I waited way, way too long to review these properly (my MO for this entire Cannonball), so my scattered impressions are these:
º Sarah J Maas has a real talent for world-building and concepts. Her depictions of the fae in this book and in her other series are rooted in just enough common fae lore that she doesn’t have to get bogged down filling in lots of backward detail, but she of course contributes enough of her own unique features that they aren’t interchangeable across stories. She’s good at setting up high-stakes situations and taking some genuinely surprising turns throughout the unwinding of the plot.
º She’s also pretty good at fleshing out her side characters and giving them distinct identities and stories. Her stories have a collaborative, ensemble feel that, in my view, makes up a big part of why her books become so addictive even when they start having other problems: there are a lot of characters that you’ve grown to care about, and the compulsion to know what happens to all of them is strong.
º Her main characters are… well, I won’t lie, they definitely have a whiff of The Most Special in the World about them. But they also work really hard and sacrifice a lot. Nothing is just handed to them. As a regular human who suddenly finds her survival skills tested by her new life in faery territory, Feyre actually does engage her own wits and skilled experience and doesn’t just rely on dumb luck or on the more powerful fae to save her. Sure, they do save her, sometimes, but she gives everything she has and is prepared to go out on her own merits if that’s not good enough. It’s refreshing to have a female main character in this type of book (I’d say YA, but SJM books aren’t conclusively YA even though they’re often classified that way, not unless YA somehow got a lot more porny when I wasn’t paying attention) who is actually reasonably confident and doesn’t just reluctantly fall into a position of power and unwittingly gather a bunch of adoring suitors along the way despite her exceeding plain-ness (their words always, not mine.) In the first book, Feyre is a bit awestruck by the Spring Court and of the alien vivacity of the fae world, and she also misses her family terribly. She has a lot going on emotionally and is learning her way in this strange new place, but she knows what her strengths are. Her self-assuredness propels her through the worst of her changing circumstances.
So Maas has all of these strengths going for her into A Court of Thorns and Roses. I listened to the audiobook that I had borrowed from the library, and at some point about 60% of the way in, I was just like, well shit, I really like this and am probably going to want to have it for keeps. So I went and bought the series on Kindle. I don’t buy a lot of books. Between the aforementioned library and a Scribd subscription, I have little need of purchasing. So if sending me scurrying to Amazon is not a great achievement in the field of Hooking Your Reader, I don’t know what is.
Beware spoilers here on out for the first book since it’s impossible to talk even vaguely about the second and third without them.
I mentioned before that Maas always has a few plot twists up her sleeve. The other thing she seems to like to do, as evidenced by doing it in both her major series so far, is the complete plot pivot. Thorns and Roses is about a human girl who makes a bargain with a Fae Lord, exchanging her life for her family’s protection. Her end of the bargain necessarily means she must relocate to Prythian, the faery nation, and as she slowly finds her way there, she falls in love with Tamlin, the lord of the Spring Court where she lives out the terms of the deal. As she grows into her second life, she learns about a curse that’s slowly killing Prythian, and she vows to help Tamlin save his kingdom. Now, as a reader, you know that isn’t going to be simple — these characters will be tried and tested and probably the circumstances will change, and they’ll have to adapt to get through it. But you don’t necessarily expect — or at least, I certainly didn’t — that by the time you get to A Court of Mist and Fury, the whole first book was basically a red herring, and Tamlin isn’t her OTP at all, and Feyre basically starts back at zero in terms of her comfort and familiarity with her situation and needs to learn the ins and outs of an entirely new Court. I mean, summarizing it in a few sentences like that takes away the impact of how big of a a change-up it actually was, but if you have read this series and didn’t just let yourself get spoiled by that recap, you hopefully agree that it’s kind of a unique thing that SJM likes to do, where she seems really comfortable sacrificing her own prior books just to pull the rug out from under the reader and take the whole thing in a new direction. I can’t tell if this manic spontaneity is just disorganized writing, or if it’s a kind of brilliant commitment to breaking rules. Either way, it keeps me interested.
In any case, you can’t fault her on her ambition. But by the end of her other series, Throne of Glass, she had so many balls in the air that she lost a bit of control. She had to sacrifice sophistication and nuance in her approach when she had to resolve all of those intertwining stories, and in many cases went for a kind of easy way out so that she could quickly move onto the next. Did I still like it? Sure, partly because of what I said above about wanting to see all of these different characters get their resolution, and partly because a chaotic and batshit ending can’t be denied its entertainment value. She does rein it in a bit in A Court of Wings and Ruin, but her tendency toward the grandiose results in a lot of the same technical problems that impacted the other series. When page after page, for hundreds of pages, relentlessly drives the Most Important and Epic Love Story and the Most Important and Epic Life-or-Death Battle into you, you lose the contrast that calibrates your sense of scale. When everything is a big deal, nothing is. It’s hard not to get fatigued, and so I found myself skimming a lot of the last book. And going back to the question of whether or not these books are YA, I think it’s the lack of subtlety and sophistication that keeps SJM in that space. Overblown emotions and everything just fits better in YA, because that’s the reality for teens/young adults. “Adult” books have angst and drama, sure, but they tend to be a little more restrained in the delivery. Time will tell if Maas kind of likes rebelliously existing in that gray area, or if she’s going to keep tweaking her style to land somewhere more definitively. I’d say, given the success of her books, she’s probably doing just fine, and if she never changes a thing about her addictive and occasionally (often?) ridiculous books, she’ll continue to be just fine. And I’ll probably keep reading, because guilty pleasure books are pretty low on the scale of sinful indulgences as far as I’m concerned.