WARNING: Major spoilers for A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, and I will be quoting from some of the explicit, 18+ scenes in this essay.
I know I’m going to be hated for this post, but I can’t not write it, because, very few people are talking about the sexual violence in Sarah J. Maas’ latest bestseller, A Court of Thorns and Roses.
So here we go. Way back in the day, I talked about my love for Good Boys, and how Bad Boys are problematic, especially in YA. I’m not one of those people who believes that all YA or all books need to be “important” or send a message. They don’t. I don’t need my books to be pedantic. I like light, fluffy stuff that’s entertainment as much as I like books that say something.
But the Bad Boy trope is one that drives me absolutely batty, because it IS dangerous and it DOES propagate a sense that it’s okay for men to treat women in violent, harassing ways (I’m using the heteronormatives here, but feel free to slip in “women to treat women” or “men to treat men” or anything else. Bad Boy is just a concept). And it’s a trope that often allows those violent, harassing men to be redeemed by a woman, or love, or because they have something in their past that absolves them of responsibility for their own actions.
Let’s be clear: nothing absolves anyone of sexual violence or abuse. If someone has a bad past, or mental health issues or a motive that is honourable, that still doesn’t make it okay to treat a woman badly. If you plead insanity in a court of law and that defense stands, you still get put in prison. You still have to take responsibility.
The reason this came up for me is because I recently read A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, which, for the most part, I liked. I liked how Feyre had no magical powers, but was able to use cunning to defeat faeries. I liked learning about the different courts and the descriptions. I liked how Lucien was always a bit of a dark horse in Feyre’s heart, and how much they all learned about each other. I think there’s a great theme of learning to get past your prejudices running through the book.
But there are some major consent and sexual abuse issues in this book.
First is the slow-burn romance between Tamlin and Feyre. Tamlin plays the Beast in this retelling, and Feyre the Belle, so there’s already a bit of an instance of Stockholm Syndrome and imbalance between them, but this scene in Chapter 21 where Tamlin is “drunk” on magic goes a bit far:
“Let go,” I said as evenly as I could, but his claws punched out, imbedding in the wood above my hands. Still riding the magic, he was half-wild.
“You drove me mad,” he growled, and the sound trembled down my neck, along my breasts until they ached. “I searched for you, and you weren’t there. When I didn’t find you,” he said, bringing his face closer to mine, until we shared breath, “it made me pick another.”
I couldn’t escape. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to.
“She asked me not to be gentle with her, either,” he snarled, his teeth bright in the moonlight. He brought his lips to my ear. “I would have been gentle with you, though.” I shuddered as I closed my eyes. Every inch of my body went taut as his words echoed through me. “I would have had you moaning my name throughout it all. And I would have taken a very, very long time, Feyre.” He said my name like a caress, and his hot breath tickled my ear. My back arched slightly.
He ripped his claws free from the wall, and my knees buckled as he let go. I grasped the wall to keep from sinking to the floor, to keep from grabbing him—to strike or caress, I didn’t know. I opened my eyes. He still smiled—smiled like an animal.
“Why should I want someone’s leftovers?” I said, making to push him away. He grabbed my hands again and bit my neck.
I cried out as his teeth clamped onto the tender spot where my neck met my shoulder. I couldn’t move—couldn’t think, and my world narrowed to the feeling of his lips and teeth against my skin. He didn’t pierce my flesh, but rather bit to keep me pinned. The push of his body against mine, the hard and the soft, made me see red—see lightning, made me grind my hips against his. I should hate him—hate him for his stupid ritual, for the female he’d been with tonight …
His bite lightened, and his tongue caressed the places his teeth had been. He didn’t move—he just remained in that spot, kissing my neck. Intently, territorially, lazily. Heat pounded between my legs, and as he ground his body against me, against every aching spot, a moan slipped past my lips.
He jerked away. The air was bitingly cold against my freed skin, and I panted as he stared at me. “Don’t ever disobey me again,” he said, his voice a deep purr that ricocheted through me, awakening everything and lulling it into complicity.
Is that consensual? It’s certainly rough, but Feyre explicity asks him to let go and he doesn’t. One could argue that Tamlin didn’t know what he was doing, and he didn’t actually hurt her. But to me, it still counts as an abusive act when you force someone to be in a situation they don’t want to be in. What’s worse is that the book still treats Tamlin as the ideal lover for Feyre, even after this (a few other bloggers agree). Tamlin, however, isn’t a Bad Boy, really – he’s extremely dangerous, but he has treated Feyre with respect throughout the rest of the book.
But it gets worse. We then meet Rhysand, who is the true Bad Boy of the series.
Rhysand is dark. Rhysand is powerful, the High Lord of the Night Court. Rhysand is hot and sexy, with a voice that swirls over you and makes Feyre’s knees go weak. And Rhysand is a blackmailer who exchanges Feyre’s health for ownership of her one week out of each month (Chapter 37).
As if enslavement wasn’t bad enough, he then has her taken, strips her, paints her skin with dark ink in signature Night Court swirls, and parades her around in a transparent gown for the world to see. And then he forces her to drink bad faerie wine, night after night, so that she blacks out and wakes up each morning with vague memories of the night before. And by “forces”, I mean he uses his power to get into her head and basically Imperius Curses her into drinking it.
“Wine?” he said, offering me a goblet.
Alis’s first rule. I shook my head.
He smiled, and extended the goblet again. “Drink. You’ll need it.”
Drink, my mind echoed, and my fingers stirred, moving toward the goblet. No. No, Alis said not to drink the wine here—wine that was different from that joyous, freeing solstice wine. “No,” I said, and some faeries who were watching us from a safe distance chuckled.
“Drink,” he said, and my traitorous fingers latched onto the goblet.
I awoke in my cell, still clad in that handkerchief he called a dress. Everything was spinning so badly that I barely made it to the corner before I vomited. Again. And again. When I’d emptied my stomach, I crawled to the opposite corner of the cell and collapsed.
Sleep came fitfully as the world continued to twirl violently around me. I was tied to a spinning wheel, going around and around and around—
Needless to say, I was sick a fair amount that day.
Feyre wakes up the next morning with no memory of what happened, She sees a few smudged inky splotches on her hips and she knows that Rhysand has at least touched her on her hips. Luckily, according to the book, he has not violated her further.
That right there? That is STILL called sexual violence, even if he didn’t rape her. That is the equivalent of roofie-ing a girl’s drink and then taking said unconscious girl to bed.
Later, after Rhysand saves her life, he goes down to visit Feyre in her cell:
The stones reverberated as he knelt before me, and though I tried to fight him, his grip was firm as he grasped my wrists and pried my hands from my face.
The walls weren’t moving, and the room was open—gaping. No colors, but shades of darkness, of night. Only those star-flecked violet eyes were bright, full of color and light. He gave me a lazy smile before he leaned forward.
I pulled away, but his hands were like shackles. I could do nothing as his mouth met with my cheek, and he licked away a tear. His tongue was hot against my skin, so startling that I couldn’t move as he licked away another path of salt water, and then another. My body went taut and loose all at once and I burned, even as chills shuddered along my limbs. It was only when his tongue danced along the damp edges of my lashes that I jerked back.
He chuckled as I scrambled for the corner of the cell. I wiped my face as I glared at him.
He smirked, sitting down against a wall. “I figured that would get you to stop crying.”
“It was disgusting.” I wiped my face again.
“Was it?” He quirked an eyebrow and pointed to his palm—to the place where my tattoo would be. “Beneath all your pride and stubbornness, I could have sworn I detected something that felt differently. Interesting.”
“As usual, your gratitude is overwhelming.”
“Do you want me to kiss your feet for what you did at the trial? Do you want me to offer another week of my life?”
“Not unless you feel compelled to do so,” he said, his eyes like stars.
The fact that the novel depicts him still as an alluring creature, with eyes that are “bright, full of color and light” and “like stars” makes Rhysand continue to seem like a romantic possibility to the reader and to Feyre.
Rhysand then forces Feyre to kiss him later on, under the pretense that he is helping her to escape the villain of the story. He justifies this to her by saying that he never touched her despite ADMITTING that he drugged her:
“Feyre, for Cauldron’s sake. I drug you, but you don’t wonder why I never touch you beyond your waist or arms?”
Until tonight—until that damned kiss. I gritted my teeth, but even as my anger rose, a picture cleared.
“It’s the only claim I have to innocence,” he said, “the only thing that will make Tamlin think twice before entering into a battle with me that would cause a catastrophic loss of innocent life. It’s the only way I can convince him I was on your side. Believe me, I would have liked nothing more than to enjoy you—but there are bigger things at stake than taking a human woman to my bed.”
How romantic – he would have raped Feyre had it not been for the bigger circumstances of the world. I was horrified by this admission, and by the fact that even after Rhysand admits to perpetrating a crime, he still attempts to justify it. And the book lets him. While the text never quite condones Rhysand’s actions, it also never condemns him for it.
And PEOPLE STILL SHIP RHYSAND AND FEYRE.
Guys, I can’t with this. One instance of questionable sexual assault from the love interest is already bad enough. I can at least understand the Tamlin-Feyre ship because the book is explicit about it and Tamlin does ask her consent the next time, and in general, acts like a pretty good guy.
But what Rhysand does is sexual assault and battery. His claim that he’s doing this to keep her safe (which she later agrees with) is idiotic, because if he’d just told her his plan and GOTTEN HER CONSENT to it, none of this would have happened. Instead, he enslaves her, touches her without consent, drugs her, and then tries to justify it. THAT ISN’T SEXY.
I know I’m fixating on one part of a mostly good book, and boy, do I know that just because it’s written doesn’t mean that the author condones it, but look, if we are calling out Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, and Game of Thrones for abusive relationships and sexual violence, we need to call this out, too. The tone of the book, the text, allows for Rhysand (and Tamlin) to continue to be seen as a potential love interest for Feyre.
Look, I’m not saying not to read this book. I liked it. It’s one of the few fantasy books I’ve liked, where the action is intense and the stakes are very real. But this is a flaw. It’s a big flaw and it’s a flaw that no one is talking about because Bad Boys and sexual violence are so pervasive in many books.
Ladies, I need you to think about this: when you’re reading about a character and you’re thinking how dark and brooding and mysterious he sounds, don’t allow yourself to headcanon that he’s gone through something terrible, or doing something for someone else’s good, but really he’s a good person at heart who needs your sacrifice.
When you say to yourself, “look, he healed Feyre, he helped her through her trial, and he bet on her when no one else did, that means he loves her!”, you need to think about his actions, and that his intentions are not about her, but about getting what he wants back (his land), with no regard for her mind or body.
And when you’re thinking how sexy he is, think about what he does and says to Feyre, and the lines you’re going to draw for yourself and for your female characters.
And that is why the Bad Boy trope is scary, and sometimes dangerous.
Let’s keep it a trope, and not real life.
Have you noticed this issue in A Court of Thorns and Roses or other books? Do books sometimes inherently or accidentally allow for sexual violence?
-Are you a Bad Boy or Good Boy lover?
-Are you Team Rhysand? Tell me why – did I read it wrong or miss something? (Please tell me I did. For real. I want to be wrong about this).
Author: Sarah J. Maas (website | twitter)
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s / Recorded Books
Source/Format: Audiobook bought on Audible.com (passages taken from eBook)
Publication date: May 5, 2015
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
Buy It: Indigo.ca | Amazon.ca | Amazon.com | Barnes and Noble | IndieBound | The Book Depository | Audible | iTunes | Google Books
When 19-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin—one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.
As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it … or doom Tamlin—and his world—forever.