This review includes a side-order of ‘Miriam nerding out about folk music’, a number of links to tunes, and a lot of rambling. Yay.
Sarah J. Maas is the first author to have two books reviewed on this blog already, as far as I’m aware. It’s funny that just a couple of months ago I’d never even heard of her, and now everywhere I look I see people referencing Throne of Glass or A Court Of Thorns And Roses.
It was Cait’s review of this book on Goodreads that brought it to my attention, even though she wasn’t entirely positive about it, but when I saw a mention of a character named Tam Lin, I needed to know more. Many reviews mention that it’s sort of a Beauty And The Beast retelling, but a lot of them miss out the other contributory factor: the ballad of Tam Lin, one of the so-called ‘Child ballads’.
I first came across this folk song in a version by Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, which doesn’t actually portray Tam Lin in a favourable light. (Have a link*! And another one!) In fact, I commented on Cait’s review to double check that I wasn’t about to start reading a book about a guy who, as far as the song says, is basically a creepy rapist. It was reassuring to learn that whichever version of this ballad Sarah J. Maas was working from (maybe this one?), it wasn’t that one.
I’m probably more familiar with Tam Lin than with Beauty and the Beast (I also know a traditional tune** with the same name — we used to use it to practise reels when I did Irish dancing), but since I recently saw a production of Beauty, I could at least see where the influences were. And I really enjoyed how Sarah J. Maas drew them together.
(My favourite thing would be when Feyre plucked a rose from the garden. In Beauty, the rose acts as a motif representing the curse; in some versions of Tam Lin, the girl is caught by Tam Lin because she plucks the rose from his garden. DOUBLE REFERENCE.)
The problem with retellings is that it’s often hard to make them convincing or interesting, since fairytales, ballads and myths often have nonsensical plots and archetypal characters with little personality. And when the plot dictates that two characters are going to fall in love, how do you make their relationship interesting, emotional, and original?
In A Court Of Thorns And Roses, the relationship between Feyre and Tamlin develops because of their shared experiences and the way they can relate to each other’s emotions and insecurities. This was something that I loved. It wasn’t instalove, it wasn’t about lust, even if they admired each other physically. I felt like there was a really concrete reason they were drawn to each other, and that was because they understood each other’s experiences.
I also loved the character of Lucien and his friendship with Tamlin — how despite being immortal high fae or whatever, they still joked around and behaved like, well, friends. But my favourite character development would probably be Feyre’s sister Nesta. She seems callous, cruel and self-centred at the start of the book, but actually she’s complex and emotional, and I loved how we got to see that developing over time.
Then there’s Rhysand.
I had seen reviewers and readers talking about their love of Rhysand and I couldn’t understand it. to a certain extent, I still can’t. Three-quarters of the way through the book, he had still shown nothing that could be considered a positive trait, or even a kind trait. Without spoiling the events of that last quarter, I will say that there was more to him than met the eye, and that ultimately he played an important role.
But. But I can’t forget the things he did earlier. Whatever his reasons, and however little choice he had, he still did them. Plus, he’s kinda rapey, so that’s not cool.
All of that said, Feyre also does some pretty bad stuff in order to survive. As she says at the beginning, people in her situation just have to learn to do what has to be done. She learned to hunt to feed her family, and she learns to adapt to the brutality of the faery world.
And let’s talk about that fae mythology for a moment, because it was spot on. All my favourite parts of books by Holly Black and Maggie Stifevater were there: music and dancing and oaths and brutality and impossible tasks and cursed lovers and controlling queens and monsters in the night. As someone who studies Irish literature and folklore for a degree, I spend way too much of my time thinking about fairies, and if there’s anyone who might be fussy about how they’re portrayed in YA literature, it would be me.
But I loved these ones. They were great. So, so great.
I guess I should mention the ending. It was — well, the whole book was intense. Brutal. Sarah J. Maas (I don’t know how to refer to her, because ‘Maas’ seems wrong, so I keep using her whole name) doesn’t shy away from violence, but it’s not gratuitous. It all means something, and it’s all the more horrifying for that.
As for the descriptions, well, there were some gorgeous lines in this. Like this one:
“I was loosened, a top whirling around and around, and I didn’t know who I danced with or what they looked like, only that I had become the music and the fire and the night, and there was nothing that could slow me down.”
That’s such a fae quote — that articulates for me how I imagine dances in the faery world.
So yeah, I loved this. While I own it on Kindle, and really don’t have room on my shelves for any more paper books at present (alas), I’m still tempted to get a hard copy one day, and give it a place somewhere on the shelf that holds my other fairy books, all the books that have led me to this point in my life.
Seriously, I’m a sucker for YA novels with creepy, bloodthirsty fairies. Holly Black is responsible for, like, 40% of my life choices.
*This is live from Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and also where I did my work experience at the age of fifteen. And then where I joined the London Youth Folk Ensemble. FOLK MUSIC NERD ALERT.
**I love Neil Pointon’s fiddle playing. I’ve been watching his YouTube videos since I first began to try out trad playing rather than Classical, so his style was very influential on mine. This is another great version of the tune though.