I read ‘Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas because I was intrigued by the praise given to it in the excellent book of writing advice ‘How to Write a Page Turner’ by Jordan Rosenfeld. The author was evidently drawn in by the series of which this is the first, and a great admirer of Maas’ writing in general.
I wasn’t actually sure if this was aimed at a Young Adults or adults. The level of erotica is slightly higher than might be expected in a typical YA, but mild for an adult novel.
I was pleasantly surprised – even staggered – by the strength of the writing. I thought the plot well thought out but as wildly improbable as fairy stories normally are, yet that powerful writing did indeed make it exactly the page turner Jordan Rosenfeld found it for me.
It is a version of The Beauty and the Beast theme. Rather disappointingly, this beast isn’t really ugly at all, being forced to wear a mask instead. To me that slightly undermines the moral of the fairy tale. However, he does turn into a beast, a giant wolf, when he wants to travel outside the realm of the Spring Court where he rules. It is in this form that Feyre first comes to know him.
Feyre comes from a family of déclassé gentry reduced to living among the villagers in what seems to be a form of mediaeval Great Britain. This realm has been invaded and taken over by magical beings known as the Fae , and after a bitter war the humans have been driven back to an area that on the map in the beginning of the book is an equivalent to the south east and south west of England and some of the lower home counties.
Feyre’s family don’t seem to be any good at growing food, and there is besides no mention of the common land and grazing rights available to peasants under feudalism, so they accordingly largely rely on her to support them through honing her hunting skills.
One day she fights and kills a great wolf, skins him, and sells his pelt in the market. Unfortunately, this is actually a High Fae in disguise.
In due course, his great friend Tamsin, High Lord of the Spring Court, comes to claim Feyre whom he will keep in bondage in exchange for the murder.
Fortunately, this bondage does not include sexual abuse, as it might in some dismal Fantasy Come Bodice Ripper.
In fact, once at the court, Feyre is left more or less to her own devices, and only gradually develops any sort of a relationship with Tamsin and Lucien. At first, she is enthralled to have the materials and the time to indulge in her passion for painting. Tamsin shows himself generous in obtaining materials for her, and his interest in her work is what first brings them together.
Then, gradually, Feyre begins to learn the history of Tamsin, his relative Lucien, the masked servants, and the threat that surrounds them from the dread place under the mountain.
Normally, a writer can get away with a good deal of improbability by employing humour and introducing a spoof element into the work, or to provide an element of ironical detachment. This is not a technique that Sarah J. Maas uses. In fact, it is a comment on how impressive the writing generally is she tells this fantastic tale largely without any recourse to irony and yet still draws the reader in to the wildly improbabable events.
On so many occasions, I asked myself, ‘Why am I so eager to read more of this?’ and yet, I always did go back to it. In other words, Jordan Rosenfeld was quite right to use it as an example of a book where you have to keep reading. This book draws the reader in and keeps her/him reading whether or not s/he wishes it, and surely that is exactly what all writers want.
No doubt the tension that Jordan Rosenfeld emphasizes as the key component to writing gripping fiction is a part of it. In fact, Maas uses all the tricks that Rosenfeld recommends in her writing advice –- which is no doubt one of the reasons why Rosenfeld admires her writing. Overall, then, it is worth reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ (and no doubt Maas’ other books) quite apart from any entertainment value, as examples of how a writer can use various techniques to arouse reader interest and sympathy, and keep her or him turning those pages.
Above all, the writing is exceptionally vivid. For instance:
‘But it was not my own doom that I contemplated into dread and rage and despair. As we rode on – the only sound snow crunching beneath paws and hooves – I alternated between a wretched smugness at the thought of my family starving and thus realising how important I was, and a blinding agony at the thought of my father begging in the streets, his ruined leg giving out on him as he stumbled from person to person…’
The developing love between Tamsin and Feyre is particularly well done. I feared some distasteful Stockholm Syndrome theme of a Captive Falling for Her Hateful Abuser, but thankfully, the story keeps well away from that. There is no question of the sexual relationship between Tamsin and Feyre being anything but consensual on her part.
Whether SM Captor Captive overtones are avoided as successfully in the next in the series, where I gather that the wickedly purring Rhysand claims Feyre was his for a certain number of months of the year, remains to be seen; still, after this first read, I am optimistic.
Generally, then, this was an impressive read. If it is YA, then it is enjoyable for adults as well. It is often exciting and the scenes are vividly portrayed. The characters are skillfully drawn, and the connection between between the female and male lead is very well done.
Feyre is a sympathetic herione. She is her own person, and honourable. Though outstandingly good looking, she is no Mary Sue, the sort who is admired by everyone she meets, even in rags. She gives little thought to glamour.
When we first meet her, she is in her role as hunter, tracking in the icy winter forest. She is loyal to her family (though resentful of having to fight to support them) and as good as her word to her mother to look after them. Raised to be a ‘young lady’ she is used to dismal poverty.
This is her reaction when she sees the ornate furniture of the Spring Court: ‘I didn’t need to know the worth of everything in this room to understand that the emerald curtains alone – silk, with gold velvet – would have fed us for a lifetime. A chill scuttled down my spine. It had been days since I’d left. The venison would be running low already.’
Tamsin, at first a remote and cold figure, oddly devoid of any social graces for the ruler of a once populous court, becomes increasingly symapthetic as Feyre and the reader come to know more of him and the demons he fights.
I have got three complaints; one is about the incongruous use of modern US speech by these characters who seemingly inhabit a version of the UK of the Middle Ages(and I don’t mean Shakespearian expressions like ‘trash’ and ‘right now’), but by using constructions such as, ‘Stay the hell out of the cave.’
Another is the use of such sentences without pronouns or verbs, ie, ‘A growl.’ These are presumably done for effect, as I am sure so acomplished an author knows herself that they are ungrammatical. Perhaps the editor put them in, believing that they make the text more readable for young adults.
I was also disappointed at the anachronisms. I know this is set in a fantasy version of Mediaeval Britain and not the real one – well, obviously, since as far as I know, we were never invaded by fairies, though we were by Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French and many others – but there are great problems about the way that this mediaeval economy is depicted.
For instance, luxury items like chocolate (which of course, contains sugar) and tea, necessarily imported from abroad, are freely available to the general population in what seems to be a feudal economy with a small surplus and primitive transport. In the real Mediaeval UK, tea wasn’t affordable for most people until well into the eighteenth century, and then only as a treat, and honey was largely used as a sweetener instead of the luxury item ‘sweet salt’.
Then, there are incongruous features such as ‘the London Season’ being mentioned in passing. The London Season was a much later development, based about the timing of the sitting of the Houses of Parliament, and so odd in this presumably feudal setting.
Again, this seems to be a version of mediaeval Great Britain where birth control other than coitus interruptus has been discovered. Feyre mentions using it, apropos her enjoying a fairly casual sexual relationship with the village youth Isaac. I suppose that would have been arguably possible in an era of a primitive understanding of science;certainly, it is true that various ‘primitive’ cultures have had a good understanding of women’s fertility and have used herbal means to control it. I assume that the difference regarding the influence of the Church from the Great Britian of the real mediaeval age is one reason why Feyre’s having a lover outside marriage is not seen as wholly outrageous. She is also allowed to dress in trousers without comment, which of course, would have been wholly beyond the pale in the non fantasy UK of that era.
Overall, though, despite these minor drawbacks, ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is a fantasy story that draws you in before you know it and one which I recommend. I will probably go on to read the others in the series.