Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, determined to gather information on Tamlin’s maneuverings and the invading king threatening to bring Prythian to its knees. But to do so she must play a deadly game of deceit-and one slip may spell doom not only for Feyre, but for her world as well.
As war bears down upon them all, Feyre must decide who to trust amongst the dazzling and lethal High Lords-and hunt for allies in unexpected places.
In this thrilling third book in the #1 New York Times bestselling series from Sarah J. Maas, the earth will be painted red as mighty armies grapple for power over the one thing that could destroy them all.
As I’ve said before in my review of Empire of Shadows, I have a complicated relationship with SJM’s books. Some of her worldbuilding interests me, as do one or two of her characters, but her worlds and stories are so problematic and so white, cis, allo and straight that now I’m just waiting to read the last books of her series to say good bye to her writing completely.
(Spoilers ahead) (I do mean it: SPOILERS AHEAD).
I had heard many bad things about A Court of Wings and Ruin before starting it and sadly most of them are true. I wanted to talk first about her use of acephobic tropes, first brought to my attention thanks to the excerpt below:
Dagdan and Brannagh had listened to her fawning with enough boredom that I was starting to wonder if the two of them perhaps preferred no one’s company but each other’s. In whatever unholy capacity. Not a blink of interest toward the beauty who often made males and females stop to gape. Perhaps any sort of physical passion had long ago been drained away, alongside their souls.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, the assumption that lack of interest in a beautiful women probably means the two characters have no physical passion; second, the link between having no physical passion and no soul, since they (the souls and their physical passion) apparently were sucked out of their bodies together.
Many fans of the series said that the soulless part of this paragraph had been mentioned before, so no, their lack of physical passion and their soullessness weren’t linked. I disagreed with them – even if it had been mentioned before, it’s not okay to say two soulless characters lost their “physical passion” alongside their souls, not only because the statement itself is shitty (it implies someone with a soul would never lack physical passion) but because it assumes everyone has this “physical passion” and that not having it is abnormal.
Now, when I first read this, I thought Feyre meant it literally – as in, Dagdan and Brannagh had their souls drained away for real. But when I read the book, surprise!, they didn’t. They are just evil.
Here’s the first time Feyre mentions the twins’ evilness:
But it was the two commanders – one male, one female – that had a sliver of true fear sliding into my heart.
High Fae in appearance, their skin the same ruddy hue and hair the identical inky black as their king. But it was their vacant, unfeeling faces that snagged the eye. A lack of emotion honed from millennia of cruelty.
And how she keeps establishing that they feel no emotion:
Tamlin inclined his head to the prince and princess. “Welcome to my home. We have rooms prepared for all of you.”
“My brother and I shall reside in one together,” the princess said. Her voice was deceptively light – almost girlish. The utter lack of feeling, the utter authority was anything but.
By the way, there is no proof whatsoever of them being incestuous. Granted, we can assume SJM left it open and that they probably are, but Feyre thinks they are because 1. they don’t fawn over Ianthe, the beautiful woman, or show any “physical passion” and 2. they sleep in the same room/tent.
So no, their souls weren’t drained from their bodies.
And no, there is no proof in canon that they are incestuous twins.
They are just evil. Cold, emotionless faeries who are so evil they don’t feel any ~physical passion~ (only maybe for each other, which, again, isn’t even canon, it’s just something Feyre assumes about them).
Their characters rely in many acephobic tropes, because well, lots and lots of villains rely on acephobic tropes. One of the most common ace(phobic) stereotypes is that ace people (or just people who feel no “physical passion”, since no one ever uses the word) can’t feel anything and are cold, frigid beings, mostly likely also evil. It’s no coincidence that in a series like this one, where anyone who is 1. pretty or 2. good will probably date/have sex with someone at some point and where hetero romances are forced down the reader’s throat all the time, the characters who are portrayed as feeling no physical passion are evil, emotionless and cruel.
I’m not saying SJM wrote them thinking, hehe I’m gonna use acephobic stereotypes and hurt ace folks! because I’m sure she didn’t. This trope is ingrained in the way we tell stories. Villains are the cold, emotionless ones who feel no sexual or romantic attraction and are forever alone. Heroes are the open, feeling ones who get the girl/boy in the end and live happily ever after. This goes back to what I’ve talked about a thousand times in this blog: the belief that sex and romantic love are what makes us human, and if aro & ace people don’t feel romantic/sexual attraction, then they aren’t human. Since villains are usually villains for not being nice humans, then they also never have sex (and if they do, they don’t feel in love with the person and that is portrayed as something bad) and never date anyone, which implies a lack of sexual and romantic attraction.
See what I’m trying to say? Lack of sexual and/or romantic attraction = bad, and since villains = bad, it’s common for villains to be portrayed as lacking sexual and/or romantic attraction. Which is, well, one of the reasons I spent my whole life relating to aro/ace coded villains instead of relating to the straight, cis, allo heroes, since aro/ace coded heroes are so damn rare, but using this trope to build evil villains is still a shitty thing to do. I’m not saying villains can’t be aro/ace, but we must be careful with how we portray the lack of sexual and romantic attraction and why we usually link these two things to villains who are literally the most evil, cruel and mean people to walk on earth.
SJM sadly wasn’t careful. She made use of aphobic tropes like many authors do, and while I’m sure she didn’t do it on purpose, that doesn’t mean the harm she caused is any less valid.
And since her series is so damn saturated with sex and romance, the use of this trope is even more glaring.
Second thing I wanted to talk about: her portrayal of the only bisexual character, Helion, the High Lord of the Day Court.
This is how his bisexuality (or pansexuality or polysexuality) is introduced:
Helion threw himself onto the couch across from Cassian and Mor. He’d ditched the radiant crown somewhere, but kept tht gold armband of the upright serpent. “It’s been what – four centuries now, and you three still haven’t accepted my offer.”
Mor lolled her head to the side. “I don’t like to share, unfortunately.”
“You never know until you try,” Hellion purred.
The three of them in bed… with him? I must have been blinking like a fool because Rhy said to me, Helion favors both males and females. Usually together in bed. And has been hounding after that trio for centuries.
Which… Well, I’m sure I don’t need to say why this is not exactly good rep, but in any case: one of the most common stereotypes of bisexuality is that bisexuals are 1. always promiscuous and 2. always looking for threesomes.
Or in Helion’s case, foursomes.
Of course there are bi people who have a lot of sex and enjoy three or foursomes, but the stereotype is so common, and so harmful, that the author, esp a straight author, needs to be very careful when they write a bi character like this. And well, Helion isn’t an important character. I mean, he is – he’s the High Lord of the Day Court, after all – but he’s not one of the main characters and he isn’t that crucial to the story. Maas doesn’t have time (or just didn’t bother, who knows) to develop him and establish him as a more multidimensional, complete character. As it is, all we know about Helion is that he’s really powerful, really beautiful, that he’s the High Lord of the Day Court, that he loves three/foursomes with both men and women and that he did nothing to save a woman he loved from her abusive husband. Also, that he’s Lucien’s father.
I think things could have been different if he were a more developed character. In ACOWAR, unfortunately, he’s more stereotype than character, which doesn’t really convince me of SJM’s efforts to diversify her work, especially if we take the problematic way in which she revealed Aedion’s bisexuality in Empire of Storms in consideration. Also, it’s pretty clear she didn’t do any research or had any sensitivity readers; the promiscuous, threesome-loving bisexual is easily, as I said, the most common stereotype about bisexuals. A simple google search would’ve saved her in this one, but apparently she couldn’t be bothered to do that.
Third thing: Mor.
Mor comes out as lesbian to Feyre only in this book. Here’s how she does it (after Feyre throws in her face that fact that Mor doesn’t do anything with the info that Azriel loves her):
“No.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “No. I don’t … You see …” I’d never seen her at such a loss for words. She closed her eyes, fingers digging into her skin. “I can’t love him like that.”
“Because I prefer females.”
For a heartbeat, only silence rippled through me. “But—you sleep with males. You slept with Helion …” And had looked terrible the next day. Tortured and not at all sated.
Not just because of Azriel, but … because it wasn’t what she wanted.
“I do find pleasure in them. In both.” Her hands were shaking so fiercely that she gripped herself even tighter. “But I’ve known, since I was little more than a child, that I prefer females. That I’m … attracted to them more over males. That I connect with them, care for them more on that soul-deep level. But at the Hewn City … All they care about is breeding their bloodlines, making alliances through marriage. Someone like me … If I were to marry where my heart desired, there would be no offspring. My father’s bloodline would have ended with me. I knew it—knew that I could never tell them. Ever. People like me … we’re reviled by them. So I never breathed a word of it. And then… then my father betrothed me to Eris and… And it wasn’t just the prospect of marriage to him that scared me. No, I knew I could survive his brutality, his cruelty and coldness. I was– I am stronger than him. It was the idea of being bred like a prize mare, of being forced to give up that one part of me…” Her mouth wobbled, and I reached for her hand, prying it off her arm. I squeezed gently as tears began sliding down her flushed face.
So she is a women loving woman who is okay with having sex with men (maybe she’s bisexual, but homoromantic? The whole thing isn’t clear, in my opinion. Does she just enjoy the sex and feel no sexual attraction to men – which is more probable, I think, since I doubt SJM knows about the split attraction model – or feel sexual attraction to men, but not romantic love?). She’s had a female lovers before, even one with whom she says she was quite happy, but she was a human queen who died long ago. Mor’s story is also full of suffering because homo/lesbophobia and she’s still in the closet because of fear.
She doesn’t sleep with men in hopes it will cure her, though. She mentions she thought about sleeping with Azriel to see if she could feel something for him, but ultimately chose not to because of how he would see it and the fact that she knows she just won’t fall in love with him. In her words, “I’m not sure I can give my entire heart to him that way. And… and I love him enough to want him to find someone who can truly love him like he deserves. And I love myself… I love myself enough to not want to settle until I find that person, too.”
Honestly? I’m not sure about her rep. I’m not a wlw, not a lesbian and not even a woman, so I prefer to abstain from comments on it. The whole thing is complicated and I don’t think a voice outside of the wlw community or the lesbian community is needed here.
Some other notes on diversity: there are more queer characters and more characters of color in ACOWAR. Thesan, the High Lord of the Dawn Court, and his male lover; Nephelle and her wife; Helion, who is described as having “dark skin”, Lucien, who is revealed as being biracial (he’s Helion’s son, after all, though I don’t remember Maas mentioning that he has darker skin than his (half) brothers until this book), and some other character here and there. With the exception of Lucien, all of them are minor characters, and Thesan’s lover and Nephelle and her wife don’t even speak. In fact, I don’t think Nephelle’s wife and Thesan’s lover even have names.
Which brings us to another thing I wanted to talk about: the worldbuilding of this series and how much of a mess it is sometimes. Something I’ll never understand is why Maas never bothered to name the human queens, for example (with the exception of Vessa), or even her kingdoms. I mean, have no idea of where these kingdoms are. In fact, I didn’t even know (or remember) that there were other faerie kingdoms besides Hybern and the Seven Courts.
But what really bothered me was how SJM tried to retcon her world into being queer friendly while still making it heteronormative.
There was no mention of queer characters in book one and two, as far as I can remember. They simply didn’t exist. And well, the fae are really, really heteronormative and exorsexist. There is only male and female and 99% of the time it is assumed that a male must want a female, and a female must want a male, and that everyone, regardless of gender, must want someone else as well. I mean, look at the mating bonds – they are many times described as something primitive, that the males can’t resist, and in ACOWAR Rhys even admits mating bonds probably only exist as a way to provide the strongest offspring:
“A mating bond can be rejected,” Rhys said mildly, eyes flickering in the mirror as he drank in every inch of bare skin I had on display. “There is choice. And sometimes, yes—the bond picks poorly. Sometimes, the bond is nothing more than some … preordained guesswork at who will provide the strongest offspring. At its basest level, it’s perhaps only that. Some natural function, not an indication of true, paired souls.” A smile at me—at the rareness, perhaps, of what we had. “Even so,” Rhys went on, “there will always be a … tug. For the females, it is usually easier to ignore, but the males … It can drive them mad. It is their burden to fight through, but some believe they are entitled to the female. Even after the bond is rejected, they see her as belonging to them. Sometimes they return to challenge the male she chooses for herself. Sometimes it ends in death. It is savage, and it is ugly, and it mercifully does not happen often, but … Many mated pairs will try to make it work, believing the Cauldron selected them for a reason. Only years later will they realize that perhaps the pairing was not ideal in spirit.”
The Fae’s masculinity is more often than not extremely toxic. Extremely feral and territorial. Usually because of the bond, something apparently biological that exists to provide “the strongest offspring”.
The foundations of this society are built on heteronormativity, sexism and amatonormativity.
And yet it is queer-friendly, with the exception of the Court of Nightmares, Mor’s home. No one blinks at the very minor queer couples. Not even Feyre, who was raised a human beyond the wall, which one can understand as being a indicative that humans are also queer friendly.
And yet there were no queer people, or at least no hint that queer people could at least exist, in 2/3 of the series.
Now, I’m not saying the fae society should be queerphobic. Far from that. But in my opinion? Maas didn’t even think about including queer characters (or POC) until people criticized her for her lack of diversity (which, fine, it happens to straight cis allo white authors), but then she didn’t do the work to actually make her queer-friendly society believable based on what she had already established. If no one bats an eyelash at Thesan and his male lover or at Nephelle and her wife or at Helion and his many male and female lovers, than why was Mor assumed straight all this time? Yes, I know she came from the Court of Nightmares, but most characters didn’t. As far as the reader knows, the other characters grew up in a queer-friendly world, and not one of them suspected she might not be straight?
Why is the assumption that everyone is straight a thing in a mostly queer-friendly world?
And how does the bond work for same sex couples? Does it exist? If not (I think not, since it is a “we need STRONG offspring” thing), then how does that difference influences the way straight couples and queer couples are seen? Or it doesn’t? And if doesn’t, then why is the mating bond such a big deal?
(WHY why W H Y does it exist at all???)
We just don’t know.
And that’s what really bothers me. Maas’s world is extremely heteronormative, cisnormative, exorsexist, amatonormative and so on, and yet she tries to mask everything with some worldbuilding elements that make no sense. It’s the same thing for how abuse is handled – ACOWAR is full of conversations about consent where Rhys tells Feyre he doesn’t own her, that she is free to do as she wants, etc, but not once does it acknowledge that what Rhys did to Feyre Under the Mountain was a violation of her consent. That it was abuse. Everything is explained away with “well, I did it to save you“, which isn’t exactly nice.
As for the story… there are some good elements in it. I liked Lucien and Feyre’s moments, for example (Lucien is in fact my favorite character in this series and I’m still pissed that SJM made him have a bond just to make him miserable) (and pissed that the abuse he suffered in Tamlin’s hands wasn’t recognized) and despite some things (aka the men being ridiculous) I really enjoyed the meeting of the High Lords. But this is the weakest novel in the trilogy for me. The writing I liked in ACOTAR is gone, as is that amazing atmosphere that made me want to keep reading it, and the sex scenes continue to be truly awful (not only awful. Dreadful. Embarrassing. Maybe romance novels have been spoiling me, because SJM’s sex scenes are so terrifyingly bad). The ending here is rushed and lacks tension. So many things were badly handled – there was so much build up to the Ouroboros mirror, for example, for zero payoff (she faces it off page, for goodness’ sake), and no one will ever convince me that the Weaver and the Bone Carver didn’t die so Feyre & Cia didn’t need to deal with them being free. It was so obvious that Maas didn’t want Feyre and Rhys to deal with two powerful death-gods free in the upcoming spin-off series.
Also, Amren and Rhys dying and coming back from the dead? So cheap. As much as I like Amren, at least her should’ve continued dead. Bringing them back was such a cheap move, and the whole scene was also so bad. It’s like Maas was running out of time to write it.
Also, Lucien was away for like, 60% of the book, which was extremely disappointing.
In conclusion, this wasn’t a good book. The latter half in especial was bad, rushed and not fun to read. I have no idea of which story Maas will tell in the spin-off series. My only interest in it is in the possibility of it being about Lucien, but if she makes a love triangle between him, Elain and Azriel…. ugh.
2.0 stars for A Court of Wings and Ruin.