A Court of Thorns and Roses – Sarah J Maas
416 pages| Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s| YA/ fantasy/ romance/ retelling
The digest: I did not enjoy this book. It should go without saying that I am not this book’s target market (being a 21-year-old guy), but I’ve wanted to read it for a couple of years due to all of its hype and was I incredibly disappointed. The character development is almost non-existent, the plot pacing is all over the place, and the worldbuilding is mediocre.
I don’t want to offend anyone with this review – I know there are many lovers of Maas and her multiple series. There is nothing wrong with that at all. I encourage everyone to read whatever they want to and form their own opinions thereof, what follows are some of my own thoughts.
This review may come across as a bit of a rant, so I may as well start with the few things I kind of enjoyed whilst reading A Court of Thorns and Roses. The only semi-redeeming feature of this book is its worldbuilding – but even that is somewhat called into question when you realise how… average it is. Where do the Fae live? A land not unlike our own. Their dwellings? Not unlike our own. Their society? Not unlike our own (or a twisted version thereof). By the end of the novel, we still know very little of how the world Maas creates differs from our own by any meaningful margin. So what exactly did I enjoy about the worldbuilding if so much seems to just be one step away from your typical human? It is how the Fae have divided their territories, the boundary separating them from mankind, and the history of their war. I can’t say too much as it would spoil what little readers do learn, but it was this aspect of the novel which showed a spark of imagination. No, the idea is not original. But it did feel authentic and well cemented within the novel’s own narrative – consequences of the war still feature heavily, and with the information which comes in the closing chapters, we can gain a decent (if not great) knowledge of the world.
In fairness, I also thought that some of the magic in the novel is interesting, but I was let down by its massive underdevelopment. The idea of transformation plays no small part but I don’t feel as if we are privy to enough information as to actually appreciate it for what it is. Can all Fae be transformed? Can they choose what they turn into? How come some characters are more prone to lose control and become bestial? Had these questions been answered then I would have had a bit of a better reading experience. It could be that in future instalments they are answered – but for me that is too little too late.
So what did I not like? The basics of the plot, with the being an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, are painfully predictable. One can spot similarities throughout the story, and Maas does not do anywhere near enough to develop her own storyworld in her writing here. Beyond these more obviously predictable parts, I was also incredibly disappointed when I read the final chapters. I called it at around the 70% mark – I won’t spoil it, but if you have read any popular fantasy series before then you can guess at almost everything that happens with a decent degree of accuracy. As I said, this did disappoint me and there were so many potential paths for Maas to take and yet time on time she chose the most obvious one. The final part of the conclusion (the last few pages) seems to me to be the culmination of picking every popular YA trope and plopping them together in one big pseudo-dramatic manner. There is also far too much plot convenience throughout the entirety of the story – the right thing happening at just the right time as to move the story along. I can’t recall another book where I was drawn out of the reading experience as often as I was here due to the poor decisions of the characters (which are, of course, the poor decisions of the author). By this I don’t mean there are only two options and Feyre (or another character) has a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice, I mean that every single idea in the novel is skewed to fit into a linear narrative – including the plans of the Big Bad to offer an easy escape from the final ordeal. It is poor storytelling.
Beyond its predictability, the plot is poorly paced and suffers from repetitive and awkward writing. The story is told in the first person, and although in some books (e.g. the Percy Jackson series) this technique can be a benefit to the storytelling, nothing could be further from the truth here. For example, we are to believe that our protagonist Feyre is illiterate but at the same time can also conjour up vocabulary which is not part of everyday conversation. Too many times (especially in the first half of the novel) did I roll my eyes and cringe with something she said. Don’t even get me started on how quick she is to longingly gaze at the muscles of a centuries-old murderous fairy who has effectively kidnapped her after threatening to kill her whole family. The constant presence of an ill-suited voice was jarring and really slowed down the narrative and broke what little immersion there was to be had. The author would have been better off focusing on actions and dialogue than Feyre’s internal monologue.
My main issue with the novel, however, is the characters. They are i) almost entirely two-dimensional ii) entirely predictable and iii) poorly developed. Do I see why A Court of Thorns and Roses is a popular series… kind of? There is a series of attractive, rogue-ish men who all have dark pasts and need help, with a female lead destined to fall in love with (at least) one of them and become changed herself. It’s tropey, boring, and painful to read. I’m not always reading high brow books (I try to avoid that as best I can), but A Court of Thorns and Roses takes the most prominent issues in literature and combines them all. That combination the common driver of every poorly written romance ever and also seems to be one of the main reasons for the series’ success. If that is the sort of thing you are after then that is obviously fine – everyone has their own tastes and I’m sure I like some stories other readers find deathly boring.
Of course, it is good to know about Feyre’s backstory and how her family came to be in such a poor position, but maybe we don’t need quite so much focus on it, especially as they play such a small role across the novel. In some Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s relationship with her father is the focal point of the narrative, but this is not the case here at all. Her family is not too atypical in fantasy, and at no stage do they become more than add-ons to the main storyline. The same goes for other members of her village, and the whole introductory sections – too long is spent showing us details which could have been conveyed in half the time if editors had properly worked through this novel. I won’t say too much about the last half of the novel where certain events do cause a change in the wider environment – but the issues persist and in some cases are made worse. Characters fit their stereotypes and there is no attempt to offer a truly unique or interesting take on anyone here.
The closest I came to DNF’ing the novel was at around the 45% mark. To avoid specific story spoilers, let me say that Feyre had recently nearly been killed after ignoring the advice of those looking after her. So what does she immediately do afterwards? Ignore their advice twice more in one night, nearly being killed each time. It is laughable, it really is. Surely nobody can identify with such a stupid character – and again I am left asking why this was left in the book. Feyre is not punished for her behaviour, and instead becomes further embroiled in a severely creepy romance plot. There is not one redeeming feature in this part of the book –
and the worst thing is that we are obviously not meant to dislike Feyre for being so stupid – she faces absolutely no consequences for her actions and indeed returns to the events as a means of attempting to punish others for her own stupidity the next morning. As you can see from the Goodreads graph, I put the book down for quite a while after reaching this point in the story. I don’t care how curious a character is about seeing something that is kept secret from them, they would not have acted like Feyre did here. I can’t think of any other character even close to it. Again, something like this should have been picked up by editors and fixed before publication, as up until this point, all other mistakes or odd choices could be ignored for the most part. The premise was ‘good enough’ until the 45% mark, but after this particular scene it was tough to carry on.
When I did eventually return to reading the book, I found myself skimming through large sections. The plot was still poorly placed, the characters carried on making ludicrous decisions and being two dimensional, and the romance element was becoming much more prominent. Let’s talk about the romance for a moment. Again, it is poorly written and poorly thought out. A centuries-old Fae falling for a human girl? Nonsense. Even if we did accept the rather creepy age difference as normal (or even accept it as part of the Beauty and the Beast story which I’m also not really on board with), why on Earth would either of the Fae who fall for Feyre (and yes, we are clearly meant to think that the bloke towards the end has fallen for her too)? They wouldn’t. It is a ploy from the author and publishing team to sink their hooks into their target market – and I’d wager that it isn’t a particularly healthy idea for them to be promoting. Towards the end of the novel, new information comes to light which makes this relationship even less likely to be authentic – and yet the power of this ‘love’ will probably save the day, no matter how forced and false it must be.
As I was saying, I skimmed through pages and pages, not feeling like I was missing anything important (which means that the could have been cut down massively or improved upon dramatically), and then the book was finished. A slight increase in tempo towards the end to build the tension, but the events of the ending itself was never in doubt. Even the final sections were predictable (as in, everything about the last 30 pages or so was so obvious that reading it was a chore) from about the 70% mark.
As this is my first negative review I ought to say that these are all my opinions and I really would like to talk to people who disagree with me – your opinions are no less valid than mine at all. Maybe if someone were to explain to me why they think the character development deserves more praise than I think I would perhaps look at the book in a different light. Most importantly, I’m not attacking Maas or her fans!
The rating seems quite straightforward, then. I came close to DNF’ing the novel too many times for the flaws discussed above for it to receive anything more than a 1/5. I’d be really interested in having a conversation with those who disagree with me down below – and if you think that I may have missed something during reading the story then definitely let me know! 1/5.