rest of the faeries living on the lands of The Spring Court, Tamlin wears a mask, which he never seems to take off. This, among other things, alerts Feyre to the fact that there’s something shady going on beneath the surface.
From this point on, though, I felt like the story was dragging along for pages on end, as Feyre and Tamlin begin to warm up to one another, and as she slowly unravels the secrets of the Spring Court and its residents. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with a slow-paced unfolding of the plot, but while Feyre’s character is developing, transforming her from thorny to horny (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself), Tamlin’s character remains a bit lackluster and stagnant. Oh, he does take good care of Feyre, while also making sure that her family is well cared for. And although it takes him awhile to get going, he does court Feyre in an increasingly romantic way – perhaps guided by his friend and emissary of the Spring Court, Lucien, who is, by the way, a much more complex, entertaining and interesting figure. Tamlin has valid reasons for not being in the best of moods, but his brooding got on my nerves real quick, and Maas’ repetitive descriptions of Tamlin’s beastliness and ripped body didn’t quite compensate for this, although there were moments when his sexappeal counterbalanced his predictable behaviour (two words: Fire Night!).
But then, just as I was contemplating giving up on the story, someone very intriguing made an appearance. When she defies Tamlin’s orders to stay at the mansion and crash a party she’s not invited to (Fire Night), Feyre is assaulted by a bunch of nasty faeries, only to be rescued by Rhysand, a gorgeous high fae male (of course he would be – Maas is the writer, after all). Although Feyre is, at this point, caught up in her desire for Tamlin, the pull of this new character, who’s edged with darkness and danger, is undeniable. Rhysand’s role in the first part of the book is minor, but to my infinite pleasure, he’s a major influence in the development of the plot in the other half of the story.
In chapter 33, the story transformed in a way, I hadn’t seen coming, and to my own surprise, I became so goddam hooked, I could hardly put down the book. I would read it while strolling around with my baby in the park, mastering the difficult art of reading on a Kindle while trying to avoid running into people with the baby carriage. I got pretty damn good at it, too.
From this point on, the story explodes in action compared to the previous chapters, and it turns deliciously dark. Maas’ portrayal of Feyre’s tribulations Under The Mountain was so compelling and convincing that I could almost taste the fear and anguish, Feyre had to endure in order to stay alive. Rhysand enters the stage, and like layers peeled off an onion, he displays such a compelling depth and complexity of character, that he’s made it to my top-5 list of swoon-worthy fictional hunks.
Maas excels in the art of writing witty, snarky, and sarcastic bantering. The dialogue between Rhysand and Feyre is absolutely delightful, creating a much more compelling and believable relation, than the one, Feyre has with Tamlin. I particularly enjoyed the following quote, as I could vividly imagine how deviously charming Rhysand would look while saying it:
“You can leave if you’re just going to insult me.”
“But I’m so good at it”. He flashed one of his grins. I glared at him, but he sighed. “One wrong move tomorrow, Feyre, and we’re all doomed.”
… Rhysand is truly the king of snappy comebacks, but his edginess is counterbalanced by his actions, which speaks of both courage and empathy.
For all my praise of the second part of the novel, there was one thing that annoyed me. Feyre is presented with a riddle at some point, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why a clever girl like her would have such difficulties solving such a simple riddle. Of course, if the consequences of giving the wrong answer is death and doom, I would be careful too – but the solution was soooo obvious. It’s a minor detail, though.
To summarize: I ended up liking this story immensely, and when I re-read it (as preparation for the release of the sequel, A Court of Mist and Fury, I liked the first part of the book much more, knowing how thrilling it would all turn out in the end. Maas’s writing style is evocative and enthralling, and although she sometimes misses the mark, she has a way of creating believable, emotionally compelling characters, I can’t help but care deeply about.