Review: “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas

A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas is possibly one of the “hottest reads” on the fantasy market right now.  However, I became interested in it because I read its prequel, “A Court of Thorns and Roses.”

Quick history:

  • “Thorns and Roses” is pretty much a Beauty and the Beast retelling wrapped up in a fantasy world, tiptoeing the line between fantasy and speculative fiction.
  • The first half of that book bored me to tears. I hated the unrealistic love story, hated that Feyre’s feelings for Tamlin were superficial and generated mainly by a great need for the love and protection she never got from her parents or siblings, not because she loved him for himself; this could have been a good overturning of a common trope if the author bothered to have her character see beyond her lust for the male hero and actually demonstrate love.
  • The love scenes were terrible (if I can even call them love scenes — what I read was close to porn).  The author either doesn’t care how she writes them or simply doesn’t know how to craft a good love scene.
  • The middle half of the book is where the plot becomes intriguing.   Forcing “Beauty” to fight for the Beast is not an uncommon idea in this trope, but Feyre literally has to fight for his and her lives — and in the process, fights for the existence of the crumbling world she lives in.  She has the greatest burden on her shoulders, but she only wants to fight for Tamlin.  Here Feyre is not selfless.  She is instead selfish, lustful, gutsy, outspoken, and clever.  Did I mention that “the Beast” is Faye (fairy) while she is human?  The odds are slim to none for her survival, but she never gives up.  Finally, the protagonist is a real person, not a plastic mannequin who wants to live with a handsome prince in a big mansion (and have lots of sex).
  • The author knows her action scenes; they are heart-stopping at times.  On the other hand, the language is a mixture of eloquence and vulgarity.  It’s not the greatest combination.
  • Rhysand: such a conflicted and smooth-talking antihero, one I wanted to see develop beyond the impossible situation he had been forced into.  His character convinces you to keep reading.
  • The ending hooks you into a desire for the sequel.  The brutal, cold, and intimidating landscape the author has painted doesn’t look promising for happy endings — especially not for the humans.

Now, the sequel is more or less a reinterpretation of the Hades/Persephone myth and the continuation of the storyline from book 1.  Feyre is recovering from her ordeal in the last half of “Thorns and Roses,” where she eventually was killed but was transformed into a Fae with a human heart as her reward.  Now she and Tamlin are falling apart as a couple, and the world is still in ruins.  Then Rhysand, mysterious and dark, steps into her life again with the opportunity for change and freedom.

I like to research a novel a bit before I start reading it, so this is what I found out on Goodreads: over 80% of readers have given “A Court of Mist and Fury” a 5-star rating.  About 500 gave it 1 to 2 stars (out of 5).  Despite all the praise and downright flattery, there were some serious complaints about the plot, characters, setting, and of course, the love scenes.  One way or another, I recently finished this 700-page monster of a book.

First of all, I love how Maas can turn prose into poetry.  She has some stunning descriptions, proving she’s not the average fantasy writer.  She also has a knack for writing action scenes in a realistic, heart-pounding way.  Overall, I actually find her settings fascinating.  Unfortunately, after lengthy inner debate, I still gave this book 3 out of 5 stars.  If I could use a 10 star rating system, my rating would more accurately be 4 out of 10.

One of the most disappointing factors was Tamlin and Feyre — and I didn’t like their love story or Tamlin in the first book.  For an author who promoted her heroine’s all-consuming love as the propagator for so many events in “Thorns and Roses,” she literally destroys Tamlin by turning him into a foil for Rhysand.  Feyre and Tamlin’s PTSD- like symptoms and guilt could have been a greater focus point for the end of their relationship and have nothing to do with Rhysand.  Also, Tamlin’s possessiveness and abusive behavior?  Where did that come from?  He was Feyre’s dream guy in the first book.  Suddenly, with almost no character development, he is the unnamed villain.  Maas all but stepped on his character.

Second, the Thorns universe was less appealing and very confusing because the author was painfully unclear about details.  Is this a period piece, where women wear unrevealing dresses and fight with swords, or are we in the 20th century with indoor plumbing and modern garments?  Velaris, Rhysand’s hidden city, is the fantasy version of modern Paris or one of Italy’s cities, but the outside terrain of Prythian and the human lands look like medieval landscapes.  At least plausible explanations for these visible discrepancies would have been helpful.  As for the creatures and creature hierarchies (e.g. Fae), there isn’t enough background information.  You’re left with vague ideas and images.  For me, used to fantasy authors taking the time and care to build and layer their settings, this was labeled as poor setting development.

Romance is a conflict in itself, torn between being laughable and serious.  Rhysand and Feyre had some passionate, touching moments together, and their banter is wickedly fun to read.  However, I picked up on a lot of melodrama in their growing friendship and then romantic relationship.  The author over-justified the reasons for Rhysand’s past actions, and while I appreciated his backstory, she could have been more tactful in not silently comparing him to Tamlin.  [If Maas hated Tamlin’s character so much, I have an easy solution: she could have killed him off right at the start and the book would be the better (and shorter) for it.]  Complex and conflicted Rhysand became pretty, overly redeemed Rhysand.  Feyre understood that you cannot redeem all your sins — some sins are unforgivable — so why not leave some edges of Rhysand’s character unpolished?  His character development was choppy, as if the author didn’t know how to create a hero from an antihero.  Going back to Feyre, I like her practicality and her constant “fight or flight” attitude.  What I did not like was the author giving her a virtual Pandora’s Box of magical abilities to overcome her obstacles.  A lot about Feyre’s character development was inconsistent and unrealistic, just like Rhysand’s.

[I sighed a lot while reading this book.  Frustrated, unhappy sighing.]

Aside from the new characters, which were not that memorable, my final issue with this book is the graphic sex.  Speaking from experience, I’ve read a lot of fanfiction.  It can be written well or it can be cringe-worthy and unrealistic, but you’re aware that these are amateurs expressing their love for a fandom, not professional authors “getting down and dirty.”  Expectations do not exist when it comes to fanfiction.  In contrast, I have extremely high standards when it comes to the literature I read and any love scenes I come across.  The author should be tactful and tasteful and “show, not tell.”  Those scenes should have a purpose and not be mindless gratification.  I should be able to say afterwards, “Now that’s the definition of human chemistry.

I don’t what her editor does in regards to her books, but Maas needs someone to tell her point blank that her love scenes are the equivalent of badly written fanfiction smut (porn).  In comparison to “Thorns,” they’ve gotten worse.  Various sex acts, more crudely described than in an average romance novel, litter at least 50 pages that could have been cut out and replaced with a short, meaningful love scenes.  Much could have been implied.  I don’t even want to go into her use of language.  Instead of being romantic, these scenes were almost nauseating, and any coveted romance was snuffed out.  Moreover, the publishing company Bloomsbury, which I actually respected, had the nerve to let this book be categorized as young adult fantasy!  I don’t care if this is “new adult fiction” or whatever genre they made up to pass it through to a wider audience.  It belongs with adult books.  I’ve been reading YA for many, many years, and I know the rubrics: YA does not contain graphic porn.

“A Court of Mist and Fury” can be seen as a passable retelling of Hades/Persephone.  However, there were so many broken elements in this book that I couldn’t ignore: plot holes, unneeded plot threads, poor character/setting development, explicit content.  I enjoyed the fast-paced action and what Feyre is supposed to represent — a strong, unfettered woman — but in plain words, the novel is a complete mess.  In fact, it looks like a rough draft, not a finished product.

I looked forward to reading this book but in the end, it was an utter fiasco.  Nevertheless, I hope Maas learns from her mistakes, because I discovered that the series has been extended to 8 volumes in total and I’m curious if the next book in the series has been written just as badly as this one was.


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