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

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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.

Historical Fiction: Celebrated Writers whose Names are Syonymous with the Fictional Depiction of an Age: Part I: Mary Renault and the Bronze Age.

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A horrible fight…

There are some writers of historical fiction on particular historical epochs who acquire such widespread  fame that they are often described as having ‘Made that era their own’.

One of these is Mary Renault, famed for her strong writing and thorough historical research.

Born in 1905 in a middle class home, strongly influenced by her father and suffering from an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother, Renault attended Oxford, became a nurse, and had a life long relationship with another woman with whom she emigrated to  South Africa in 1948. Although many of her novels deal with the theme of same sex love and sexuality, and she acquired a strong gay following, she did not define herself as a gay writer. However, she always saw herself a something of an ‘honourary man’.

Renault  tried various sorts of writing before concentrating on novels set in Ancient Greece. She wrote various novels about Alexander, and also a duo set in the Bronze Age, featuring the mythical hero Theseus, ‘The King Must Die’ (1958) and ‘The Bull from the Sea’ (1962).

In these novels, Renault depicts Theseus as the initiator of the overthrow of the ancient matriarchal societies by the new system of patriarchy.  Although Renault was influenced  by the writings of Robert Graves, author of ‘The White Goddess’ and other works on the ancient Goddess religion, Renault, in line with the conventional views of her era, depicted  their destruction as the inevitable result of historical progress, while Graves’ sympathies were all with female power.

In her introduction to the ‘The King Must Die’, Bethany Hughes comments:  ‘It is perhaps odd that  Renault should choose Theseus, a macho warrior with a bloody biography, as her favoured hero.  The myth cycles of antiquity declare Theseus to be a hero who tricked, bludgeoned and raped his way through life. There are lurid, ancient descriptions of his rape of the eight year old Helen…’

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‘Tanglewood Tales’ with its depiction of the Ancient Greek legends, was read to me when I was about five. I was so horrified by the Minotaur that I couldn’t put my fear into words, and talked instead of being scared of the dragon in the ‘dragon’s teeth’ myth. I was in awe of Theseus for being brave enough to go and fight such a terrible monster, and never having investigated the darker side of the myth, my feelings for him remained benign when I grew up.

This is certainly why, when I read ‘The King Must Die’ and its somehow fragmented sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ , I was startled to find that Theseus obnoxious. When I finished the book and looked over the reviews on the internet, I was dismayed to find  that these books are recommended enthusiastically by not only male readers, but by a fair amount of female readers too.

While I quite agree that an historical society must be depicted to the best of the author’s ability as it was – not sanitized according to modern sensibilities- there are still ways in which the author can use the narrative tone and plot devices to distance herself from the ugly attitudes of the age. This remains true, even if a first person voice is chosen, as it is in the Theseus series.  It seems to me that Renault, having failed to do this, leaves this reader at least with the uneasy impression that on the whole she  sympathized with Theseus  (and many male readers of this series) in thinking that a society that sacrificed one man a year is somehow more bloody and barbaric than one which brutalises countless women.

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I was dismayed by the internalised misogyny which Renault displays. This so detracted from my engagement with the stories, that the lively narration and vivid depiction seemed to me to be tainted by it.

Renault  tries to be fair, but given the attitude towards women in the era in which she is writing, this is difficult.  Though she was in a marriage type relationship with another woman, she seemed to illustrate her generally low view of her sex by her various dismissive quotes (ie, the one on the possibility of a female Shakespeare quoted by David Sweetman in his biography), and she saved her admiration for male figures.

This was probably typical of the women who identified as ‘masculine’  in the era when she was young. By the time feminism and gay liberation appeared, Renault was, in middle age, unable to identify with them.

In this series, only masculine woman  (like the Amazon Queen Hippoylata, who suffers from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome after her capture) are depicted as admirable. More conventionally ‘feminine’ women are seen as devious, motivated by vanity, and untrustworthy.  There is the extraordinary assumption that the Amazon Queen, though raised apart from men, is nevertheless boyish because she is athletic and courageous. That it is possible to be athletic and physically brave without being mannish was not an idea that seems to have occurred to Renault’s generation.

To be fair to Renault, she does depict some splendid matriarchal women,  such as the wonderful matriarchal Queen who is Theseus’ first wife (or rather, he is her last out of maybe a dozen Kings for a Year, bringing about her own death), and Theseus’ own mother.  I was less sympathetic towards the apostate Amazon Hippoylata.

The result of all these influences is that in ‘The King Must Die’  particularly, the reader is assumed  to b e quite happy in cheering  Theseus on in his onslaught on female power. While  its oddly inchoate sequel, ‘The Bull from the Sea’ has been interpreted by critics as ‘The Goddess’s revenge’, this is incompletely depicted. Theseus in the end kills himself by jumping off a cliff, an anti climatic end. It is surely less drawn out and painful than that which he gives his errant wife Phaedra when he chokes her to death (I have always been puzzled why, as a supposedly brilliant wrestler, he didn’t use the strangle – cutting off the blood to the brain – rather than the clumsy choke – cutting off air to the lungs;  Renault, usually meticulous in research, fails there).

In fact, all of Theseus’ three wives (counting Hippoylata) die through his actions (or inactions) so that I have always felt that the title should be altered to, ‘The Queen Must Die’.

However, my reaction is that of a minority. Most readers of Renault are wholly admiring, or, if they find that internalised misogyny offensive, are able to ‘get past it’ better than I am. Today, sixty years after the date of its publication, ‘The King Must Die’ is still selling well – 30,533 in the Kindle Store at Amazon.co.uk.

Renault’s influence has been pervasive- to the point when her name is almost equated with the fictional depiction of that  period – despite the fact that her style is old fashioned, and that modern research to some extent disagrees with her interpretation. This poses a  problem for subsequent writers on the Bronze Age.

Such writers are invariably, because of Renault’s continuing influence, compared to Renault, and all too often, to the detriment of experimentation.

I have, since reading Renault’s series, come on a couple of excellent ones which take an opposing view of the destruction of the ancient female centred cultures, seeing this as the beginning of warlike cultures, typified by aggression, rape and brutality.

However, while I would find this portrayal sympathetic, it would not be enough for me to have a great admiration  for them, if they were not brilliantly written. For me, these books have all the advantages of Mary Renault’s scholarship, without incorporating that dismal internalized misogyny.

On this, I have just discovered that back in 1971 a male author – Poul Anderson – wrote a novel  ‘The Dancer from Atlantis’, which is actually based on Renault’s own. This is an inverted version, where Theseus is dipicted as the brutal destroyer of the civilisation of Ancient Crete. I would be interested to read this, and wonder it has received so little attention.

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Another story based on the Theseus legend is the brilliant, but eminently tragic, duo by June Rachuy Brindel,  ‘Ariadne’ and ‘Phaedra’, published respectively in 1980 and 1985.

Another saga set in the Bronze Age about the destruction of the ancient matriarchies – though not about Theseus – is Rebecca Lochlann’s excellent ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series of eight books, which is still ongoing, the first book having been published in 2011.

Frequenters of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of this writing. I  have been exasperated by the wearisome tendency of some reviewers – including some males clearly stung bythe unflattering portait of the patriarchy contained in it – to make those invidious comparisons with Renault of all works of fiction about Bronze Age Greece, including Brindel’s and Lochlann’s work.

Renault wrote an interesting, thoroughly researched and vividly portayed series – one which I personally found distasteful, but many will disagree. It was  based on the views of her time. Sixty years have gone by since then.  Surely it is time for readers to move on from interpreting Bronze Age Greece and the Greek legends through Renault’s specific lens, and to investigate new fictional explorations of Bronze Age Greece, ones which are fairer in their treatment of women and female power.

The view that any age or indeed, any aspect of writing is the domain of, or should be depicted using the same approach of, some celebrated author is surely ridiuclous and stifling.

Of course, there will always be a hardcore of admirers of some writers of yesteryear who simply don’t want to move on – who think that particular writing can never be surpassed. However, most readers are hopefully not of so rigid a mindset, and surely the same argument must apply even more to the rest of the publishing world, who are supposedly ever eager for new ideas or new approaches to familiar themes.

But this post is becoming too long: so more on these, in my next post.

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