A New OTP is Born: A Review of Sarah J. Maas’ Prythian Novels

I want to preface this review by once again stating that my reviews and commentary are not spoiler free, so if you haven’t yet read A Court of Thorns and Roses or A Court of Mist and Fury please step away from your computer and stop reading my review. On second thought, if you haven’t read either book yet, you should immediately step away from your screen anyway, go out, buy the books, and read them. Now!

As I said in my last weekly post, I am an avid reader; so, while I do have stacks and stacks of books just waiting for me to read them, it is very rare that I will come across a book and find that it literally pains me to put it down. I am only semi-employed at the moment, so I don’t have a fixed schedule and thus (more often than not) it’s hardly uncommon for me to greet the morning sun while still reading. That being said, both Thorns and Roses and Mist and Fury fell into this prestigious, compulsive-read category. I could not walk away from the sequel and stayed up until 1 PM just to finish it (yes, I had already bypassed the AM while reading it). It was that good! And after finishing it, I wanted to pick up Thorns and Roses and start reading them all over again.

As also previously mentioned, I am a fan of Ms. Maas’ first series, Throne of Glass; but when I first saw the initial blurbs for Thorns and Roses, I must admit to a bit of skepticism and that it took me several weeks of seeing it on the shelf at Target before I broke down and bought a copy. And then, of course, it went into the stacks to wait its turn. (I try not to “cheat” and pull books out of the stacks—an arbitrary and semi-complicated system whereby I shuffle new material in from the various genre stacks into one “to be read next” stack—but I will admit that more than one book snuck its way ahead.) Because, while drawn in by my love of the author’s style, my first thought was, “Really? Another person trying to make a twist on fairies and fairy tales?!” The rest, as they say, was history.

What compelled me and sucked me into this story, from the get go, was how completely different Feyre as a character was from any heroine that I have ever met in my literary journeys. Yes, she’s a hunter like Katniss Everdeen; but Feyre (and her narration of the story) possesses an artistic soul that shines through—though at times with great reluctance—even before the reader is introduced to her talent for painting. She notices the aesthetic value in a given scene and her mind cannot stop itself from interpreting the colors of life into the potential pigments on a palette, or even gives the internal vision of her “painting” an evocative name. (This device comes in handy in the second book especially, as—after enduring the climactic trauma of the first book—her inner artist’s eye becomes a powerful presence marked by its absence.)

Yes, she has a broken, dysfunctional parent and siblings dependent upon her for their survival, and yes, she might seem anti-social and hardened to harsh realities; yes, she has to be the one to make sacrifices for her family, making no attempt to hide her disgust with her father and anger with/grudging love for her useless sisters, but despite this harsh exterior Feyre manages to find something of beauty in everything, to imagine the colors she would use to capture a particular scene, though she automatically denies that she sees such things by refusing to actually name the colors (denying them life and being). She’s not sweet tempered about the fact that she has to care for her family, but because of a death-bed promise made to her mother, she adamantly refuses to let them starve. Indeed, the human will to survive, to fight for life and love against all odds is one of the strongest theme of the novels.

What surprised me was how seamlessly Maas blended this story together, managed to capture subtle yet essential pieces of several different fairy tales and present them to us in such a unique way. While the reference to roses and thorns might lead you to suspect the Sleeping Beauty story as being the primary influence, the first book is indebted principally to Beauty and the Beast (and I kicked myself at one point for not having figured it out sooner) and, obviously given the masks magically stuck on the faces of the Fae, to Phantom of the Opera. But the very fact that the first book ends with a seeming “happily ever after” and yet, as far as I can tell, already had a sequel planned for and announced, highlights the fact that Feyre’s story is going to have a far from typical fairy tale ending. Like a wedding happening anywhere except the very end in a Victorian novel signals that all is not well, so any sort of apparently solid romantic resolution coming before the completion of the series warns us that there is plenty of room for shit to go down and the lovers to be separated.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the good old “happily ever after” endings for my “once upon a time” reading. However, what could have easily devolved into a manufactured and contrived love triangle for the second book—there’s plenty of romantic waffling and angst, but it comes across very organically and realistically—actually influences the plot without driving it, informs the decisions that Feyre makes certainly but also comes from a very human and painful place of recognizing that the person you love (and who loves you) is not always going to be the person who is best for you.

Plot Synopsis:   [Remember, Swiss watch; I’m including what I feel is most relevant to understanding my critique.] In Thorns and Roses, Feyre kills a wolf, only to discover that the wolf was actually a High Fae warrior; long story short, the Fae used to rule the world until humans rebelled, and a magical barrier was erected to keep the species separate. However, there are weak places in the wall, so people and Fae can cross over from the human realm into the Fae realm and vice versa. So, the warrior crosses the barrier and Feyre kills him; another Fae shows up at Feyre’s family’s hovel and demands Feyre’s life in exchange for the dead Fae, and according to the terms of the Treaty between their peoples she can either be killed or she can agree to go live in Prythian (the Fae realm) for the rest of her life. A life in exchange for a life.

Feyre agrees to go, but constantly plots ways and means to escape and return to her family; this is spite of being told that her family is being cared for financially and that they will continue to be cared for as long as Feyre remains in Prythian. Granted, I would be more than a little suspicious too, but she really puts the fun in paranoia—placing trip wires and snares in front of the door to her bedroom, etc., Feyre comes across as a bit of a backwoods MacGyver. But slowly, the shape-shifting Fae Tamlin, and his one-eyed friend Lucien, earn Feyre’s trust and respect; as time continues to pass, Feyre’s hatred of the Fae thaws and she comes to admire both men and even to develop feelings for Tamlin, although both men walk around masked thanks to a curse enacted almost half a century ago during a masquerade.

And that’s kind of a big hint that not all is as it should be at the Spring Court (the Thorns and Roses of the title; there are seven courts total, so one must assume that there will be a commensurate number of books) of the High Fae. But like all curses, it has a mysterious caster (indistinct mutterings and whispers of a dreaded “she”) and a whole bunch of rules governing how much can be said and to whom, etc. More than once, Feyre is either attacked or otherwise exposed to violence at the hands of fairies not connected with Tamlin’s court, and yet in her mind their brutality is not as difficult to bear as the indifference she experienced before at the hands of her fellow humans when her family slid from wealth into poverty; there is an open hostility, an honesty and lack of pretense that she feels is refreshing (ironic, of course, given that politics will come to play heavily in the latter half of book one and all of book two). She finds as much to admire about the Fae culture as she continues to fear.

But like Cinderella, an arbitrary encounter with a High Fae from another court ends Feyre’s idyll with her prince, and she is sent home for her own safety. She returns to find her family ensconced in a beautiful mansion and more than returned to their former wealth and status in the human world. And yet, she can’t seem to forget how happy she was with Tamlin, which naturally means that after a few months of dithering she realizes that she loves him and can no longer live without him. Except that when she finally reaches his estate, she finds the place almost empty of life and completely trashed.

Through the offices of the Fae who served as her maid during her stay, Feyre learns that Tamlin was cursed by a woman who managed to take over all of Prythian in one night—the war general of the powerful king of the neighboring Fae kingdom and a rabid hater of mortals. Because he rejected her offer of alliance and marriage, Amarantha cursed Tamlin to fall in love with a human; but not just any human, naturally. The human who he would need to break his curse would absolutely hate the Fae, so much so that she would kill a member of his court; he would have to fall in love with her and would need to get her to admit her love for him before the end of the 49th year of the curse. Given the animosity between the species, the curse forces him to send many of his courtiers and friends to their death in search for this murderous mortal.

One of the points that I found so fascinating about this who revelation was just how beautifully Maas wove in the idea of masks as part of a person’s psyche, the fact that woven into our own personal emotional and psychological fabric is the need or desire to perform for others. Known as performativity, it’s a social theory that we act in certain ways, depending on the situation and the individuals involved, that are both true and false to who we “genuinely” are as a thinking being. For example: Feyre plays the role of provider for her family; when taken to Prythian and literally deprived of the need to hunt or gather food for survival, Feyre drifts aimlessly until she feels comfortable enough to ask for means of employment (first, roaming the grounds and surrounding forest on horseback, and secondly and more importantly for painting materials and space). Without a family to hold together, Feyre doesn’t understand what role is expected of her; and once she returns to the human world and the role of provider has once again been filled by her father, she remains listless, uncertain, and directionless.

Thankfully, she assumes the role of savior for Tamlin and the rest of Prythian and immediately goes to rescue him. In terms of action and emotional resonance, the last quarter of the book is far more exciting, and certainly more enjoyable (if not a little masochistic). Because, rather like the physically and financially broken father who should have shouldered his responsibility to his children, Tamlin (and Feyre’s erstwhile ally Lucien) remains frustratingly passive in the face of his beloved’s appearance at Amarantha’s court. Granted, he’s not exactly free from scrutiny and Amarantha is one powerful, psychotic bitch, but he does not send Feyre any word of encouragement or physical aid when she needs them most; Lucien’s mother steps in to help with a minor task after Feyre spares her son from torment, but then assures Feyre that they are now “even”. No one who is supposed to be on her side steps up, echoing the empty, starving years of her poverty in the human world.

Help does come, however, in the guise of Tamlin’s enemy—Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court and the highest profile ally of Amarantha’s in Prythian. Amarantha agrees to release Tamlin and the others from the curse if Feyre succeeds in performing three challenges, spaced a month apart, or if she can correctly solve a riddle. Despite supposedly being in the enemy’s pocket, Rhysand is the only Fae who bets that Feyre will survive the first challenge; he also manages to spirit himself into Feyre’s dungeon cell and provide life-saving healing magic. His aid does come with a cost: her agreement to spend one week per month with him at the Night Court. Faced with the possibility of her own death and with her fierce need to free and protect Tamlin, she agrees (and then admits that, for her love’s freedom, she would have agreed to live in the Night Court forever). Again, whatever the personal sacrifice involved, Feyre acts to preserve the life of her loved ones—this is Feyre’s strength (or flaw, if you aren’t a romantic) and has great bearing on the events of Mist and Fury, as well as further into the series one must suppose.

The tasks and the casual cruelties and degradations heaped upon Feyre in the days between the challenges bear more than a glancing resemblance to the trials of Psyche, inflicted upon her by a jealous Aphrodite; Amarantha even goes so far as to taunt Tamlin with Feyre’s “unfaithfulness” and the fickleness of human love, and yet Tamlin speaks not one word in her defense. Despite entirely abasing herself and making a proverbial deal with a devil in order to ensure that she survives long enough to free Tamlin, not once is she given any sort of encouragement, not a glimmer of affection and appreciation from the man she loves… until the night before the final challenge. And does Tamlin attempt to save her by figuring out an escape route? Does he make a grand impassioned speech begging her to leave him behind and live??

Big fat no! He doesn’t say a word. He literally brushes one of his fingers against his while they are near each other in a crowded party, signaling her to meet him in a secluded alcove; and then proceeds to furiously make out with her. They are (timely or untimely) interrupted from going any further by Rhysand, who aids the lovers by deflecting away Amarantha’s suspicions and wrath, making it seem rather as if Tamlin has interrupted an interlude between Feyre and Rhysand. And he stands by when Feyre’s final test to prove the depth of her love for him is to kill two innocent Fae by stabbing them in the heart; Tamlin himself is the third intended victim, but (in a twist that felt was poorly foreshadowed) he survives because his heart was turned to stone as part of the curse. (He confirms this in a rather bizarre silent conversation with Feyre, so it’s not like he was ever worried about actually dying.)

Feyre’s action meets the terms of her bargain to free Tamlin and the Fae… which is naturally when we get one more plot twist. Enraged at being thwarted, Amarantha attacks Feyre and kills her; Rhysand had been focused on retrieving the dagger used on Tamlin and killing Amarantha in her moment of weakness, but she fights back with heavy magical attacks and a shield that keeps him from both her and Feyre. Tamlin, however, was closer to Feyre, but allows Amarantha to separate them; and rather than fight, he crawls on his knees, apologizing and begging. Yet even in the midst of the magical and physical ass kicking she is receiving, Feyre demands that Amarantha stop hurting Rhysand (who keeps shouting her name and attempting to reach her rather than the pissed off tyrant).

In spite of her injuries, Feyre manages to whisper the answer to the riddle, and in so doing breaks the curse—Amarantha’s bargain with her stated that solving the riddle would result in immediately releasing the Fae, where there was no timeline set on freeing them after completing the trials. Out of time and soon to have powerful, pissed off adversaries, Amarantha snaps Feyre’s neck and kills her. Tamlin’s (as well as the other High Lords’) magic is fully restored to him, allowing him to subdue and then kill Amarantha in turn; Feyre sees all of the events after her death, surprisingly, not through Tamlin’s eyes but through Rhysand’s, and watches as the High Lord’s each honor her sacrifice by placing a small amount of their power into her body (Rhysand, “bringing my shred of soul with him”), resurrecting her as a High Fae.

And, somewhat tellingly, after realizing where she is, Feyre’s first thought is that she really just killed two Fae; not that she had survived, necessarily, but what she had done to other innocent beings in order to ensure the survival of others, and the resultant horror she feels. Yes, there is celebration and affirmation of life and love, but her first impulse is to mourn the lengths she had to go to. Not her joy at being alive, not happiness at her love being free and hers. It is her horror of what she has done, her repulsion for herself as a killer and a hunter that defines how Feyre thinks of herself, a disgust and self-loathing that has silently existed behind her mask of indifference which is the first conscious thought in her new existence. It is this truth, finally set free and unmasked, which drives the next book.

This is the beauty of Maas’ story and, for me, the most intriguing and exciting aspect of these books—that (despite knowing as a critical reader that I should always suspect the narrator of lying to me, of having their own agenda in representing themselves a certain way) I can be completely fooled by the main character. In spite of having been in her head and having read her thoughts about what she did in order to survive and ensure her family’s survival, I was entirely blindsided by the self-hatred Feyre harbored for having spilled blood; she hates that she has killed animals, and now fully sentient beings in the Fae, in order to eat and in order to preserve her own life, in order to preserve the life of her family and of Tamlin. She naturally endures some discomfort and awkwardness in her new body, but the body itself is not what bothers her—her conscience and her soul are what chafe and ache, but her new, immortal form (one that will potentially live forever) ensures that she will continue to daily accept and acknowledge the fact that she is a killer.

Yet, the one person who she should be able to unburden herself to is the one person who cannot understand the cost. For all that he sent many of his warriors out to their deaths in search of his curse breaker, Tamlin never killed one of them; and while he refused to become Amarantha’s pet and plaything, he never spoke out against her for torturing and killing (indeed, he stands in silence while she kills the girl she believes to be Feyre). Tamlin protected his borders, but ultimately acted very little in various efforts to undermine or destroy Amarantha. And, when set against the perpetual enslavement of all of Prythian, he believes the sacrifice of two random lives to be acceptable. But then, he was not the person to end those lives and who now has to live with the fact.

Mist and Fury opens with plans for a wedding (again, never a good sign if the wedding happens before the end!), and with Feyre and Tamlin adjusting to their new life and the hope of their new future. But, as already noted, Feyre finds herself adrift and disconnected—both feeling too much in the way of guilt, and feeling too little in regards to the nuptial details. Frankly, it’s as if Tamlin has no clue who she really is—he pushes for their wedding to happen sooner rather than later, and expects that she will be entirely content with the very narrow confines he imagines for her as his wife—standing by his side, having his heir, silently approving any and all decisions he makes, throwing parties and acting like a hostess… All things for which she has never been trained or suited as a human, and while denying her any outlet for those few activities that she does show interest in, such as learning how to fight/defend herself in her new, unfamiliar Fae body.

Further, when she begins to show symptoms of having acquired powers and abilities from the High Lords who resurrected her, Tamlin’s solution is for her to pretend that she has no such power (for political reasons of course). Basically, he treats her like she is vulnerable and breakable, like she didn’t just survive a gauntlet of horrors and a fight to the literal death to save his hide; every time she asks to be included in his counsels, he shuts her out, and every time she tries to explain what she’s feeling he either dismisses her or goes into a destructive rage—literally ripping his entire study apart and scaring her so badly that she instinctively erects a magical shield against him.

The disconnect between them is made most obvious, however, by their recurring nightmares and how they deal with them. Feyre wakes practically every night after reliving her final test and murdering the two Fae (Tamlin becomes herself, and she kills herself in the dream), dashing to the bathroom and vomiting her guts out. And yet, as she notes, not once does Tamlin go to her and attempt to comfort her; she believes that he might wake up and hear her, feigning sleep. Tamlin also deals with his own nightmares, but the one time that she woke with him and tried to get him to speak of his fears, he brushes her off and goes on a rampage/run through the forest on his lands. Feyre is left to guess at what fuels his nightmares, and so is the reader. (Given his actions later on, Tamlin’s dreams are driven by anger with Feyre and jealousy, by his dislike of Rhysand and his distaste for the fact that Feyre made a deal with him. Never mind that she made the deal for Tamlin.)

Unable to talk unguardedly with her beloved and surrounded by people who see her as a pawn to be manipulated or an idol to be worshipped, Feyre hides behind the roles assigned to her. She assumes mask after mask, desperately trying to pretend to be happy with the events that are swirling around her and happening to her, rather than putting her foot down and insisting on what she truly want and feels. As she tells Tamlin before his epic meltdown, she’s being drowned by the weight of everyone else’s expectations and schemes (his most of all). She cannot be herself, but the pressure of denying everything fundamental to her very being is causing her to not so slowly crack. It takes her walking down the aisle toward Tamlin—in a dress she hates, with not a single guest she knows personally, and with flowers in a blood red color that causes her to have a panic attack (a genuine psychotic episode which has her reliving moments of terror under Amarantha’s hand)—to break through her denial and disillusionment.

A silent plea for help becomes a true demand from the depths of her soul to be rescued from this predetermined fate—Feyre’s first moment in the damsel in distress role. She’s been attacked, been hunted, been beaten to within an inch of her life, and has even battled vicious monsters, but it takes being put in tulle and satin to make her beg for mercy. Her hero? Her very own dark knight, Rhysand, who calls in their deal and whisks her away from her wedding. Now, given how much he is repeatedly villainized by Tamlin and Lucien (and how depraved and vile his Court is rumored to be), Feyre and the reader expect to be transported to some sort of dank dungeon. But basically, Feyre spends her week in lavish comfort and style, her only tasks as appointed by Rhysand being to devote part of her day to learn to read, to practice her writing, and to work on building and maintaining mental shields to keep others Fae out of her head and to keep from shouting her thoughts at him.

And while he delights in flirtation and in causing Feyre mild frustration, he does so in a light, teasing manner; he aims at making Feyre laugh, even at his own expense, rather than in earnest seduction. In short, Rhysand gives her room to breathe and relax; he doesn’t demand her attention, nor does he ask her to do anything particularly onerous (as she was almost killed during Amarantha’s second test simply because she was illiterate, he points out that this is a skill that will serve her in the future as Tamlin’s wife; his attraction to her was well-established in Thorns and Roses, yet he never does or says anything to threaten/demean her love for Tamlin) or contrary to her inclinations.

Unfortunately, the interruption of their wedding and her subsequent visit to the Night Court causes Tamlin to react quite poorly. Immediately upon her return, he subjects Feyre to an interrogation regarding the physical and political layout of Rhysand’s court—long after she makes it apparent that she spent all of her time at his residence rather than among his courtiers. Even after reassuring Tamlin that there were no improprieties between her and Rhysand, he begins to hold her at arms’ length, spending his days “dealing with issues on his borders” and rarely coming to bed with her on the nights where he is in residence. Their emotional distance grows, as does their physical distance, with each of Feyre’s visits to the Night Court. It is after her third visit—or at least the third one detailed—that things explode.

Feyre’s continued post-traumatic stress manifests in her dreams as reliving the moments when she killed the Fae, but also in dreams of the beatings she endured and of being locked back in Amarantha’s dungeon. Because of this, and because Amarantha’s court was built under a mountain, she suffers from severe claustrophobia. When she demands that she go with Tamlin and Lucien to hunt down some creatures preying on their lands, Tamlin’s response is to magically confine her to the house—everyone else can come and go, but Feyre physically cannot cross the threshold or exit through a window. Not only is Tamlin denying Feyre self-expression, but he is forcing her to wear the mask and inhabit the role that he has decided upon for her. And will tolerate no insubordination from Feyre.

Unfortunately, this causes her own mental breakdown—instinctively using the powers Tamlin still staunchly denies exist, she curls into a ball and wraps herself in a shield of wind and darkness. Rhysand senses her distress and dispatches his cousin and Feyre’s friend Mor to retrieve her; Tamlin’s servants, upset by his actions and afraid for their mistress and savior, assist Mor in sending her to the Night Court. What follows is one of the oddest bit of romancing I have ever read, delightfully so. Because, rather than wooing her softly or showering her with gifts, Rhysand courts Feyre as an ally, as an equal. Where Tamlin wanted her to remain behind him, to be powerless (or at least appear so), Rhysand wants to test the limits of her abilities. He offers her a position as part of his inner circle of political advisors; he knows that, far from being alone, Amarantha’s domination of Prythian was an opening gambit by her master, the King of Hybern; and he believes that Feyre will be instrumental in keeping Prythian and all the mortal realms free.

I call it an odd romance, in part because there was a whole book devoted to Feyre falling in love with Tamlin and literally dying for him. But it’s Rhysand’s insistence on Feyre’s empowerment, his refusal to treat her as a pawn and an object rather than a free, independent agent, which is so revolutionary… And yet, it saddens me what that very strangeness and novelty says about our society. At an age and in a time and place where women have been pushing for more realistic representation, for empowerment, it should not have taken this long for me to discover a literary relationship built on mutual respect.

As mentioned above, Rhysand’s attraction to Feyre is obvious from the first book and hers likewise, although it is initially overshadowed by her love for Tamlin and her visceral rejection of that attraction is further highlighted by the fact that he whored himself to Amarantha. But his overt flirtatiousness and his allegiance to Amarantha was/is itself a mask of his own—hiding a deeply caring and highly idealistic nature; in fact, it is revealed that he literally whored himself to the tyrant in order to preserve the secret existence of the jewel of his territories, a city hidden even from the other Fae courts where mortals and Fae intermingle peacefully and prosperously. And every vile deed which he performed while in Amarantha’s service was committed with the goal of protecting this dream city and with the intention of thwarting Hybern’s schemes. Slowly, Feyre pulls back the grotesque mask—constructed by prejudice but with Rhysand’s complicity—to discover a beautiful, kindred, flawed and bruised soul. They both have done terrible things in order to preserve the ones they love; this is their core truth, their basic identity when all masks have been ripped away.

Rhysand is far from perfect, but so is Feyre, which is why they are so perfect together. If you have gotten this far, I know I’ve spoiled a ton, but I’ll leave you in some suspense. The ending comes as a shock, especially in light of the end of the first book; although, given how willing Feyre is to sacrifice herself and think of others first, it really doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some rereading to do before I start looking for fan fic about my new OTP. (ACoTaR—8/10; ACoMaF—9/10) –J.J.

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