The Cloak and Quill

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A Court of Thorns and Roses: Men can enjoy Sarah J Maas, too.

A Court of Thorns and Roses: Men can enjoy Sarah J Maas, too.

I was looking for a new book for a little inspiration. If you’ve read my other posts, you know that I am (slowly) chugging my way through The Wheel of Time. And as a lifelong Tolkien and company fan, there’s only so many classic epic fantasy journeys that you can go on at once. Enter my fiance, who for the past year has been reading Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass novels. She recommended–given the characters and plots of my own writing lately–that I step out of my comfort book zone. At the local bookstore one afternoon, we picked up A Court of Thorns and Roses.

“But it’s just beauty and the beast, retold as a young adult novel,” I complained. (I am well aware I was committing my own biggest pet peeve of making assumptions about a book, and to be honest I don’t know why I was pushing back at all.) I think internally, I assumed that the books would be something like Twilight. (And, again, this should not have been a barrier). Luckily, she refused to hear it, and ultimately I decided she was right.

But it was harder than I thought to overcome the ingrained literary sexism that tells boy readers that Star Wars and Harry Potter are okay because the main characters are Luke and Harry, not Leia and Hermionie.

I’ve always enjoyed my share of YA books, and I’ve always argued that classifying books as “boy” and “girl” books is a horrible practice. But, it was harder than I thought it would be to overcome ingrained literary sexism. From a young age we teach boy readers that Star Wars and Harry Potter are okay because the main characters are Luke and Harry and not Leia and Hermione. If women can (and should) enjoy these series, then men can (and should) read and add awesome heroines to our list of favorite characters.

The journey happened in two parts. Part one created frustration.

And so, I started reading that copy of A Court of Thorns and Roses. Despite the strange feelings I had had for no explainable reason,  something wonderful started happening. Here was a main character that hunts and provides for her family, who manages the household! She kills faeries! She’s pretty bad-ass! I was identifying with Feyre! I was intrigued and kept reading. Suddenly, between 25% and 50% of the way through the book, Feyre falls into a Beauty and the Beast situation. She was acting like a damsel-in-distress act, and that actually frustrated me. Why isn’t she being awesome like she was? She retained some of her spunk throughout the segments of the story where she’s captive in the Court of Spring, but I wanted more action! More standing up for herself!

I put the book down to work on some other things. For a week my fiance kept asking–to a point of near-badgering–when I was going to finish it. I complained (again) that the book had lost its hook in me.

Maas subverts tropes with a fantastic heroine.

I finally got back to the book, almost begrudgingly and sat on the couch for a chunk of time one evening to finish the second half. I was determined to clear it from my back log of books. But, again, something awesome happened. It became the genuinely best page turner I had read in a long time. It was just different (no predictable boy-kings, or prophesied heroes) and well written.

The characters, I now understood, had stagnated partially by design. Maas had wanted me to think that A Court of Thorns and Roses was just beauty and the beast re-done for YA readers. But then she had subverted that trope. (So much for assuming book plots). Halfway through the story, Feyre comes face to face with the brutal and horrific consequences of her own actions. She charges back into the fray to make them right. She mirrors the heroic experience of so many women I know in real life. Feyre sacrifices herself (in more ways than one) to try to save everyone around her. It’s great irony that the ones she is working to save are the supposed all-powerful High Fae she was so afraid of at the start of the book.

Was Feyre really a damsel-in-distress?

Most importantly, I realized that Feyre wasn’t falling into a damsel-act in the first half because she wanted to. I began to understand that that was what she had to do, in her particular situation. The man she has feelings for is threatened, she’s in an uncomfortable new world with dangers she doesn’t understand, and nobody is looking out for her. She wanted to do something. She wanted to act, but couldn’t. So many people, not just women, can relate to those circumstances.

The more I thought about it, the more I began to question why any female character would ever want to be a damsel in distress. That isn’t want makes readers relate to a female character. What makes her relateable are the circumstances that force her to assume the damsel-in-distress position–and to overcome it. Authors with historically bad female characters (looking at you, Hemingway)  just toss women into the damsel role with no situational explanation other than “that’s just how society says it should be” or “the man should save the day”. Or, they don’t ever let the character overcome the situation at all.

A Court of Thorns and Roses was a great experience that I’d like to repeat.

After I finished, I was so glad that I had read the book and was eager to read on. I began tossing my plot theories out to my fiance, who wouldn’t confirm or deny anything–though she didn’t bother to hide her amusement at my enthusiasm for a “beauty and the beast girl book”.

Maas has done something spectacular, and by many counts her Thrones of Glass novels are even better and I’ve begun to keep an eye out for those to read as well, eventually. I ended up very satisfied that I stepped outside of my own trained niche in Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and the positive experience will lead me to do it again. Importantly, in addition to the fantastic story I got to read, I really do think that reading Maas’ book has made me a slightly better writer. I am able to understand a bit more about a reading audience that I was not inherently a part of, and am really grateful for that experience.

By all accounts, Maas is one of the hottest (and most prolific, with multiple books every year) authors out there right now. It won’t be the last time you hear her name, and no matter your gender, age, or genre I really encourage you to give her a read. You’ve got some time before her much anticipated entry in her Throne of Glass series comes out on October 23rd this year!