Recommendation: I don’t hate it (with significant reservations)
Where to read: Not so much “where” as “when” but this is classic “end of tether, tired and just want something Netflix-ish” reading
Read with: Your preferred “get tipsy with the gals” white
In brief: Romantic fantasy is not generally my preferred genre (I stuck more to high fantasy as a kid and as a teenager) and Matthew Reilly is my go-to purveyor of mindless nonsense, but this is not completely bad. If you do pick it up, don’t think about it too hard.
- The series is a cool set of retellings/spins on folk tails and myths, mainly Tam Lin (if you’re into Celtic folklore) or Beauty in the Beast and then Hades/Persephone.
- It exists in a morally complicated universe in which compromise and gradual progress are understood and seen as, on the whole, positive things. The main characters are also, interestingly, pragmatists with noble goals but a realistic and frequently ruthless way of prosecuting them, the virtues and dangers of which are actually examined (cf. the use of Unforgivable Curses in Harry Potter). It is, frankly, a nice break from both the holier-than-thou fantasy hero or the amoral, borderline-nihilist YA protagonist.
- The character arcs, particularly the romantic ones, are not quite as fucked up as some of the horrifically abusive crap you see in genre fiction (and romantic fiction more generally, lets be honest). While the main romance is still pretty awful up in a number of ways, Maas has no time for the romanticising of controlling, possessive behaviour so pervasive in contemporary romance/romantic fantasy. There is still some deeply uncomfortable material but if I had to give a hypothetical teenage daughter this series or something like Twilight, this would win hands down (it’s pretty fucked up though, so I wouldn’t be happy about it).
- It’s not a positive, but she studiously avoids the “use rape for character development” trope with her female characters. Her male characters, on the other hand…
- The treatment of mental health and the impact of trauma doesn’t completely suck and is mostly quite optimistic (as opposed to the unrelenting bleakness of The Hunger Games, for example).
- The writing is generally not dreadful but a tad insipid in places, particularly when we get into the ennndddlllessss descriptions of the clothes. I am as into shoes as the next person, but really…
- On that topic, the world building appears to be done mostly via Feyre’s bloody dresses and the picture that emerges is fucking weird. The Spring Court seems to be vaguely Georgian, the human world distinctly Victorian and the Night Court a mix of “Orientalist-as-fuck harem” and “modern but without zips”. There is nothing inherently wrong with a setting completely divorced from historical time and place but there does need to be something vaguely coherent.
- Maas, unfortunately, falls squarely into the camp of writers who are primarily interested in interpersonal relationships and the interior lives of their characters (which she manages serviceably) at the expense of the narrative as a whole, particularly when the plot demands they write something grander in scale. As a result, the final book is flat as a tack – the small-scale politics at the start is fun but the military campaign is completely muddled and the “grand final battle” appallingly underdone (and nonsensical, and packed with stupid deus ex machina).
- The villains are deeply boring and not particularly well developed. There is a vague attempt at providing an “economic anxiety plus racism” rationale for it all (which reads like a New York Times editorial on Trump supporters) but for the most part it seems to be generic genocidal conquest for the sake of it.
- The political order makes little to no sense and the less said about whatever the fuck the economic system is meant to be the better.
- The pivot from the Tamlin/Feyre romance to the Rhys/Feyre romance is clumsy and relies heavily on “destiny” to do the heavy lifting. It’s not entirely bad, but it could have done without the stupid and frankly arbitrary insistence on everything happening in a couple of months – a much longer period would have served just as well from a plot perspective and would have been more consistent with both Rhys’ and Feyre’s emotional states (he’s recovering from about fifty years of sexual assault and she’s got serious PTSD and has just escaped from a classic case of coercive control). It would also have made her apparently becoming proficient(ish) in both magic and a couple of forms of combat in a course of weeks less absurd.
- I’m all about feminist ideas in fiction, but we really need a man to invent it? It sort of fits into the plot, and there is a sort of sense in putting the “affirmative consent is sexy” lecture into the mouth of the hot love interest, but Rhys mansplains feminism a lot…