‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J Maas: Certainly a Page Turner

A_Court_of_Thorns_and_Roses_series

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.

‘Unearthed After Sunset’ by Lauryn April: A Gripping Tale of Vampire and Human Turf Wars in Modern Day Phoenix

I’ve been looking forward to Lauryn April’s new series and’ Unearthed After Sunset’ the first of ‘The Cereus Vampire Chronicles’, was anything but a disappointment.

In fact, I the writing is better than ever. There is increasing and impressive strength and flow to the style. One of the things I like about some YA writing is that you will find more maturity in approach than you can in many books intended for so-called adults. That is certainly true here.

We first met the male lead, Greg Erikson, aged twenty-three and something of a drifter, in a bar where he has headed after a series of bathetic misfortunes:

 

Unearthed After Sunset (Cereus Vampire Chronicles Book 1) by [April, Lauryn]

I’d failed the summer class I needed to graduate, lost my internship at Douglass and Smith Publishing, got fired from the terrible landscaping job I picked up to cover the bills, and to top it off, my girlfriend dumped me because I’d kept all of that a secret.’

I had to warm to this anti hero – he’s so believable, and sympathetic in his character defects – that drifting, his urge to belong –as he is in his strengths – his unsparing self honesty, his self deprecating humour, and his capacity for loyalty and courage.

Events move quickly.  Greg meets a pretty girl, Caroline, and dismayed as he is over the break up with his former girlfriend, he is nevertheless drawn to her; t he takes her number, and suddenly finds himself kissing her.

Then he sets of to the friend with whom he plans to stay – taking a short cut, it still being light – through a cemetery.

Here he sees Caroline set on by a couple of men. As he runs to her aid, she stabs them with a stake and they turn to dust. She urges Greg to leave and to forget what he has seen.

Instead, he hides and spies on her from a crypt as she is joined by her father. More vampires appear, the fighting recommences,  and Greg realises that incredibly, they are modern day vampire hunters.

But then he is set on himself – by the siren Lila. He wakes up in his coffin, scrabbles his way out, and finds her waiting for her new recruit to the gang of vampires run by the merciless predator Santo. He leads his gang in a doubled edged power struggle against a rival group of vampires, known as the Nosferatu, whilst simultaneously waging war against the vampire hunters.

During this time, Caroline is continuing with her day-to-day life in destroying vampires.

Twenty-year-old Caroline is as appealing a female lead as Greg is a male lead. Though she might be a member of the hereditary Order of Iowa, sworn in because her older brother Michael was killed a year ago by vampires, she retains much of her old personality,  the fun loving girl student with two inseparable best friends who loves to go out and who finds her parents’ protectiveness irksome.  Her insouciant description of the governing body of the Order of Iona is typical:

‘The Committee that governed us was made up of wrinkly old hunters who didn’t die on the job, and they spent their retirement years like nosy neighbors keeping tabs on the rest of us.’

Meanwhile, as part of Santo’s group, Greg – now renamed Archer for his prowess with a hunter’s bow  and arrows –is soon happy to discard as much of his lingering humanity as he can. He never fitted in before, wherever he went. Now he has a life outside society’s rules, where he feels that instead of being a dead monster, he is all powerful, at the top of the food chain, invulnerable to anything but sunlight and Transylvannian Sage. Now he can live without remorse or regret, seeing humans much as most meat eating humans see farm animals.

His new life is one of daily brutality where he attacks people and lets them live, or attacks them as kills, without compunction.

Meanwhile, Santo is eager to extend his power base, and his group have a hideous recruitment drive.

Greg is puzzled by this obsession of the group leader to stay in that particular part of Phoenix, constantly in conflict with the Nosferatau, when as vampires they can travel to and live anywhere in the world, but Santo has good reasons;  it is rumoured that the vampire hunters may have access to a cure for sunlight being fatal for vampires…

…Or is this cure something else?

Yet, Greg cannot entirely throw off his feelings of regret about Caroline, and what might have been. He was human when he met and kissed her; he is a dead and a monster when he starts his relationship with the enticing but merciless Lila.  All that he has lost is bound up with those budding feeling for Caroline.

When they met Greg cannot regard Caroline entirely as an enemy. This is true for Caroline too: for she has learnt something that makes her hope that all vampires are not evil.

There is a good deal of horror in this story, but it is never gratuitously violent. The hideous turf wars between the vampires is vividly depicted and the sheer horror of Greg’s transformation to the monstrous Archer is unsparingly portrayed, but there is a great deal of contrasting human (or part human) feeling, and there are wonderful touches of light relief.

I have always enjoyed the humour in Lauryn April’s books, and this one is no exception. For instance:

‘Rival vampire gang sounded like the name of a terrible punk rock band.’

‘I also didn’t understand why we were fighting so hard to stay here. It seemed there were probably better places we could be.’

‘He wasn’t the most pleasant company. Vera told me he threw a lamp at her.’

“You stay on the couch. If you so much as knock on my bedroom door, I’ll stake you.”

“Yes ma ‘am.”

Caroline rolled her eyes and walked to her bedroom.’

And here are some of my other favourite quotes; they vary from the stirring to the horrific, to the touching to the tragic:

‘Our blows fell into a rhythm after that. I’d swing, she’d duck. She’d kick, I’d block. Our movements felt whimsical, as if we’d created some kind of combat-waltz and I was intoxicated by our dance. Every hit left me feeling alive. Then Caroline landed a solid kick to my chest, and lifted her stake, readying to drive it through my chest. I stumbled back, and finally realized this wasn’t a dance.’

‘A slurping noise filled the air as Marcus released the blood bag.’

‘Fingers emerged like fat white worms slithering up through the dirt. His hands came next, grasping at the grass. Moments later his arms were free and soon his dirt-smeared face emerged.’

‘The girls are getting dinner ready.” (No sexism in this arrangement; something even worse!)

‘The amber glow caressed him like a lover’s embrace.’

‘A metal trash bin caught my eye. I suddenly couldn’t stand the thought of it standing there, watching her. I knocked it over with such force that the can dented, the lid flew off, and garbage spilled out. She didn’t deserve this.’

‘“So, what? You’re like, a good vampire? I thought you said this wasn’t like TV?”

I stormed forward until I stood only inches from her. She leaned back in her chair, holding her breath. “I’m choosing to be different. If you don’t believe me, then kill me. That’s your job, hunter. But I’m hoping maybe you’re more than your label too.”’

“The thirst for blood. The excitement of violence. The thrill of taking what you want with no regard to the consequences. Being bad can be a lot of fun.”

‘I’d never spent this much time looking at a vampire before and my hair stood on end as I neared. I’d never been able to be this close without having to fight for my life. Really, there wasn’t anything different about him and yet somehow, he looked – wrong. I realized how incredibly still he was, like a living photograph. His chest didn’t rise or fall. He didn’t breathe. Of course, he’s not breathing, he’s a vampire. Things were different when he was awake. He was so animated then. Now he lay completely motionless. Ice ran through my veins and I jumped back a step. Archer didn’t just look motionless, he looked dead. Despite knowing he would wake, an eerie sensation overcame me with the realization that I stared at a corpse.;

‘”I’m not the good guy. I know that. I’ll never be the hero of the story, not even if I try. That’s just not the way things are, and that’s okay.”’

The pace is fast, the characters vivid, the moral approach never simplistic, the conflicted reluctant tenderness between Greg and Caroline sensitively and believably portrayed, and generally I am eager to read the next in the series.

You can buy this book on Amazon.com here 

and here for Amazon.co.uk