I’m not going to bother with a summary here because Sarah J. Maas has already taken the world by storm with her bestselling Throne of Glass series. A Court of Thorns and Roses is the start to a new and highly anticipated series by Maas that blends elements of Tam Lin with Beauty and the Beast in this retelling.
There are two things you should know about me before I get into this review. The first is that I am not a fan of the Throne of Glass series. I read the first book and thought it was okay. Not great and not a series I needed to continue reading. I have much respect and love for Maas as I do for any other who gets people excited about reading but that series just isn’t my bag. When I heard Maas had a new series starting set in a different world, my interest was piqued and I decided I did want to check it out to see if it was more up my alley. (I have since concluded that Maas’ writing style just might not appeal to me personally which does happen.)
What I did not realize when I started reading A Court of Thorns and Roses is that it was also Maas’ new New Adult (NA) series. There are several definitions floating around for what NA means and what NA books look like. In my (limited) research, I’ve concluded that NA books are generally romance novels featuring twenty-something-ish characters. While that is a simplified explanation, it is one that I have found to be largely accurate. I don’t enjoy reading romance novels and as a result have tended to also avoid NA titles. Unfortunately I did not see the marketing keywords marking A Court of Thorns and Roses as NA until after I had read it.
Keeping in mind that A Court of Thorns and Roses is NA, it’s worth noting that some of my issues might stem from the genre rather than the book itself. Often, in my reading, romance novels have relationships predicated on unequal power dynamics. Often, in my reading, romance novels have uneven plots as the story is working harder to fit in romance elements over other aspects of story/plot.
Feyre is an interesting heroine and one who is capable in reality not just in her own mind. Unfortunately she is also reckless and impulsive to the point of stupidity and absurdity. Feyre feels very trapped by her obligations to her family, something that doesn’t come up in a lot of books. It is interesting to watch her struggle under that and to flounder when that obligation is stripped away. Unfortunately beyond enjoying art, there isn’t a lot to Feyre’s character beyond these facts. Throughout the novel she manages to strike a very awkward balance between exceedingly capable and exceedingly oblivious.
The pacing of this book is also never quite on the mark. While the beginning of the novel is atmospheric, the pacing flags almost immediately upon Feyre’s arrival on Tamlin’s estate. Instead of moving the plot along with key information or any kind of action, A Court of Thorns and Roses spends an excessive amount of time with Tamlin and Feyre dancing around each other. Tamlin, in addition to being Fae, is a shapeshifter who can turn in a fearsome beast (complete with claws). He is also painfully beautiful (again because this is a romance first and foremost–why wouldn’t he be gorgeous?) and strong and dangerous.
The tension between Tamlin’s Fae form and his inner beast is a recurring theme in the novel and one that comes to the forefront when Feyre (recklessly) sneaks out to a Fire Night celebration that is not meant for humans. After sneaking back from the celebration, Feyre is caught out by Tamlin who is still half-wild from the revelry (which involved using sex to replenish the estate’s magic because this is a romance and of course it does) and enraged that he could not find her (to have sex with) at the celebration. Tamlin uses his claws (not his hands his CLAWS) to box Feyre in against the wall. Then when she argues and moves to leave again Tamlin bites her. He doesn’t break skin and the bite turns into a kiss.
But let’s take a moment to really think about this. Tamlin (the male lead) accosts Feyre (the female lead) in the middle of the night. He pins her against a wall with claws that could cut her. He gets into her personal space. He bites her. I’m sorry but even with Maas being at pains to tell readers that Feyre is into it, nothing about this is sexy. It is assault. Which just serves to make it even more ludicrous that this moment is the turning point where Feyre starts to think maybe she likes Tamlin after all.
It was precisely at that point when I knew A Court of Thorns and Roses was never going to be a book I could fully enjoy. The story continues and does a lot of fun things with world building but it was impossible to get past a physical assault being the inciting incident for a romantic relationship.
The plot structure also falls apart shortly after as Feyre and Tamlin consummate their relationship only to then have Feyre sent back to her family in the human world. When Feyre realizes something is amiss and returns readers are treated to a multiple page information dump as the basic conceits of the curse surrounding Tamlin–and the plot for the rest of the novel–are outlined. While the structure brought the romance to the center, it did very little to move the story forward in a logical manner or to create any sense of urgency.
Fans of Maas will likely be able to overlook these plot issues. Fans of NA/Romance titles may not have such a violent reaction to the assault. I had problems with both as well as the fact that this fantasy was so overwhelming white. (Gail from Ticket to Anywhere pointed out that A Court of Thorns and Roses seems to be set in an alternate quasi England which would explain the all white cast of characters. But at the same time this is a fantasy and half the characters aren’t even human. It would have cost nothing to add some diversity.)
One of my favorite novels of all time is another Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. Comparisons between the two were inevitable and, even without my myriad issues, A Court of Thorns and Roses just didn’t stand up.
This book will definitely find its audience and its fans. I will sadly not be one of them.
*An advance copy of this book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher*