Imagine that you're giving someone who wishes to prepare you a meal a list of your favorite foods. For me, it would probably be something like eclairs, lentil madras, tea leaf salad, avocado toast, and shrimp scampi. Now imagine the person making you your meal goes to the kitchen, takes all these things, and puts them into a blender. They place the chunky, brown liquid in front of you in a fancy glass, and you can make you dustings of chocolate powder griming the edges while fish tails bob merrily amid chunks of garlic and avocado. "Here it is," they say proudly. "It's everything you asked for-- your favorite." And you run out screaming, "NOT LIKE THIS! GOD, NOT LIKE THIS!"
That's Sarah J. Maas for me, in a nutshell.
At this point, I feel like I am an unwilling connoisseur of SJM's work. My followers keep asking me to read and review her books because they like it when I'm sad. I'm sure somewhere they all have vials secreted away with "Nenia's SJM tears" printed on the labels. Some evil fiend is probably listing them on Etsy as we speak. I'm beginning to feel quite bullied! And it's really a shame, because going by the summaries, they should be books that I love. I'm fairly well-versed in Celtic and faerie folklore, and The Ballad of Tam Lin is one of my favorites. I love assassins. I love strong female heroines. I love the idea of an edgy film noir take on fantasy land where everything is so fucked up that people pursue sex and drugs as a means to oblivion. Every Sarah J. Maas book has a premise that I should love.
But I don't, because I really can't stand her writing style.
A COURT OF THRONES AND ROSES is the closest that Maas ever got to getting it right. I actually enjoyed this book (I know, right? WHAT?), and from what I've read of her reviews of the sequels, it's like she learned nothing from what she got right about this one, and then proceeded to undo EVERY. SINGLE. PERFECT. THING about this book, which led to the speeding train wreck that is the Holographic Shiny Charizard of WTFery™ on Maas's evolution to ultimate self-indulgent Fantaporn™.
I am talking, of course, about HOUSE OF EARTH AND BLOOD.
But this one... this one can come to my birthday party.
There are two seconds in this review. Section one is about what this book got right. Section two is about what this book (and other books of Maasly nature) got wrong, including a section on Why Rhysand is a Sleazy Bastardy Bastard Son from A Court of Fuck and You™. You're free to disagree with me, but I will not tolerate rude stans. And if you've already been blocked by me on Goodreads, kindly don't go to my blog and start spouting your condescension there (this is a call out to you, yes, you, you know who you are and what you wrote, and you know why I deleted your comment).
✨ Feyre is an okay protagonist. In the beginning of the book, she has strengths and weaknesses that Celaena, Queen of Sues, First of Her Fucking Name, Mother of Perfectly Perfection™ does not. I liked that she was illiterate, that she had hobbies, that she had the normal thoughts and insecurities that someone of her personality in her situation might have. I didn't always like her and sometimes I found her REALLY annoying, but in the beginning of the book, she was a well-rounded human.
✨ The world-building was good. I liked how much effort was put into the lore of the fairy kingdoms, how each court was distinct, all of the monsters. The challenges at the end had a distinct Goblet of Fire/Hunger Games tang, which gave the book a much needed jolt of action.
✨ Decent sex scenes. The only decent sex scenes in any SJM book I've read. Apparently someone has a body paint fetish, not that I mind. Maybe it's because there wasn't any "mating" or "claiming."
✨ A great love interest. I loved Tam Lin. He reminded me of a more vicious Chaol (who was my ship of choice after Nehemia for Celaena-- good thing I wasn't in a betting pool). He was so tragic and fierce and tortured, and I am a sucker for a hero toiling under the Yoke of Tragic Backstory™.
✨ Pacing is slightly off. The first half of the book is very slow. This only becomes more of an issue in later books when the page count mysteriously begins to inflate. Unless she's like Dickens and getting paid by the word, I see no need for the word counts to balloon. Especially since in later books, no real content is being added-- it's all fluff. 400 pages was slightly longer than this book needed to be but it worked. Her books really should not be longer than that, and certainly not 800 pages.
✨ Rhysand. I don't know why people like this bastard. And before you come after me for being a hypocrite, yes, I acknowledge that I like problematic romance heroes myself-- but not at the cost of my original ship, and not when they're turned into pussycats as soon as the matter of moral responsibility becomes an issue. From what I understand, Tam is villanized in later books and Rhysand becomes the de facto love interest, and I have receipts for why he is not great:
a) calls Feyre "mortal trash"
b) mind-rapes her in front of her friends
c) humiliates her friends in front of her
d) tracks down, kidnaps, and helps kill an innocent human
e) delivers the head of an innocent faerie to Tam's door
f) taunts Tam with Feyre when Feyre is trying to save Tam's life
g) roofies Feyre with faerie wine and molests her to taunt Tam some more
h) lets Tam catch him and Feyre together with a sexual assault kiss
i) is named Rhysand, which is probably faerie for "hypocritical asshole"
I did feel a little sorry for him at the end when we find out that he's basically the sex slave of Amarantha, and everything that happened between them was probably rape. That is awful. But having bad things happen to you doesn't absolve you when you do them to someone else. I say this because Rhysand fans seem to rejoice in dragging Tam, and conveniently forgetting all of the problematic things that Rhysand did to Feyre and others in this book, so fuck him, I say.
✨ The usual litany of Maas-isms: "huffed a laugh," "purred," "rolled their shoulders," "incarnate," something involving stars, etc. It becomes way more problematic in later books, but they're noticeable here, too, and they're in virtually all of her books multiple times.
✨ Feyre ends the book as a Speshuly McSpeshulton™ because OF COURSE SHE DOES. How dare a heroine allowed to be succeed as a basic bitch mortal? NOT IN MAASLAND. Was the scene a little touching? Okay, yes. BUT this happens in every single book, and it definitely ties into the whole Mary Sue vibe her heroines have, where their perfection must be written in the stars!! or something.
✨ This is a mishmash of Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, and it does something that I can't stand in YA retellings of these myths. It takes the character of the Beast and makes him gorgeous. His cross to bear is that he has a mask stuck to his face. I complain about this in ROSEBLOOD, a retelling of Phantom of the Opera, also featuring a pretty-fied hero, but basically my argument is that it cheapens the messages of these types of stories when you take something that is supposed to be about inner goodness and change the story so that everyone looks like a model for Armani. That theme of self-sacrifice and looking past the surface becomes laughable when everyone is fucking gorgeous.
I feel like this book must have had a better editor than some of the later ones because the writing style is so different, and it feels like Maas is being held back from doing some of the things that she loves to do but that bog her writing down so problematically. Everything felt clean and crisp and there were some beautiful passages in here. I seriously could not believe this was the same author who wrote HOUSE OF EARTH AND BLOOD, and everything that came after book three of the Throne of Glass series. Whatever she did in this book and stopped doing, she needs to go back to grass roots and find it, because this book had the potential for a really great author inside it.
The fact that that has been squandered frustrates me to no end.
Anyway, I liked A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES. I'm not really sure I want to read the other books in the series knowing what happened, but I liked this one a lot and I kind of want to stop here and pretend that she ends up with Tam. The world-building, the danger, the characters, the stakes were all really fun, and I liked the hints of darkness lurking at the edges, and my heart GENUINELY hurt when Feyre realized that it was her own damn fucking pride that doomed Tam. (I'm still sad about that, tbh. Especially now that I know what happens in future books.) I just want to give Tam a big hug and tell him that everything will be okay while telling Feyre and Rhysand to fuck off about a thousand times (and not in the fun way that I know they'd like, nooooo).
If you're going to read a Maas book, read this one. And then... maybe stop with this one.
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars