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A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. MaasTwo and a half stars
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Sarah J. Maas is probably the writer most dominating the young adult bestseller lists in the post Rowling/Collins years, but it’s interesting what a fraught relationship her fans seem to have with her. It seems like all her most devoted readers gripe about her, sometimes savagely. Not that I mind. I find it really healthy to be conflicted towards the things you love. It builds critical skills. Considering how low my expectations of A Court of Thorns and Roses had been driven by the time I found myself no longer able to avoid reading it, the most pleasant surprise to me was how much I didn’t actually hate it. Sure, it has quite a few flaws, and I can’t in all honesty call it an artistic success. But I have read — Ghod help me — plenty of very popular YA that is much much worse.

Still, I know that sounds like damning with faint praise, because it is. For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the last couple of years, A Court of Thorns and Roses begins a high fantasy series in which each novel takes, as inspiration, some legend or myth or fairy tale. It’s the same approach Marissa Meyer took to her Lunar Chronicles. ACOTAR, as it has been abbreviated by everyone, is billed as a Beauty and the Beast retelling. But much of the novel, especially its second half, owes far more to the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, about a young mortal woman who must rescue her fae lover, held captive by the Faerie Queene, which she achieves by literally Wonder Woman-ing him off the back of a running horse. Good stuff!

Feyre is a young human woman whose family has fallen from aristocratic grace due to her father’s debts. Now living destitute in a cabin in the woods, Feyre has taken up hunting and tracking as she’s the only one of her spoiled siblings willing to do something to keep them alive, though in her heart all she wants to do is paint. One day she spots a wolf about to pounce on a deer she’s been stalking and kills the wolf instead. Uh oh, trouble! Turns out the wolf was a faerie in disguise, and by killing him, Feyre has violated the terms of an ancient treaty between the fae and the humans who were once enslaved by them, and who waged war for their freedom. That night, another faerie comes to claim Feyre as prisoner, taking her to spend the rest of her days living in Prythian, the faerie lands separated from the mortal lands by a magical wall.

Her captor is Tamlin — Mass is not exactly making the reference subtle there — one of the High Fae and the ruler of the Spring Court, one of seven courts into which Prythian is divided. If you know how fantasy series typically work when they number things in this way, I’m guessing this means we’ll be getting a seven-book series. Anyway, Tamlin allows Feyre a surprising amount of freedom in his manor. Naturally she’s wary about this, but soon begins to settle in. And here is where a lot of inconsistencies in Feyre’s character development come into play. She’s supposedly developed mad hunting and tracking skills, and we see her using these on occasion. But we just as often she her being impulsive, ignoring sensible warnings, falling for obvious traps and allowing herself to be snuck up on, as the story requires.

Then there’s Tamlin himself, a romantic hero who’s so blandly perfect in every way that Maas feels no need to give him a personality, saving all of that development for Lucien, Tamlin’s emissary and beta-male sidekick, and Rhysand, of the sinister Night Court. It’s dead obvious that the genre formula Maas is sticking with here will require Feyre to discover her true love for Tamlin, which makes the fact the book spends so much time shilly-shallying around to get to it much more of an exercise in tedium than anything like romantic or sexual tension. Sexual tension, after all, is rooted in will-they-or-won’t-they. So let’s be honest, in a situation where you know “they won’t” isn’t an option, 200-plus pages waiting around for our starcrossed couple to get into a clinch is a bit much to ask of any but the most puritanical readers. Come on, get this party started!

But to be fair, Maas has reasons for all this, and they involve setting up an elaborate backstory involving a war, a curse, multiple betrayals, and an inevitable plot twist that will require us to question most of what we thought we knew about our hero. Which brings me to the next big frustration I had with ACOTAR: that it’s a book constantly reminding me of the better book I’d rather be reading. Wait, so we had a massive humans-vs-fae throwdown, we had an arch-villainess going rogue and laying a curse upon all the fae Courts — and I have to hear about all this awesome spectacle in backstory dialogue exposition while the actual narrative thinks I need to be most invested in this boring-ass romance? Sarah, you wrote the wrong book!

I will give Maas credit where it’s due, however. In the final hundred or so pages, she stops pulling her punches and gives us action galore as we are introduced to Amarantha, the aforementioned arch-villainess. Emphasis on the “arch,” to be sure. She’s way over the top, but that just makes her interesting set against all the other underwritten characters. So we’re treated to a series of trials that are violent and gory, and at last it’s all kind of fun, though of course, these scenes require Feyre, who has never before displayed much in the way of mad fighter skills, to level up to legendary all at once.

So ACOTAR is a book that’s all over place. At times dull, at others, overwrought. But credit Maas with knowing which buttons to push, when to push them, and how hard. It’s a B-list trash novel given A-list presentation, and you’ll most likely hate it, or hate yourself for loving it. And if it’s true that every rose has its thorn, with characters like the ones in this book, it might be more appropriate to say, every thorn has its pricks.

Followed by A Court of Mist and Fury.