A Court of Wings and Ruin (Sarah J Maas)

5 stars

Spoilers linger ahead, turn back if thou hast not read ACOWAR.

“I would have waited five hundred more years for you. A thousand years. And if this was all the time we were allowed to have… the wait was worth it.”

I think that, luckily, I didn’t go into this book expecting ACOMAF. Why? Because it’s the end of an arc, there’s war, destruction, pain, whilst ACOMAF was about healing, and joy and wonder. I also went into this with my heart in my throat, wondering whether, as a bisexual wlw, I would find this book as offensive as the internet had been saying. I was actually in quite a dark place starting this book, my grandmother had just died, I was 1000 miles from home and horribly homesick, I could feel my anxiety as a constant pressure in my chest. The ACOTAR series has always been like a comfort blanket for me, too many times I’ve curled up with ‘don’t let the hard days win’ on my lips. The thought that had been planted in me, that this book could hurt me, made me feel ill, I desperately didn’t want it to be true. I made sure to read it critically, listening to what people had been saying, but, personally, as a bi woman I didn’t find any of it offensive (though I agree, the acephobic is painfully acephobic). There are definitely one or two things I would love to just sit down and educate Sarah about, namely NB genders, but I felt that there was a real effort made to include more diverse identities in this book. I’ve seen a lot of people saying that Sarah ignores the comments made about her lack of diversity, but I think this book really does show that she’s listening.

ACOWAR begins maybe a week after ACOMAF left off, with Feyre infiltrating the Spring Court, now allied with Hybern, and gathering information for the Court of Dreamers. Feyre is playing the part of a ‘perfect Bride of Spring’, painting, helping organize festivals…sowing unrest and discord in the Court. When commanders from Hybern arrive in the Court, alongside the dastardly Jurian, so begins a dangerous game…

I will start by saying that I know this book, or indeed any of Sarah’s books, are not for everyone. This entire series is about love, romance and sex, so if that’s not your cup of tea then you might as well pick up another book. There are lines in here that I find incredibly beautiful and others find incredibly cheesy. I’m pretty sure that a couple of years ago I would not have enjoyed this series as much as I do now. How we enjoy books is never based entirely on the books, but also on things we have experienced, things that have happened to us…

‘Night Triumphant- and the Stars Eternal. If he was the sweet, terrifying darkness, I was the glittering light that only his shadows could make clear.’

If you don’t subscribe to the soulmate philosophy, then I can just tell you straight off the bat that some parts of this will make you want to scream. I am, however, an enormous romantic; the idea of finding a partner where both of you are the better for your partnership, just makes me well up. The relationship between Feyre and Rhysand across this series is just so perfect, so secure and safe and heartfelt, it’s really going to be hard to find another couple that can even come close. They’re just so good for each other, both feeling able to lower their masks and open their hearts to one another. The mating bond is definitely a magical extension of the intuitive nature of some relationships. I also really enjoyed that there were some times where the two of them stepped on one another’s toes, where they annoyed or worried the other. I honestly don’t think a relationship is as strong as it originally seems until you’ve seen it weather a storm, or ford a river crossing. Arguments are natural, expected, it would be bizarre if couples didn’t disagree about some things.

Feyre
Feyre’s growth as a character in this book was just incredible. Watching her embrace her fears and say and do the things that had always lived somewhere deep in her heart was just so gratifying. Feyre, the woman who had survived homelessness, starvation, torture, accepting her past, accepting herself and mastering the mirror…wow, I was so impressed with her arc. I also enjoyed that she wasn’t instinctively good at flying, did not master the skill in an unbelievable time frame and would probably need to keep working on it even after the end of the book. Watching Feyre grow into a true High Lady, and how her relationships blossomed with the other members of the Court of Dreamers, drawing out the truth of each of the characters…ah, I’m so ready to reread and experience that all again.

Rhys
I’d seen some comments that Rhysand seemed out of character, ‘too soft’, in this book and I have a lot of thoughts and opinions about that. In ACOTAR we saw only the mask, in ACOMAF the mask slipped away, in ACOWAR we saw the heart of Rhys. I honestly believe that, from the end of ACOMAF, Rhys knew that he would die, that his gentleness in this book came from constant integration of every possibility and the realization that all of them ended in his death. He takes every moment of happiness he possibly can, makes sure, with every moment, that Feyre knows that he loves her and would spend every second of eternity with her if he could.

“The great joy and honour of my life has been to know you. To call you my family. And I am grateful – more than I can possibly say – that I was given this time with you all”

I know that a lot of people relate to Feyre, but, personally, I relate more with Rhysand. Feyre’s depression is very visible, very obvious, whilst Rhys hides his behind a mask of half smiles and glib comments, isolating himself from those he loves because he considers himself a burden. Feyre wastes away, Rhys is actively reckless with his life, spending every ounce of himself and his self worth upon those he loves. Even his beast form, with its cruel talons and inhuman face, seems like a metaphor for internalised self loathing, a part of himself that he really hates to let others see. You feel as if Rhys has always been hiding parts of himself, well before Amarantha’s torture, that from a young age he was aware of the suffering around him and that it pained him.

‘Everyone insists Rhysand is soulless, wicked. But the male I knew was the most decent of them all.’ (Jurian)

He was written so well, so honestly, that I could almost know what he was going to do before he did it. The respect that he has for Feyre, his trust in her and her abilities honestly made me well up in places. Feeling and caring, sensitivity and gentleness and love does not make someone weak, and I didn’t really like the implication that Rhysand was in this book. If you think that a man dealing with trauma and fear and the coming of war is ‘weak’, then you’re part of the problem and you can come and fight me to be honest.

The Court of Dreams
I won’t lie, the moment we met Cassian in the snow of the Winter Court, I wanted to be the one to throw my arms around his chest. I missed my Court of Dreamers so much in the Spring Court, I missed their laughter, joy and support for one another. Seeing Feyre becoming an integral part of that circle, to see their love for Rhys become love for Feyre…eugh, my heart. I think the dynamic of the Court, watching as Nesta, Elain and, towards the end, Lucien, became enveloped to varying extents into their circle, was just…I loved it.

I liked Cassian and Azriel in ACOMAF, but, after finishing ACOWAR I adored them. Seeing how much they cared for Feyre, not just as Rhys’ mate, not just as High Lady, but as a friend…how they would die for her and for her sisters, I have no words for how much I felt about that. Azriel’s rage at hearing how Tamlin had turned violent around Feyre, his gentleness around broken Elain, Cassian’s desperation to save Nesta even when his body was broken…the depth of their love for those around them is just unbounded. I personally, would love to see Azriel and Elain happy together, multiple times throughout the book Sarah’s pointed out that sometimes the mating bond just doesn’t work, just isn’t right and I think even Lucien has come to see their bond as something strange and inexplicable. I ship Lucien with Vassa to be honest, I feel that would be one hell of a relationship, and I really think he deserves someone who loves him as much as he loves them, especially after all that Ianthe did to him. Gentle Elain with her green fingers, her love of beauty and her fierce loyalty to her family, Azriel whose life has been shadows and pain but has seen the joy of love from afar…I just want them to be happy. If that happiness is together or in another pairing I don’t mind, just let them be happy.

Nesta and Cassian were just…I already enjoyed their relationship in ACOMAF, but there’s so much more depth in ACOWAR, with even Nesta letting her own mask slip when concerned about the Illyrian General. I will be disappointed, to say the least, if one of the novels is not about these two, I think there is so much more to be said with them, bear in mind that they only met one another in a time of war when so much else was at stake. Does it matter whether the mating bond snaps into place for them? Not really, I always got the feeling that being ‘mated’ was actually not all that common, a little like finding your soul mate and, I almost wonder whether you kind of had to be looking for your soulmate for that to happen. I can’t imagine that was particularly high on either Nesta or Cassian’s priorities. Relationships are different for everyone and I don’t think a relationship without a mating bond is lesser to one with. But who knows, maybe it will snap into place at some point in the next few books.

I’ve seen some people say that they think the inner circle are a bit too blasé, a bit silly almost and I have some things to say about that. I’m a ‘military brat’, I grew up surrounded by battle hardened soldiers and one thing they have almost universally is the most childish sense of humour I have ever come across, sure it dips into darkness every now and then, but for the majority of the time eye rolling and tongue sticking out it entirely par for course. I mean, even for me as a Doctor, do you honestly think we’re serious all the time. Dealing with death painfully often makes you more likely to be cracking dumb jokes and not giving a crap what anyone thinks about it, because you know too much about the frailty of life.

I felt really bad for Mor in this book, really bad…it seemed that, whilst the situation was terrible for everyone, it was really unravelling for her. Being forced to interact with abusers…watching compromise having to be made with those abusers, I mean, there was no choice, without the Autumn Court, without Keir’s forces, they would not have won, but still, it would really have had a serious impact on Mor’s security. For her to maybe no longer feel that she’s safe in her own city, eugh, my heart hurt reading that part. My heart hurt when Feyre yelled at her about things she couldn’t understand, when she struggled to find a way to explain to Azriel that she could not love him that way, when Feyre tricked her into letting her go to the Middle…seriously, Mor really got dealt some of the most painful blows in this book. I just hope that Sarah gives her a wonderful, loving lady in later books, and I hope that the splintering of the relationship between her and the rest of the circle is healed with time.

Sexual Identity
Since Rhys’ mask came down in ACOMAF, I’ve read him as demisexual, someone who feels sexual attraction only to those they have an emotional bond with. The emotional bond doesn’t have to be ‘true love’, just emotional intimacy and trust. I don’t think Sarah wrote him that way intentionally, I just honestly think that lots of people are demisexual but maybe have never considered that part of themselves. It’s an identity that I’ve been turning over in my hands, trying to get a feel for, wondering whether it might apply to me for a while, and I read a lot of my own feelings in Rhys, his flirtations with those other than Feyre not filled with any real sexual desire. You get the feeling he’d never really act on anything without truly knowing them, truly feeling as if he could trust them. The idea that much of that had to do with his trauma at the hands of Amarantha, doesn’t make his potential demisexuality any less valid. Being hurt and betrayed by others can definitely impact on your romantic and sexual identities.

That leads very much into the next point that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I came into this book expecting that I might find problems with the way that Mor ‘being a lesbian’ was handled, only to find that she wasn’t even a lesbian at all! From what I understand as a bi wlw, Mor is a homoromantic bisexual, which means that she enjoys sex with more than one gender but is more often than not only romantically attracted to her own gender. ‘I prefer females‘ seems to be the line that has confused people. The thing is, it is perfectly valid as a bi person to be more attracted to a specific gender, bisexuality is a spectrum and it is perfectly normal to feel more attraction to certain genders than others and still consider yourself attracted to all. The fact that she seems unsatisfied after her sex with Helion seems more to do with the fact she was only having sex with Helion to avoid having to talk to Azriel than the fact that she didn’t like taking male lovers.

‘I do find pleasure in them. In both. 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.’

Homoromantic bisexual…that is literally what she is describing. She’s not bad lesbian rep because she’s not a lesbian at all. It is not homophobic for Mor to say that sometimes she wants male lovers, because she’s bisexual, and erasing that part of her identity is just gross, please stop. I actually found Mor’s story heartbreaking because I see so many similarities with myself.

‘It was Nephelle and her lover- now her wife, I suppose- who made me dare to try. They made me so jealous. Not of them personally, but just…of what they had. Their openness.’

Because being in the closet off the internet can be so heartbreakingly difficult. Seeing people so open in their love and just not being able to find it in yourself to explain the way that you feel to family and friends because some part of you is so scared that it could tear everything asunder, destroy everything that you have. Even the part of Mor that can’t love Azriel, I relate to that so much…I once had a friend that I adored, one of the best friends I ever had, and he loved me in a different way to how I loved him. I tried a relationship because part of me thought that being lovers can’t be that different to being friends, but every time he kissed me or touched me I felt repulsed, because I just didn’t love him that way and in the end I had to explain that and it destroyed our friendship. It wasn’t that I didn’t love him that way that hurt, it was that I had lied to myself and lied to him about the fact I just didn’t see him that way.

So, I don’t think Mor’s story is bad rep, I think that it’s complicated rep, maybe too complicated for a YA book (not that I really think ACOTAR is YA) but at the same time, reading through ACOMAF I honestly think that Mor has been queer right from the start and I was really happy to see parts of myself in Sarah’s books where there had been very few queer identities before.

There are two more points about sexual identity that I want to deal with, Helion and that acephobic paragraph.

‘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.’

Everytime I see that paragraph I groan because it is acephobic, I don’t think she intended it to be, I genuinely think she was probably horrified when she found out. It reads more like ignorance than malice. Two characters, evil, twins, probably incestuous…literally, this paragraph causes me physical pain because I can just see how hurtful it could be to people and I just honestly don’t believe that Sarah had any idea that it was the case. Being on the internet, learning about different sexual identities, having asexual friends has opened my eyes, but if you haven’t had that kind of awakening…I know lots of people who hold a lot of internalised bullshit that they’ve not yet worked through. This reads a lot like that, and I hope that it leads to some reading that stops it happening again. I honestly don’t believe that a single person exists on this planet who doesn’t hold some kind of internal bigotry, the important part is recognizing that and working to erase it from your thought process and prevent it from hurting others.

Now, Helion…I’ve also seen some very angry stuff online about how he’s a trope, how he’s a hypersexualised stereotype and biphobic, which I don’t agree with? Not all bisexuals fit into a nice little box, some of us really like sex, others not so much, some of us are poly, others not…saying a bisexual character is biphobic for enjoying sex or wanting a threesome is kind of hurtful. Is someone’s bisexuality less valid if they like these things? That sounds an awful lot like slut shaming. I can understand some people not seeing it as representative of their bisexuality but I think it’s disingenuous to say it is outright biphobic, not when other bisexual characters such as Rhy Maresh and Monty (A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue) also are shown as louche and flirtatious and don’t get half of the vitriol. Helion’s love of sex is literally mentioned once, at that point, and, if I remember correctly, not again after that. He has a really interesting character development, and a story that I hope Sarah goes into more detail in later books. I’m really fascinated to see how the news that he is Lucien’s father goes down!!

Diversity
So, one of the things that Sarah has been panned for in the past is her lack of diversity, and I agree, most of Throne of Glass was the whitest, most hetero thing I have ever read. You can tell from ACOWAR that she is really listening and trying. Many of the High Lords we are introduced to in this books are POC, Drakon and Miryam are POC, Lucien is biracial, Illyrians are confirmed as brown, not simply tan, making Rhys, the main love interest, not white. There are definitely some identities missing, for example, trans and NB characters and more varied sexualities, but this book was almost unrecognizable to the white out of TOG and is substantially more diverse than many fantasy books I’ve read recently.

Conclusion
I think it’s obvious from this enormous review that I have a LOT of thoughts about this book and what it does well and maybe what it does not so well. I knew when I started reading that it would not be another ACOMAF, this is book about pain, war and loss, about the fear of waking up one more to a world without the one you love. The ending filled my heart with joy. It was 3am and I was sitting in the dark, clutching my kindle and sobbing because I was just so satisfied and so excited to see more of the world that Sarah has created. Maybe not perfect, but complicated and beautiful.

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