Book Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: *** (3 stars)

Overall: *** (3 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 and up.  (Definitely not for anyone who isn’t in high school yet, as there’s sex and other grossness.  I would actually recommend this to a lot of twenty-somethings I know, as the characters are older and the writing fits in to the fast and easy grown-up fantasy genre.)

Does everyone remember how I feel about sharp and twisty fairy stories?  Before reading this review, I recommend that you familiarize yourself with my love for such triumphs of fairy world weirdness as The Darkest Part Of The Forest by Holly Black, Chime by Franny Billingsley, and especially any re-tellings of my all-time favorite ballad Tam Lin.  Be they magical worlds which entwine with ours or completely new fantasy realms, I get unreasonably excited whenever a story of fairy courts and immortal strife bleeps on my fae-dar.

And, yes, the main dude’s name is Tamlin in this book, but despite a few nods to that legend, it’s best to banish all expectations from that reference right out of your head before reading.  I’m learning that lesson again and again.  Sarah J. Maas has combined the structure of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale with the style of magic and characters most often found in Celtic faery legends like Tam Lin.  I actually found the Beauty and the Beast parallels to be more obvious, excluding the faery court drama and occasional references to Tamlin’s “heart of stone.”

A Court Of Thorns And Roses is set in a fairly typical fantasy world, with peasants and wolves and frightening borders. The village where we begin is small and winter-bound; while we don’t get much in the way of world-development for this first setting, the isolated townsfolk live in a way we can recognize from other such stories.  They’re on the border of Prythian, the faerie realm.  Feyre, our heroine, hunts for food in the dangerous woods to support her father and two sisters.  Aside the occasional tryst with a local boy, Feyre’s life is defined by cold, hunger, and frustration.  If it weren’t for a promise she made to her dying mother as a child, she would be completely justified in abandoning her lazy, demanding family and taking care of herself first.

This is the sort of story where promises are important, unbreakable rules in both moral and supernatural matters. When Feyre kills an unusual wolf with an ash arrow, she brings the wrath of a monstrous High Fae upon herself and her family.  To fulfill the Treaty between human kind and the faeries, Feyre must live out the rest of her days in Prythian, at the Spring Court with Tamlin.  It turns out that Tamlin does not always take the form of a beastly claws-and-teeth-creature.  He’s actually a decent fellow, though his manners as host aren’t very polite and he prefers to keep Feyre uninformed about so much of her new home. She also has no idea what his face looks like, since he and all other members of the court had masks cursed onto them permanently.  (Bummer.  But, rest assured, this is the sort of YA novel –alas – that makes it clear how the rest of him is very handsome and his face certainly will be, too.) The Spring Court isn’t a prison, though Feyre can never leave.  Some blight is draining faeries and High Fae alike of their powers, so she spends her time more as a neglected house guest, trying to piece together her host’s history and the state of Prythian on her own.

Exploring in the forest with Lucien, Tamlin’s haughty and flippant emissary, Feyre discovers just how sinister the faerie world can be.  What few details she can learn about the blight are disturbing enough, but the fear that some of these malevolent beings might cross the border into her village, bringing back the reign of cruel servitude once imposed by the ancient High Fae, is too dreadful to consider.  Her father and sisters may have been awful while she lived with them, but she will protect them at all costs.  So despite the comforts afforded by Tamlin’s estate and the marvels all around her, Feyre plans her escape, tries to take courage, and keeps her hunters instincts trained on everything – seen and unseen – around her.

As she finds out more about Tamlin’s home and the other courts, Feyre finds herself drawn into a dangerous and twisted game of personal politics. There are other High Fae who can be so gleefully evil, they make the violent specters in the woods look positively humane.  And her time with Tamlin has turned apprehension into rather devoted affection, so every hard choice threatens to break either her mind or her heart or both.

Whew, ok.  That’s a lot of plot-splaination, and I’ve barely even covered the basics.  A Court of Thorns and Roses has sort of a three-part story:

1) Feyre’s life with her family and her internment in Prythian.  Tamlin is awkward and Lucien is a bastard.

2) Adventures of the magical and frightening variety in The Spring Court.  Tamlin is romantic and Lucien is a #1 sarcastic bro.  All this love and togetherness is broken apart when Tamlin forces Feyre to flee to safety once faerie politics start getting seriously out of hand.

3) Meanie-pants Fae Queen tortures everyone for the laughs.  (Yeah, I didn’t even get to mention her in my long-as-hell summary up there.  But this is a faerie courts story, so naturally there needs to be a cruel and beautiful queen!  And wow is she a jerk.)  Feyre undergoes a series of miserable and hopeless tests for the evil court’s amusement, expecting to die, all in a desperate bid to save her true love.

I liked the first 1/3 of this novel a lot, enjoyed the middle bit with some reservations, and found nose wrinkling in disappointment a few times in the home stretch.   Feyre’s miserable life sets a great precedent for the marvels she will witness in Prythian.  Impoverished and under-appreciated, she might seem like a typical passive heroine, but her hunting skills and occasional ruthlessness gave me hope that she could be an active participant in whatever adventures awaited.  For the most part, Feyre is a realistic protagonist who makes solid decisions of both the brave and catastrophic variety.  One great little touch was her illiteracy: growing up poor and focused on getting enough food for the winter, she never learned how to read, and there are some scenes of embarrassed struggle in the library which proved her to be resourceful yet realistic.  I also liked how Feyre’s habit of painting tinged her view of all the new beauty around her, and how even in the most horrifying situations a “useless” part of her terrified brain would notice pretty details through the terror.  I was with Feyre for the ride until her love and devotion and general swoon-y attitude towards Tamlin made veer her towards hysteria and despair.  In fairness, the last part of the book contains a level of cruelty that would otherwise be unknown to our heroine, so I can understand why she clings to her love as one emotion she can trust.  I liked her fine in the beginning of the book, but despite acts of reckless bravery I found her change of personality rather jarring by the end.

Tam Lin himself didn’t do much for me.  (Too bad because Tam Lin from songs of yore is my faaave.)  He was a little too overtly Aloof And Terribly Sexy Despite The Matters Weighing Heavy On His Lordly Brow for my tastes, and I knew quite quickly that there would be some yearning and dark hallways and unlocked bedroom doors in his future with Feyre.   Since unlocked bedroom doors are extremely NOT my cup of tea, I kind of skimmed over most of those scenes, so you’ll have to ask someone else if they’re any good.  However, I did appreciate how his character was often preoccupied with the Very Faery Problems of broken promises and eternal grudges, and how desperately he wanted to preserve the lives of those faeries who existed with him in the Spring Court, despite the encroaching evil.  There are a few instances in which his sense of humor or fun attitude shine through from before Prythian started going to shit, and that’s when I understood Feyre’s devotion.  If only he weren’t so predictably smoldering.  If only we weren’t reminded too often that he can also transform into a beast and therefore has rather ferocious tendencies towards romance.  Just not my cup of tea.

And, though it pains me to admit this, the evil Fae Queen Amarantha was not that impressive.  Yes, she’s cold and beautiful and can hold a MEAN grudge, but she just felt like a bit of a stand in.  Her cruelty was appalling but lacked emotion.  Her challenges did fit in with the old tradition of riddles and mazes, but the glint of gleeful malice in her eyes were more told than shown, and more shown than felt.

The minor characters and settings were pretty great, actually.  Particularly Lucien and the few lesser faeries we meet at the Spring Court.  The foxy emissary (I mean it literally) is an expat from the Autumn court who throws Tam Lin’s nobility into needed relief by first being distrustful of Feyre’s presence, then by impelling her to develop a sense of humor and helping her sneak around behind Tamlin’s back sometimes.  Lucien can be impulsive and dangerous, but he’s exactly the sort of fellow you might expect to come from a land where the hum of Autumn energy is always in the air.  And, as I learned with a few tears threatening, his life before joining Tamlin was grim as heck.  His friendship with Feyre, as well as her interactions with the faery servants, were mostly rewarding.  If we ignore one handsome-but-evil High Fae who appears as a villain – a personality which I found to be entirely gratuitous and unnecessary, though he may redeem himself in future novels – the supporting characters were good additions to the lovely and menacing world Maas has created.

There’s a whole maze of unresolved issues and unexplained plot points by the end of this book, but I can see how any sequels will build off the most pressing of questions.  The wider world will probably make more sense as Feyre gets to understand it better.  I’m not a huge fan of series, usually, but will probably pick up the next one someday, because I liked the story enough to stay curious.

In the end, there was a lot to enjoy about Sarah J. Maas’s foray into faery stories.  Trading one life for another, ancient treaties and forgotten wars, a world divided by seasons and times: all good things.  Looking at A Court Of Thorns And Roses as a slight retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I would call it mostly successful.  And it’s even a decent, though not awe-inspiring, opening to an original fantasy series.  My own qualms about all those sexy-times and incongruous characterizations may just be the picky bitching of a prude who has read too many faery legends.  Give the book a try if you like dangerous romance in cool fantasy worlds, tricky faery mischief that plays with mortal lives like they’re nothing but ants, and young people being put through a series of impossible tests by vindictive higher powers.

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Book Review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

I would need both my hands and somebody else’s to count the number of times that Sunshine has been recommended to me.  Rosie has been so fervent that I might still have the bruises to show for it.  I knew that Sunshine was a unique spin on a vampire-slaying story before I started reading.  I knew that Robin McKinley is a phenomenal writer with acres of imagination to cultivate at her disposal.  I also knew that a lot of this book takes place at a bakery, and that the descriptions of cinnamon rolls and “killer zebra” cakes were just as seductive as the harsh, dark vampire world she’d created. (After reading, I can say: Huzzah! All of these things are true!) Knowing all this in advance, I made up my mind in advance to read Sunshine slowly, so that I could enjoy the process of discovering it for the first time.  Four days, and many dessert-cravings later, I extracted myself from New Arcadia, blinking oddly in the daylight and wishing to know what would happen next.

Sunshine wakes up every morning at 4 am to bake cinnamon rolls at her step dad’s coffee shop.  She likes her life in the bakery: the regulars, her coworkers, her sorta-boyfriend Mel.  Then, when she drives out to the lake one fateful night to clear her head, Sunshine’s life gets torn to pieces.  A vicious gang of vampires kidnap Sunshine and bring her to a big abandoned house in the woods, where they lock her in a room with another prisoner: an old and very hungry vampire. They don’t expect Sunshine and the vampire to talk. She is meant to be dinner.  Instead, she draws on a secret magical skill from her childhood to free them both, thus binding her fate and Constantine’s together.  Now the evil vampire behind Con’s imprisonment wants both of them dead.

It’s hard to return to a life of rising dough and bustling kitchens after an ordeal such as that.  Sunshine can’t forget what happened to her, and she’s drawn the attention of some Special Other Forces agents.  The SOF keeps an eye on any activity relating to non-humans, ever since the “Voodoo Wars” changed civilization and demons, were-folk, and vampires became a part of everyday life.  With the protectors of humanity dogging her footsteps around New Arcadia, and a bunch of really nasty vampires stalking her in otherworldly realms, Sunshine has to team up with her co-captive to try and turn their fate around.  It seems like everyone in New Arcadia has a dangerous secret.  The further Sunshine digs into the recent traumatizing events, the more she begins to realize how unusual her own past is, and what a danger she could be to the people she loves.

I have so many things I want to say about Sunshine, and they all refuse to get typed into neat sentences.  This book was always tugging on one corner of my mind over the four days it took me to finish.  Layers upon layers of otherworldly drama and mysterious characters have a way of distracting a girl.

McKinley drops us into a world where paranormal creatures are as much a part of daily conversation as complaints about grumpy customers. The horrifyingly real vampires who mess around with Sunshine’s life seem extra threatening in contrast to the dramatic rumors and stories which circulate.  The particular existence of demons, were-people, vampires, and the like is never unveiled in explicit detail.  Sunshine thinks about Other activity a lot, so we aren’t left entirely uninformed, but you need to get comfortable with odd new pieces of fantasy popping up in New Arcadia until you can get your bearings.  It took me several chapters to just accept the fact that I would be confused about some things until McKinley felt like revealing the answer.  Once I came to terms with this, the reading was much easier. The vampire-slaying action gets overly complex at times; maybe unnecessarily so.  My head began to spin from all the charmed objects and alternate planes of reality.  But McKinley’s such a good writer that she twists it all together into a functional and intense sequence of events.

Alas for my inquisitive nature, there were a whole bunch of intriguing side-stories which took up a great many pages only to be left unresolved!  Rosie assured me, when I stomped downstairs to vent my frustration after finishing the book, that Robin McKinley has wanted to do a sequel for a while but hasn’t managed to write something that worked.  Fine, fine.  The semi-realistic fantasy world in Sunshine is convincing and engrossing. Nearly all of the characters had such unique backgrounds and motivations, I could happily read a book devoted to each. A twenty book series, please! I actually liked how some of the newly magical events in Sunshine’s life didn’t have any direct influence on her vampire adventure, because that’s how real life works.  Over the course of a very strange year, she learns that her friends aren’t always as simple as she thought they were, and that her own heritage is too complicated to tackle head-on.

The reason Sunshine is such a long book has a lot to do with the narrative style.  Sunshine tells us about the events in the first-person, so we read along with whatever happens to be on her mind.  When she dwells on her childhood before the coffee shop, we learn how she got her name by lying in the sunlight to heal after a bad illness.  When she worries about the Special Other Forces catching on to her dealings with Con, we get a better picture of how the agency works (or sometimes doesn’t work) to protect humans from non-human dangers.

Sunshine is an extremely introspective woman, and I must say that I could have done without some of the re-hashing and moral conundrums which sometimes bog down the story’s flow. The excessive amount of pondering gives lots of weight to so many of those side-stories which never quite reached a conclusion. On the brighter side, Sunshine is a pretty hilarious narrator. Her sense of humor goes into gear at all the strangest moments, and a few of the scariest scenes are made a little more fun with her eye for black comedy. All the extra detail does make every layer of Sunshine’s life – and all of life post-Voodoo Wars – seem intricately whole and thoroughly real. And if you’re a devoted coffee-shop regular, you’ll probably be happy to read pages and pages of bakery life, where the dark menace so prevalent in Sunshine can’t quite take away the appeal of cherry tarts coming out of the oven.

Want it short(er) and sweet(ish)? Here’s how I wrote down my feelings soon after finishing the book, for my wrap-up of what I read in September.

Sunshine is a smart urban fantasy with vampires and cinnamon rolls.  The future is weird.  The vampires are scary.  The bakery is wonderful.  McKinley’s writing was almost always incredibly strong, though I think this book could have been about 100 pages shorter and held my attention a little better. …  It stands out amongst a tired genre, that’s for sure, even though it was written several years ago.  Did you know that it was possible to get bent out of shape about baked goods, even while blood’s a-splatterin’ and curses are flying fast?  It’s possible and it’s fun.

Other vampire books I’ve reviewed and recommend:

The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black

The Quick by Lauren Owen