A Court of Mist and Fury
Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s
Published: May 3, 2016
Rating: 2 / 5 Stars
For Those Who Enjoyed Read These Instead: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Passion of New Eve, Fingersmith, Rebel of the Sands, Long May She Reign, A Darker Shade of Magic, Six of Crows, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Stardust, Uprooted, The Diviners, Robin Mckinley, Kelley Armstrong
This is not a spoiler-free review!
Look, publishing community. We need to talk.
About ten years ago, you let the Twilight series take over the world, and with it, naive young girls’ belief that overly protective stalker boyfriends were something to strive for. Since the series’ completion, readers and moviegoers alike have vowed to do better. We hoped to put these toxic ideals behind us with every conversation we had about the problematic nature of Stephenie Meyer’s books. We hoped in doing so, we could finally move forward to read and support more wholesome, meaningful content.
Yet somehow, you chose to invest your money in Sarah J. Maas, and unleashed a whole new, far worse beast upon the world.
Why are we still letting toxic romances dominate the YA genre? Have we learned nothing from the likes of Meyer at all?
Let’s take a step back for a moment. As with her first series, Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas set out to write another fairy tale retelling in her latest A Court of Thorns and Roses series. By the time Mist and Fury begins, we’ve all but cast the Beauty and the Beast pretence to the wind. In perhaps the most dull first third of any novel, Feyre is suffering extreme depression and PTSD following the trauma incurred at Amarantha’s wrath. I am wholeheartedly here for portrayals of PTSD in YA. In fact, I encourage it. And given how much of a non-entity it is in Throne of Glass following Celaena’s pre-series traumas, this almost seems like an improvement on Maas’ part. But not when it goes on and on and on for 200 pages. Reading about any protagonist moping in self-pity is a 50-page deal at most. I get we’re supposed to see Feyre’s lack of self-worth at the start of this novel. I get that her trajectory is clearly one of her realising her value and gaining empowerment. Fine. But you can tell that story in 150 less pages. Believe me, as someone who has opened a novel with significant scenes of abuse and trauma, I know what it means to cut back. It pays to trust your reader and rein it in sometimes.
Which comes to one of the most blatant transgressions Maas commits: her lack of editing. Sure, at this point, she’s kind of well-known for her signature long sequels. But larger word counts do not good writing make. This novel could have easily been a solid 400 pages without the faffing about she does in the beginning.
There are some books that really excel in being split into distinct acts. Separating segments via setting or plot shifts can really solidify the narrative, but Maas’ acts can be separated out according to isolated moments sliding along a scale of boring, great, horrifying, and dire. Which is not what you want out of a narrative arc.
I actually thoroughly enjoyed the middle of this novel. For 200 pages, it seems like Maas has begun to atone for all her grievous harm done in her previous works. She introduces some interesting female characters for Feyre to befriend. The friend dynamic of Rhysand’s council is easily one of the strengths of the series and I wish she could have introduced them by the end of the first book. Amren in particular is a fascinating character, who, for a hot second, seems like she might kick some ass in a dark, ruthless, gory kind of way. She and Feyre have a great scene where they’re given permission to go out on a mission and be badass. I was excited to see where this would go and I looked forward to seeing these new battle sisters doing some serious damage together. Unfortunately, there are once more, long interludes where Amren keeps herself locked up, decoding things while the others go out and do the exciting stuff. Until the climax of the novel, the best, most dynamic addition to the cast has been shafted. As are all of the female characters in this series.
Here’s the thing.
For the most part, I like the girls in this book. At face value, they’re great. Nesta, Amren, Mor, and Feyre could all hold their own in battle as easily as they could all have a slumber-party style ki-ki over wine together. But the patriarchal world they’re placed in does no favours for them. Maas’ faerie world is build up by patriarchal traditions, where the men are led by their territorial, violent animal instincts:
“What’s normal?” I said.
… “The … frenzy … When a couple accepts the mating bond, it’s … overwhelming. Again, harkening back to the beasts we once were. Probably something about ensuring the female is impregnated. … Some couples don’t leave the house for a week. Males get so volatile that it can be dangerous for them to be in public, anyway. I’ve seen males of reason and education shatter a room because another male looked too long in their mate’s direction too soon after they’ve been mated.”
This hyper-masculine tradition also happens to heavily feature treating women like commodities they can use and throw away whenever they like. Rhysand, a character Maas tries so hard to pass off as a celebrated feminist, even tells Feyre in the heat of passion that, “I want you splayed out on the table like my own personal feast”. Every single one of Maas’ male characters, including, and especially Rhys, is a product of this tradition. But instead of engaging with commentary about how toxic such a worldview is, Maas just lets her characters carry on in this reality without consequence, self-awareness, or rebellion against it, as can be seen by Rhys’ explanation of women’s place in the kitchen, and Feyre’s subsequent acquiescence to that role as Rhys’ partner:
“It’s an … important moment when a female offers her mate food. It goes back to whatever beasts we were a long, long time ago. But it still matters. The first time matters. Some mated pairs will make an occasion of it– throwing a party just so the female can formally offer her mate food … But it means that the female … accepts the bond.”
This old-fashioned, dare I say, archaic misogynistic ideal is just treated as the norm, effectively cementing every other male fantasy writer’s depiction of patriarchal societies as the ultimate world-building feature of the genre.
I don’t know what Maas is thinking, but whatever it is, it’s not cute.
Why are we still putting fantasies set in patriarchal worlds on such a high pedestal? It’s fantasy! What’s more, it’s 2017! You can’t tell me it’s more realistic to write a patriarchal society than literally any other kind in a fantasy world. When Maas, a woman writer creating her own world from scratch, has the chance to do whatever she wants, this is what she gives us?
One of the most horrifying scenes in A Court of Thorns and Roses (which is also shockingly overlooked) is Rhysand drugging Feyre and turning her into his slave whore without her consent. Maas sweeps this under the rug with a quick explanation that is all justified to a.) save Rhys’ fearsome reputation among the other realms, and b.) protect Feyre from the horrors of Amarantha’s kingdom. Just when I thought this particular plot was given its much needed closure (shut it down, Sarah. Shut it down right now!), the slave whore plot rears its ugly head again:
“I had heard the rumours, and I didn’t quite believe him.” [Keir’s] gaze settled on me, on my breasts, peaked through the folds of my dress, of my legs, spread wider than they’d been minutes before, and Rhys’ hand in dangerous territory. “But it seems true: Tamlin’s pet is now owned by another master.”
“You should see how I make her beg,” Rhys murmured, nudging my neck with his nose.
Keir clasped his hands behind his back. “I assume you brought her to make a statement.”
“You know everything I do is a statement.”
The only difference is, Feyre’s aware and consenting this time. Still, the skimpy dress and incredibly graphic touching on Rhys’ part all in the name of creating a diversion isn’t good enough to justify his actions. Rhysand’s created a thinly-veiled excuse to once again, objectify Feyre, touch her inappropriately in front of everyone, and lay claim to her when she’s not his to claim:
“Try not to let it go to your head.”
…I … said with midnight smoothness, “What?”
Rhys’ breath caressed my ear, the twin to the breath he’d brushed against it merely an hour ago in the skies. “That every male in here is contemplating what they’d be willing to give up in order to get that pretty, red mouth of yours on them.”
…His hand slid higher up my thigh, the proprietary touch of a male who knew he owned someone body and soul.
His eyes on the Steward, Rhys made vague nods every now and then. While his fingers continued their slow, steady stroking on my thighs, rising higher with every pass.
People were watching. Even as they drank and ate, even as some danced in small circles, people were watching. I was sitting in his lap, his own personal plaything, his every touch visible to them.
This isn’t romantic, this isn’t sexy, and it’s straight up not okay!
At what point did this series just turn into a horrific Princes Leia/Jabba the Hut smutfic? I know the only ones imagining what it might’ve been like had Leia been chained to Sexy McSexMachine instead of a giant blob are usually the pervy weirdos. Meaning no one in their right minds would want that mental image. Absolutely no one. In fact, the moment that image popped into my head, the final implosion of Rhys and Feyre’s sexual tension was made all the more cringe-worthy. There’s a reason Carrie Fisher spoke so strongly against Jabba and the gold bikini. She knew what it meant to be objectified, something Maas does not succeed in exploiting with Rhys’ choice to put Feyre in these skimpy outfits not once, but twice in this series. While yes, putting her in these outfits is ultimately a con-game, why should he be lauded for still playing by patriarchal rules in the first place? Shouldn’t the correct course of action be to break down those gender barriers?
All I have left to say about that is, I’m sorry, Sarah. You wrote that Leia/Jabba fanfiction. You made your bed. Now lie in it.
I suppose it’s about time to address the elephant in the room: Rhys. Oh boy… I don’t know how someone can pull together a character’s development so offensively, but Maas somehow wins the prize. He spends the entire first book as a lackey to the villain, doing the best he can to humiliate and emotionally manipulate Feyre. Now, we’re expected to believe he’s not only Feyre’s true love (oh, sorry… mate), but a feminist icon? I’m sorry. No. Did we already forget that he drugged her and made her dance for him in Leia’s gold bikini? It happened. I’m not about to let people forget it…
Readers fall all over themselves over him for coming to Feyre’s rescue when she begs to be saved from her wedding to Tamlin. On the surface, he’s set up to directly juxtapose Tamlin’s controlling over-protectiveness by letting Feyre do whatever she likes. Yet there’s still an unhealthy amount of Rhys manipulating situations in order to do what he feels is best for her. Not what Feyre thinks is best for herself, but what he thinks is best. Every single decision Feyre makes is based on Rhys’ influence. Nothing she does is for herself. By making Rhysand’s word law, Maas effectively strips Feyre of her agency, ironically, the one thing Rhys has attempted to help her regain in the first place.
What’s more, I don’t know who any of these characters are outside of their relation to Rhysand. They all revolve around him, because in Maas’ paraphrased words, he’s the most beautiful, powerful, strongest male in the kingdom. I honestly don’t need this overcompensation to make up for how toxic he is as a person. Not to mention, his male friends are nothing but carbon copies of him. Cassian and Azriel share his colouring and Ilyrian wings. I’ve seen plenty of fanart out there depicting the full cast of characters and I can never tell one male character from the another, nor one female character from another. The men (Azriel, Cassian, and Rhysand) are handsome and dark haired, the women (Feyre, Nesta, Elain, and Mor), beautiful and blonde. Again, the only stand-out is Amren, who is woefully underrepresented and poorly used in the novel. When you have a white cookie cutter template for every character in your patriarchal world, you’ve gotta step outside your box to deliver some diversity at some point. Otherwise, everything’s just vanilla with a side of racism.
If you think Rhys is the only male character abusing women in this novel, you would be dead wrong. Every single female character in this series has an honestly triggering backstory involving rape, whether emotional or physical. This novel is undoubtedly the sort of thing that should come with a warning. I’ve seen copies with warnings that the series is not suitable for young readers on the back cover, but it’s both irresponsible to then market it as YA, and not discuss rape and abuse responsibly. In fact, given how frequently Maas uses the rape card and how non-existent any discourse concerning the consequences is, I’d say this is a dire case of romanticising rape. And I’m tired of seeing readers obsessing over series like these en masse. It’s doing nothing but perpetuating rape culture.
Mor in particular has a brutal rape backstory. This is made all the more upsetting by how eager her father is to sell her off to the highest bidder, and her desperation to lose her virginity on her own terms:
“I wanted Cassian to be the one who did it. I wanted to choose … Rhys came back the next morning, and when he learned what had happened … He and Cassian … I’ve never seen them fight like that. Hopefully I never will again.I know Rhys wasn’t pissed about my virginity, but rather the danger that losing it had put me in. Azriel was even angrier about it–though he let Rhys do the walloping. They knew what my family would do for debasing myself.”
“I wanted my first time to be with one of the legendary Illyrian warriors. I wanted to lie with the greatest of Illyrian warriors, actually. And I’d taken one look at Cassian and known. … He just wants what he can’t have, and it’s irritated him for centuries that I walked away and never looked back.”
“Oh, it drives him insane,” Rhys said from behind me.
What’s worrying here is that while the men are praised for playing the patriarchal system to protect their women, female characters like Mor aren’t shown the same respect for protecting themselves. Mor’s entire character arc is punishment for her female sexuality, kept completely out of her control. Not once does a female character speak out against her sexual abuse, nor do they seek justice for it.
In a recent interview, Maas has stated that she only writes sex scenes if they further the plot. When literally everyone’s backstory hinges on sex, whether consensual or otherwise, I find that doubtful. If there’s one positive thing I’ll say about Maas, it’s that I’m glad she’s leading the charge for sex-positive female characters. But how empowering are these characters really, when they’re defined by their desirability to men and their past sexual traumas? Sure, Feyre has sexual agency, but what else does she have? Especially in a patriarchal world where this is expected of her, and she doesn’t even use this “power” to her advantage…
Look, I’m glad Feyre’s getting pleasured the way she wants it, when she wants it, and the detailed depiction of her sexual stimulation might help girls become more aware of their own bodies and sexuality. But when this is the highest profile series featuring female sexuality in the YA market right now, what kind of example are we really setting here?
Feminism doesn’t begin and end with sexual expression. It’s more than that and Maas’ characters have to join that fight. Especially given it’s one of the highest selling fantasy series in the market right now. Sarah J. Maas is not the feminist role model we need for this generation of girls.
We need more than this.
In short, I’m absolutely shocked and appalled that so many people blindly gave this book 4 and 5 stars. Even those who acknowledge how problematic Maas’ writing is. Is it really worth overlooking blatant normalised rape culture to call something your favourite series? As I said from the outset, we’ve already been there with Twilight. An entire generation of girls fell head over heels for Edward Cullen, a 100+ year old stalker who dictated Bella Swan’s ever action and motivation. Now, here we are again, encouraging a new generation of teens to swoon over this sexy, emotionally manipulative product of rape culture, without any acknowledgement of the consequences.
We need to do better. Starting with readers. Starting with authors. Starting with publishers.
It’s time to hold ourselves accountable for the content we praise and allow kids to read. Because toxic masculinity and rape culture are not values to uphold. We live in a world where the President of the United States can brag about grabbing women by the pussy without recourse. Where old, white men are constantly dictating women’s reproductive rights. Where women are catcalled in the streets and victim blamed for the clothes they wear. Where girls can’t even go out at night on their own without the threat of sexual assault.
Is this really what we want to teach our daughters, sisters, students, friends? That it’s okay, to allow passing men to objectify us, just because they have power over us?
Listen, girls. This is the thing: men have power over us so long as we give it to them. So long as we keep laying down and accepting that we’re weak and in need of defending, they’ll keep doing it. And people like Sarah J. Maas will keep holding to those gender expectations. They’ll keep defining romantic ideals based on hyper-masculine overprotective, possessive men.
It’s up to us to redefine romantic ideals. To tear down toxic masculinity and uplift healthy, equal relationships based on mutual respect.
Because you’re worth so much more than that. You deserve better than Rhysand. Align yourself with people who value you for who you are and not just your body. Listen to them when they praise you for your talents. Accept their recommendations when they stumble across media showcasing aspirational women rising above the status quo. You are more than just an object holding a man’s attention. You are yourself and you deserve the world.
Look beyond the smokescreen of Sarah J. Maas’ works and aspire to be something more.