In a fantasy world where humans and faeries have a long and violent history together, there’s been an uneasy, armed truce for many years. Feyre, the 19 year old daughter of a once-wealthy family fallen into deep poverty, is the provider for her beaten-down father and two sisters, hunting with bow and arrow to keep her family from starvation. It’s the dead of winter, game is extremely scarce, but she has the good fortune to spot a small doe. Not so fortunately, before she can shoot it an enormous wolf appears and kills the doe. Faeries are known to appear in wolf form, and to kill one is asking for trouble. Still, Feyre, with hatred for the fae in her heart, rationalizes that it’s probably not a faerie, and if it is, she’s doing the world a favor by killing it. So she shoots and kills the wolf with her handy, magic-neutralizing ash wood arrow, and sells the wolf skin for a good amount of money in the local village.
Unsurprisingly, this cannot be hidden from the fae. Tamlin, a faerie lord, bursts into Feyre’s home in beast form, demanding recompense for the murder of his friend: a life for a life, as required by the Treaty between faerie and humans. Given the choice between being killed and living permanently in Prythian, the faerie land, Feyre elects to accompany Tamlin across the wall that divides human from faerie lands.
Tamlin, who is the High Lord of the Spring Court (there are faerie courts for each season, as well as Night, Day, Dawn and Under the Mountain) lives in a lovely mansion. Feyre, to her surprise, is allowed a relative amount of freedom in Tamlin’s manor, although she is cautioned not to leave Tamlin’s lands or wander at night, for her own safety. Tamlin and all of his courts invariably wear masks when in human form, and Feyre gradually becomes aware that there is a magical plight in the faerie realms, weakening their magic and forcing them to wear the masks. Feyre’s deep hostility, suspicion and fear begin to transform into caring for Tamlin as he treats her (for the most part) kindly, but he and his fae court aren’t telling her everything.
A Court of Thorns and Roses begins with a strong Beauty and the Beast vibe, which segues into more of a Tam Lin type of tale (the faerie lord’s name being a not-so-subtle clue). The first half of the novel is a rather typical fantasy romance, with the relationship between Feyre and Tamlin gradually (and predictably) shifting from antagonism to friendship to love. The second half brings a major shift in tone, as Feyre goes through a terrible ordeal to try to help Tamlin and the faeries of the Spring Court.
While A Court of Thorns and Roses is fairly imaginative and well-written for a young adult fantasy, if sometimes slow-paced, there were too many elements in it that I found distasteful and off-putting, especially for a book marketed to teens. Initially there was the too-frequent trope of an obstinate heroine who makes annoyingly poor decisions because she thinks she knows best, even when others are trying to give her good advice. There’s also noncommittal sex, both by Feyre, who had a friend with benefits in the village, and by Tamlin, even after he and Feyre begin developing a relationship (but hey, what’s a lord of the fae to do when it’s time for the spring rites?). An incipient love triangle, that dreaded but popular YA trope, also appears to be forming, though it’s not fully blown in this first installment of Sarah Maas’s A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES series.
The second half of the novel is extremely dark and gritty. It’s not just that horrible things happen to our main characters, but that so much focus and time is spent on painful, grim events. Highly questionable actions ― such as deliberately murdering innocent people ― are taken by both Feyre and Tamlin in their quest to save their loved ones. I wouldn’t care for my teenagers to read A Court of Thorns and Roses; there’s not enough literary benefit to offset the drawbacks. I don’t recommend this book for younger or more sensitive readers, but older readers who like their fantasy romances with a hard edge may enjoy it.