A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas

When I was in junior high, I wanted nothing more than to fit in with my peers. I wore the neon clothes, the parachute pants, and the jelly shoes. I listened to Michael Jackson and Madonna along with the rest of them (although I had a secret crush on the Monkees). All these years later, I still want to fit in, but darn it if my perverse nature doesn’t make that impossible.

My book blogging coterie ADORES(!) the Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy by Sarah Maas. I wanted to love it as much as my friends did, but wasn’t able to muster up the same level of enthusiasm as everyone else. The trilogy was entertaining enough with high adventure and epic romances. At times the language was poetic and the fictional world almost came to life for me, but…

  • It was kind of cheesy. Such melodrama!
  • And it dragged on a bit too long. I was bored by the interminable hand-wringing and the overly drawn out battle scenes.
  • But most troubling to me were the depictions of roles assigned to men and women and by the relationships between the two. This particularly surprised me because Sarah Maas is touted as a feminist author.

I liked that the books included some strong female characters. Feyre, for all her faults, was brave and determined to do the right thing. Nesta and Mor were also impressive. Unfortunately, the scope for how women can be strong or effective seems rather narrow in this world. Strength, at least as depicted here, involves facing physical threats, whether it’s starvation, confrontation with wild beasts or repulsing malignant magical forces.

The strong people in these books possess either a cruel or rude streak. Consider, for a moment, the play acting that’s required by Feyre and Rhysand in the Court of Nightmares, or Nesta’s nasty behavior as she tries to protect her little sister. The strong ones either use brutality or threats to protect those important to them. I would have liked to have seen more episodes where kindness and diplomacy were shown as strengths. Showing the kind and gentle Elain as something more than a pawn would have gone a long way to assuage the dissatisfaction I felt in this regard. The one moment of bravery she is given is so out-of-character that it didn’t work for me. The only notable example of kindness being a strength was when Feyre gave her jewelry to the creepy starving water creatures.

I personally find it distasteful when main characters use their sexuality to manipulate others. As long as humans feel sexual urges, I suppose we can’t get away from that as being a primary way to motivate some; however, if a text is being promoted as feminist, then I think it shouldn’t rely so much on its characters being able to get what they want because someone wants to fuck them. We’ve seen plenty of examples of that in books for decades upon decades. Give us something where the characters effect change through cleverness, hard work, kindness, toughness, etc. I’m not going to argue that these books don’t include examples of those things, but they rely overly much on sexuality.

Of course, much of the appeal of these books is the romance and steamy sex scenes. I love a good romance as much as anyone and can be titillated by a good sex scene. Other bloggers (here’s one) have already detailed their concerns with consent issues in these books. Given some of the troubling outcomes we’ve seen with rape trials (she was drunk or asleep; she wore provocative clothing; she was outside after dark; she was nice to me), I concur with readers who reject as unsatisfactory any explanation for the non-consensual sexual acts in these books. I believe we need to keep the lines of acceptability less muddied than they are. There are a number of troubling scenes, but Rhysand’s treatment of Feyre while under the mountain seems to be widely processed in the following manner: Sure, so and so forced her to wear revealing clothes, dance seductively for him and drink a beverage that made her black out–but he did so to protect her. FUCK THAT NONSENSE! That’s NOT ok.

The author has a fertile imagination. Surely, she could have come up with some other scenario where Rhysand could have protected Feyre by keeping her dignity intact and by allowing her some say in her treatment. What’s worse is that Feyre forgives him so quickly for all of this. If you ask me, it’s like the pathetic sentence given to Brock Turner. It devalues the crime. I also think it’s a version of a rape fantasy–watered down, yes, but upsetting all the same.

I, along with a lot of womankind, have been indoctrinated into the cult of “bad boys are sexy.” I’m trying my damndest to break free of that though. I would much rather see good boys shown as drool-worthy. Why? I suffered through a long relationship to someone who didn’t treat me right.  I didn’t recognize certain behaviors as unacceptable for far too long. There’s a lot of complicated psychology involved there, but I do partly blame the bad boy trope in romances as something that made me think being treated less than well was ok. It’s not. End of story.

Kindred by Octavia Butler

“The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”

― Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

60931If you were to hand me Kindred and tell me to shelve it in the appropriate section of the bookstore, I’d be stymied. It defies categorization. While it’s often billed as the first science fiction written by a black woman, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. It is a novel of rich literary complexity written by a black woman; however, it’s not exactly science fiction. One of its key elements is time travel, but the book provides no pseudo scientific explanation for how that occurs. Kindred is more accurately an amalgamation of fantasy, historical fiction and slave narrative. It’s a unique and powerful story about power.

Dana, the main character, is a 26 year-old woman living in California in 1976. She has a white husband, aspires to be a writer and works degrading jobs to make ends meet. Ironically, she and her fellow temps refer to the staffing agency as the “slave market.”

One day, without any warning, she is thrust back in time to antebellum Maryland. There, she rescues a young white boy from drowning and faces down the barrel of a shotgun. Abruptly, she ends back in her own time and place. Over and over again, she travels back and forth between the two times, each time to rescue the same young man, who she learns is a slaveholder and her distant relative. She grows to understand that she needs to keep him alive long enough to father her great-grandmother.

While I had an academic understanding of how awful the treatment of slaves was, this book made me feel it on a more visceral level. Dana often admits that she, a modern woman, does not have the fortitude to endure what many of the slaves took for granted. You or I might think to ourselves, I’d never put up with that. I’d run away. The book makes it abundantly clear how impossible that would actually seem to a person caught in that world.

Kindred also explores how there can be a strange mixture of love and hate for someone who has absolute control over your life. At times, Dana experienced maternal and sisterly feelings towards the slaveholder. Many other times, she struggled with her revulsion and her need to comply.

Notably, Dana’s mission in the past was not to undermine the oppressive system. She had to endure it, like so many before her. The experience changes her utterly. It complicates her relationship with her white husband, and her family and friends. A piece of her will always be left in the past–as I think is true for anyone with such a traumatic and dehumanizing heritage.

“I began writing about power because I had so little.”

~Octavia E. Butler

Curious about Octavia Butler? Here’s a great piece on her in the Independent. An aunt told her “Honey, Negroes can’t be writers.” Fortunately for us, she ignored that advice.

Cobweb Bride by Vera Nazarian

51WJeixYAdLIf you typically steer clear of epic fantasies, I would encourage you to give this one a second chance. While there’s no getting away from the fact that this novel is a fantasy, with an unlikely hero sent on a quest to rescue the world from utter destruction by supernatural forces, it could just as easily be described as historical fiction, given its Renaissance-like setting and politics. It most definitely is an epic tale, and like those told by Homer and Virgil, its language is utter poetry.

This novel is exceptionally well-written. The language is concise. The metaphors are rich, but never overwrought. There is a cinematic quality to the descriptions, drawing the reader into a lush alternate reality.

I am usually most drawn to character-driven stories, and this does not disappoint. There is a whole cast of interesting characters who are very different from one another, but deserving of our empathy. I especially admired Percy, the main character, who stoically sets out on a quest that she believes will end in her death, because she thinks she is one person in her family and town least likely to be missed. It’s marvelous to see her come into her own and discover her strengths. People come to depend on her.

My only complaint about Cobweb Bride is that more isn’t available for me to read RIGHT NOW. I’m looking forward to the sequels!

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this, via NetGalley.