I Read A Court of Silver Flames Because I Guess I Just Hate Myself Now
Here’s a fun fact about me: I work in a hospital emergency department. Some shifts, I hit a point where we’re short-staffed, there are sixty people in triage, ambulances are calling in every 2.5 minutes, everybody has COVID and/or bedbugs, and I’m running on adrenaline, half a protein bar, and a metric fuckton of cold black coffee. I realize it’s not going to get better, so I embrace it. I lean into the shitshow, and it’s almost like ascending to a higher state of consciousness.
It’s a point where, someone could literally take a shit on my shoes while naked and screaming obscenities (this has happened), and I’m just like, IS THAT ALL YOU GOT? BRING IT ON! When I hit that point, I am fucking invincible.
That’s where I’m at with SJM books, and… ACOSF almost broke me anyway.
I might be done after this one. Either way, I’m going to have to take a long, hard look at every life choice that brought me to the last two days I spent reading this book.
Hold on tight, everyone, because this book is a dumpster fire of such epic proportions, I wouldn’t use its pages to wipe my ass. This is a very long recap, and I had to cut a LOT just so it wouldn’t be a novel by itself. CW for a truly astonishing amount of slut-shaming, piss-poor treatment of mental health and addiction issues, and multiple graphically detailed sexual assaults.
We open with Nesta reminiscing about her experience in the Cauldron. I really used to like the idea of “the dark between the stars,” but now that metaphor or some variation is in every shitty fantasy book. I think SJM’s contract with her publisher requires her to use it at least 11 times per book.
And, the writing. It has not changed. Hilarious—I thought it’d be hilarious if I wrote this entire review in SJM prose, but… no. I can’t. My pride… it just won’t let me. I will settle for one, just one paragraph, hoping against hope it’s enough to drive the impression home. Just know—it’s like bad poetry, fractured fragments of slivered sentences, bizarre sexual metaphors that blaze into your eyelids and claim a space in your brain. An unholy attempt at a signature style, or lack of a competent editor. Or both. All of it.
Ahem. Anyway. There was a throwaway line in ACOWAR where it’s implied that, what looked like seconds for everyone on the outside, was actually a very, very, very long time for Nesta inside the Cauldron. It was never explored, but it was a cool idea that made a lot of sense: Her trauma stemmed not from becoming a gorgeous, powerful, immortal High Fae, but from whatever lengthy torture she endured.
The first three pages of this book completely undo that theory of mine. Nesta is LITERALLY just whining about becoming immortal, and how much that sucks. She drinks to “quell her writhing power.” So, yeah, it’s the exact same goddamn predicament as every SJM character ever: Woe is me, I’m powerful and immortal and special! Oh no. Sad. :(
For the purposes of this review, we’re going to act like Nesta has legitimate things to complain about, because the book seems to think she does (and I don’t mean to downplay her father’s death. It’s just that the majority of the narrative focus is in a weird, weird place that makes no sense to me). The book does not deal very well with said trauma.
Cassian retrieves Nesta from her crappy apartment, because Feysand wants to talk to her. We’re told this building is sorely in need of repairs, and I’m like, wait a minute, didn’t Feysand just build themselves a riverside mansion? But “Velaris has no slums,” so I guess it’s fine. Cassian is nervous about being here, and thinks about how Nesta infuriates him and he’s borderline afraid of her, and OH MY GOD SHE’S WEARING ANOTHER MAN’S SHIRT.
Also, she’s “too damn thin,” but still somehow has “full, inviting breasts.” These are not!!! Things!!! That can coexist!!!
Cassian says “Feyre wants you at the house,” to which Nesta is like “Which one? She has five.” At least someone is thinking it. Shit, I’d be running up their tab too, just out of spite. If they’re going to waste this much money on FIVE HOUSES (not to mention all the shopping and gift-giving that goes on in these books), might as well waste even more! Maybe they’ll see the bill and grow some self-awareness!
They go to Feysand’s riverside palace, and Nesta thinks about how much she hates it. Not because, idk, it’s a colossal waste of money—she hates it because it’s too damn perfect. Feyre has a magical shield around her, and is wearing leggings and a baggy sweater because she’s literally a white girl Instagram influencer.
Amren and Rhys are exceptionally nasty and slut-shamey in this conversation. Feyre just barely keeps Rhys in line with her serene feminine calm, or some shit. Seriously, Feyre spends most of this book either reining Rhys in from his temper tantrums, or crying. I cannot stand Feyre, and I think she got shafted in this book.
Meanwhile, the narrative takes a moment to suck Rhys’s dick: “the raw command in his voice, the utter dominance and power.” See, he’s just so naturally alpha that everyone else’s fucking biological instincts make them want to bow to him. God, this is such fucked up worldbuilding on so many levels.
The Inner Circle is tired of Nesta spending their money on her bad habits. Exorbitant wealth aside, this is understandable. They stage an intervention, cut her funding off, and suggest psychiatric treatment and/or rehab—wait, no, just kidding. They… *checks notes* ORCHESTRATE A PLAN TO CONTROL EVERY ASPECT OF HER LIFE.
They’re going to make her live in the House of Wind and work in their library for no pay, in between training every day with Cassian. All of this is phrased like a command, like they own her, and you get two guesses whose idea it was (hint: it wasn’t Feyre’s).
Oh, wait, they do actually give her one other option: go back to the human lands. Because—and this is literally in the text—“it’ll be more than enough of a prison” for Nesta. I mean, fucking YIKES, guys. You could have just cut her off, let her do whatever the hell she wants, just with her own resources.
Let’s talk about this for a second. I spend a lot of time with psych patients, and with many people… yeah. Enablers can make the problem worse. There comes a time when “tough love” is necessary. It was for me. I have, historically, been an utter piece of shit to people I cared about, while mentally ill. But there is a FINE FUCKING LINE between “I’m not going to pay for your drug habit” or “you’re being an asshole so I cannot keep speaking to you for the sake of my own mental health”, and “I am going to seize control of every aspect of your life and shame you for your choices.”
Finally, we learn that Rhys is having Nesta’s apartment building condemned and rebuilt into a shelter for families displaced by the war, which sounds nice until you think about it for longer than twenty seconds. What about the people who, idk, LIVE THERE ALREADY? Why didn’t you use that GIANT CHUNK OF RIVERSIDE LAND NO ONE WAS USING to do that instead?
Rhys wants Cassian to investigate the human queens, because his actual spymaster is too busy with some other vague shit. Cassian is like, aren’t I supposed to be running the army, but apparently that’s not “enough” now. When they’re on the brink of war. Okay.
There’s a super interesting bit about how Cassian and Azriel and Rhys were huge sluts in their youth, and would often have sex in the same room as each other. Because that’s... a thing that heterosexual men do all the time.
All of Cassian’s narration is, tbh, dramatically homoerotic. Especially where Rhys is concerned. There’s a line a little later where he describes “a smooth male voice purred into his mind.” Other highlights include “the inherent dominance in his stare”, and making note of his “hard muscles.” I am 100% certain this is unintentional, just a byproduct of SJM not understanding how to differentiate POVs, which makes it even more hilarious.
Moving on: Nesta doesn’t want to eat. We get reminder after reminder that Nesta is skinny, just SO SKINNY, and goes ENTIRE DAYS without eating. It’s repeated so much it feels like a weird flex, and I am… sorry for what I said about her character getting a nuanced portrayal of PTSD. We got one entire chapter about her sleeping around, overspending, and drinking, and now all that’s left is NIGHTMARES AND WEIGHT LOSS. The book doesn’t even bother going into what happens if you quit alcohol cold turkey like that. All she does it occasionally think about how she wants a drink. And… I don’t care if she’s Fae; alcohol withdrawal is no joke. You certainly don’t just go from binge drinking every night, to hard physical training and teetotaling in one day. It is a hellish recovery process that can land you in the hospital, and I’ve seen it happen to people who don’t consider themselves “alcoholics” (the definition of alcoholism is also a lot broader than most people think). At least get this girl some thiamine and folic acid supplements, ffs.
The ~sexy banter~ between Cassian and Nesta is already uncomfortable. Cassian insists Nesta will end up climbing into his bed, approximately two paragraphs after Nesta tells him to never put his hands on her again, AND approximately three pages after we get a detailed recap of the time she was sexually assaulted. It is a tonal nightmare.
Nesta has these little conversations with the enchanted house, which argues with her and brings her cake and smutty books. It’s the most compelling relationship in this entire series.
The Illyrians are still sexist assholes. Nesta refuses to train. Cassian meets with Jurian, Lucien, Eris, and Vassa (the human queen who turns into a firebird at night. Described as “golden.”), “playing courtier.” There’s still no sign of a plot. Cassian does not enjoy his new role, and reflects that he’s VERY VERY badly suited for it (he is correct), which begs the question: WHY THE FUCK. You’re a head of state, Rhysand. You can’t just appoint unqualified people to critically important positions because you think they need to undergo character development.
We learn that our big villain for this book is Briallyn, the human queen who went into the Cauldron and became—brace yourselves—old and ugly. Her entire motivation is literally just “I want my youth and beauty back,” because FEEEEEMAAAAALLEEEEE. She’s working with Koschei, this death god sorcerer guy, and Beron, High Lord of the Autumn Court, whose motives are only slightly more nuanced (read: still shallow af, but not tied up in their gender).
Nesta meets an Illyrian with clipped wings named Emerie (coded Asian, with a very traditional, sexist, and abusive father), and a half-nymph library priestess named Gwyn. Both are slim and slender. Both these characters start training with Nesta and Cassian. Emerie has this line “It’s nice to meet another female who’s not obsessed with marriage and baby making.” Remember that line. Just remember it.
Nesta keeps insulting Rhys, which makes Cassian and Azriel shit their pants. Guys, I think Cassian is into Rhys.
Feyre mentions that she “hasn’t figured out how to break free of (the magical shield Rhys put around her)”, and, um…. Isn’t this eerily close to what Tamlin did to her in ACOMAF? Does no one else see the resemblance here? But no. Of course not. Rhys isn’t a controlling bastard, he’s GOD. This series isn’t even pretending he’s not the center of the universe anymore. Feyre who? We’re also reminded that she is TWENTY ONE YEARS OLD. Cassian tells us that at that age, he was still “drinking and fucking”, ie, extremely adult behaviors, so there goes any pretense we still had to cling to that Fae mature slower than humans. Also, “she’s so mature for her age” is a classic pedophile excuse.
Also worth noting is that Gwyn is 28, and Cassian calls her “just a girl.” Nesta is 25. I’m just going to leave that there.
Nesta finally agrees to train, and does CrossFit with Cassian. We learn about the Blood Rite, which separates Illyrians into three tiers of warrior. Rhys, Azriel, and Cassian are three out of six warriors ever to have reached the top tier. Women haven’t been allowed to participate because “they would have a different, worse kind of violence to defend against.” I get where he’s coming from, but… men rape each other all the time, especially in male-dominated or male-exclusive environments like prison or the military. I’m sick of the “but they’ll get raped” excuse for keeping women out of dangerous job environments. Just, idk, TRAIN YOUR MEN NOT TO RAPE.
Anyway, Nesta continues to talk shit about Rhys (I’m savoring it while I can, because I know it won’t last). Cassian tells her to stop and grabs her wrist. She tells him to let go, he says “make me,” and she… kisses him? I actually had to reread this scene to make sure I was correctly tracking what happened. Then she gives him a hand job through his pants and makes fun of him for coming so quickly. Isn’t it romantic????
We learn about the Dread Trove, these three powerful scary objects (Mask, Crown, and Harp) that grant enormous power when wielded together. You know, kind of like the Deathly Hallows. Elain volunteers to look for them, and we get the line “Maybe you’ll become interesting at last, Elain,” which is just too meta for me to handle. Nesta puts her foot down and asks why Feyre doesn’t do it herself. Feyre can’t, because she’s pregnant. Everyone is somehow surprised, like that shield wasn’t the most obvious thing ever. Apparently, she now has to limit her magic use, because fuck this worldbuilding.
Feyre’s baby is a boy, which is apparently the greatest thing ever, because a) that’s what she wanted (makes me super uncomfortable when parents do this, tbh), and b) it might inherit Rhys’s power. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the baby was a girl, and she inherited that “High Lord’s power” anyway? Isn’t this a feminist series? Whatever, what do I know.
Nesta fantasizes about a threesome with Cassian and Azriel, and WAS THIS THE THING THAT WAS CUT?!?!?! Part of me wants to die, and part of me is really fucking salty it’s not still in the book, because I feel like that would be hilarious. So, the threesome doesn’t happen, but a blow job does, and the level of detail is excruciating. Cassian’s dick is apparently so huge that Nesta’s (long, slender) Fae fingers barely fit around it. No, really. He also doesn’t fit when she tries to deep throat him. I think Cassian needs medical attention. Also, there is SO MUCH semen in this book’s sex scenes. So much. I feel attacked by this book.
(pictured: Cassian’s dick)
Nesta has a nightmare that unleashes her power, which is “pure death” manifesting as cold silver flames. Rhys and his “thundering dominance” (yes, this is in Cassian’s POV) calm her down, and he uses his telepathy to experience what she went through in the Cauldron. This is literally what it takes for this guy to learn empathy.
We then learn that Rhys is having a bad day because his baby has Illyrian wings, so childbirth will be a possibly lethal nightmare for her. Rhys angst to Cassian and Azriel, and Cassian tells Nesta, but Rhys is like, NOBODY TELL FEYRE SHE CAN’T HANDLE IT. Feyre, remember? The one who’s pregnant. The one who’s most affected by this. Just… stay tuned; it’ll get worse.
Nesta tells us that she actually thinks Rhys is a great ruler, she just doesn’t like his smugness.
Nesta locates the Mask in a creepy swamp—it’s literally just the Dead Marshes. Azriel is Gollum in this scene. Now you have to picture Azriel as Gollum, I don’t make the rules.
They’re attacked by Autumn Court forces, and Nesta is attacked by a kelpie, which… graphically sexually assaults her. Yeah. She finds the Mask and puts it on, raising the dead in the swamp to fight and save the day.
Then there’s a twelve page sex scene. WHY IS THERE SO MUCH SEMEN IN THIS BOOK. Most of this book, tbh, is filler. Like, infodumping and shitty banter filler, but also literal filler, in the sense that someone is being FILLED on every other page, and
god I’m so sorry for that pun the book made me do it somebody please just put me out of my misery
There’s a discussion about what to do with the Dread Trove objects. And we gotta talk about Feyre again, because she is SO secondary to Rhys in this book. Every now and then we’re reminded that she’s High Lady, but the book is far more invested in jerking off Rhys. At one point in this conversation. Azriel only listens to her “command” because Rhys tells him “her word is law.” I mean, I definitely do not think that Feyre is remotely comparable to Rhys in terms of qualifications to run a country (her lack of education, and being TWENTY ONE, to start), but that’s part of the inherent problem with these books. The whole situation here comes across as Rhys being a 50-something CEO having a midlife crisis, who appointed his barely-legal sugar baby to the company board, and Azriel is an exasperated subordinate who can’t believe he has to pretend this makes sense. There is NOTHING about Feyre that makes me buy that these people feel any respect for her. Protectiveness and affection, sure, but her character gets zero command presence on the page. YAY, FEMINISM!
(and, yeah, this gets worse. We’ve only scratched the surface of the bullshit.)
Then there’s another twelve page sex scene. With semen.
Nesta accidentally forges three magic swords. What follows is… something.
We get some backstory about how Prythian used to have a High King with a magic sword. Amren says Nesta should never be allowed to know she can do this, because of Reasons, and Cassian is not okay with that until Rhys orders him to obey Amren’s orders.
I feel like I’m watching Galaxy Quest, where the woman’s only job is to repeat what the computer tells her, even if she knows the answer herself. Nobody listens to anyone—especially not the women of this court—unless Rhys tells them to. Rhys is also still not telling Feyre about the risks she’ll face in childbirth, and angst about that for three whole pages. I fucking hate Rhys.
Amren then tells Rhys he could become High King with these magic swords, and oh my god, we’re really doing this again, aren’t we? I’d like to remind everyone of Aelin’s infamous “you could be an empress, hooray colonialism” scene in the TOG books. Well, this one is worse. Rhys is like, BUT I DON’T WANT TO ANTAGONIZE MY FRIENDS. His sycophants remind him that all the High Lords we’re supposed to like would be “willing to kneel,” and Tamlin and Beron are Bad Guys anyway. Cassian thinks, “He could think of no other male he’d trust more. No other male who would be a fairer ruler than Rhys. And with Feyre as High Queen… Prythian would be blessed to have such leaders.” Rhys does his “power rumbles through the room thing” for the fourth or fifth time this book, and Amren says “why do you shy away from the power that is your birthright.” Rhys waxes eloquent about how he DOESN’T WANT IT, and how he’s supposed to DEFEND MY PEOPLE.
I fucking hate Rhys.
I don’t even remember the last time I hated a fictional character this much, and this book makes it 108320853058x10^8508305 times worse by expecting me to be enamored and impressed by his power and humility.
AND IT GETS WORSE.
Amren (seriously, stfu, Amren) talks about how the three Archeron sisters were basically gifts to Rhys’s court with “powers to match your own” because this is his DESTINY, and isn’t this the most feminist thing you ever heard? I mean, Rhys did invent feminism, after all.
Eris is still in this book for some reason, and hits on Nesta. Tamlin shows up and Nesta threatens him with her silver flames. Later, she and Cassian talk shit about Tamlin, and how he never deserved Feyre, cementing my theory that this book is just 800 pages of Feysand propaganda.
Nesta, Gwyn, and Emerie continue training, and model some of their techniques after the Valkyrie, an all-female fighting force that died in a mass self-sacrifice (because of course they did). They think they’re keeping said techniques a secret, but it turns out Cassian already knows all about it, better than they do, BECAUSE OF COURSE HE DOES. Wouldn’t it have been so much cooler if Nesta surprised Cassian with a technique he’d never learned? But, I guess that would require her to have a single ounce of dominance or agency in her own story.
Elain shares an anecdote about how Nesta seduced a duke when she was fourteen, and the (much older) duke wanted to marry her. There’s exactly one sentence of aesthetic woke lip service to “wow, that duke was a pretty gross dude,” but it’s nothing compared to the time spent telling us how gorgeous and seductive this FOURTEEN YEAR OLD GIRL was.
Nesta finds out that Amren voted to keep the secret about the magic swords from her, so she storms down to Velaris to confront her. They argue, and Feyre shows up to intervene. Nesta is like, nobody trusts you with your future either, did you know you’re going to die in childbirth?
So I gotta be honest. For about one minute, I was like…. complexity????? Are we going to get some complexity and self awareness from this book???? Wow, what if Feyre has to confront Rhys over his shitty behavior here, and faces actual consequences? But then Feyre starts crying, and Nesta thinks she’s gone too far.
Rhys threatens to kill Nesta, and the next Nesta POV we get has her thinking about how she deserves that.
So Nesta and Cassian head out of the city for an impromptu camping trip, so Rhys doesn’t actually murder Nesta. We get pages and pages and pages of angst, where Nesta hates herself and has suicidal thoughts. OVER THIS. I don’t think I’d have hated this anywhere near as much, if the trigger for it hadn’t been NESTA TELLING FEYRE A CRITICAL PIECE OF HER OWN MEDICAL INFORMATION EVERYONE ELSE THOUGHT SHE WAS TOO DELICATE TO HANDLE.
I’m pretty fucking angry about this. I’ve dealt with families who didn’t want to tell their (fully mentally competent) relatives about terminal diagnoses, and it is a low, shitty, DISRESPECTFUL thing to do. Rhys and the IC are treating Feyre like a child here, and Nesta was 100% right to tell her the truth. I’ll die on that hill.
There’s more training, and more sex, and then Cassian and Nesta take a field trip to the prison to retrieve the Harp. Nesta has a vision of Queen Briallyn looking for the Harp (she has the Crown now), and we’re reminded how OLD and UGLY she is. You also get three guesses what color her eyes are, and the first two don’t count.
Some eldritch abomination called Lanthys escapes from the prison, and there’s a fight scene, and he shows Nesta visions of them ruling together (and also graphic nonconsensual sex, since he’s wearing the Crown in said vision). She breaks free of the vision by thinking about sex with Cassian. God, I wish I was joking. A big deal is made about Lanthys being a “true immortal,” but then Nessian kills him in like a page.
We get a lengthy history lesson about some shit I am not going to recap, because a) I don’t care, and b) it’s laid out like all the rest of the exposition in this book, meaning it’s a textbook in dialogue format. I feel like somebody gave SJM the (usually sound) advice that you shouldn’t infodump via long blocks of narration, so she just added quotation marks and “Rhys/Amren said” around her blocks of text and called it a day.
Rhys asks Nesta to seduce Eris in order to secure their alliance. No, I’m not joking. He’s like, you did it for that creepy duke when you were FOURTEEN, why not do it again? Also, “Eris will expect to dance with a lady of this court” like it’s her responsibility or something. He says he won’t let Feyre near him, and Feyre is like, “you won’t let me???” Rhys plays it off with a “charming smile,” to which she rolls her eyes and calls him insufferable. Squeeee. Isn’t toxic masculinity cute?
Winter Solstice happens. Nesta goes to the scary dark pit at the bottom of the library, and realizes it’s just the essence of the house that she’s befriended. She wishes it a happy solstice, and it gives her a sprig of pine. This is the best scene in the entire book.
There’s a fancy ball at the Court of Nightmares, where Feysand can be themselves—I MEAN, where they have to pretend to be tyrannical asshole overlords to keep the undesirables in line. There’s a paragraph about how everyone knows Feyre is pregnant now, and it’s… something.
“Rhys’s face was a portrait of smug, male pride” So, all I can think of is this:
(if Tamlin is the Beast, I think that makes Rhys Gaston now.)
“(…) Cassian knew he’d shred anyone who so much as blinked wrong at Feyre into a million bloody ribbons (…) cold violence rippled off Rhys as they walked toward the dais, Feyre’s baby-rich scent filling the air. He’d let everyone here smell it.”
See, at this point, I was just cry-laughing hysterically because OH MY GOD HE’S LIKE A DOG PEEING TO MARK HIS PROPERTY. THIS ISN’T EVEN SUBTLE ANYMORE
HE LET EVERYONE SMELL HER
Okay, I’m calm. Eris wants to marry Nesta, in exchange for his forces in the conflict that’s apparently supposed to be the plot. I admit I have exactly 15% of an idea what’s going on with that. Nesta says she won’t marry Eris, even though she “deserves him” and “doesn’t deserve” Cassian because he’s so wonderful, and then they have sex. Cassian never corrects or reassures her about how she does in fact “deserve” him, and she isn’t “just like Eris.” Nope, just sex. She lets down the walls in her mind and “golden threads” connect between them, and please tell me this isn’t what I think it is.
Nesta, Gwyn, and Emerie qualify for the Illyrian Blood Rite, because they’re “as trained as any warrior in Illyria.” It’s been less than a year since they started training, because Feyre isn’t done being pregnant yet, but whatever. Sure. Totally how physical training works.
There’s a Starfall party, which Nesta spends running stairs. She reconciles with Amren, and learns she brought the magic house to life with her powers because she wanted a friend. Awwww.
This nice moment is immediately ruined by the revelation that Nesta and Cassian are indeed mAtEs. She says some reasonable things about how that’s just a stupid word, and imposes a truly ridiculous and creepy level of obligation on people who may not even like each other—
No, just kidding, she’s actually like “I don’t like that word because it’s a fae thing and I never wanted to be immortal and powerful.” Cassian is offended, they fight, and Nesta runs away to angst more about how she just doesn’t deserve Cassian. I’m exhausted.
Nesta, Gwyn, and Emerie are kidnapped from their beds at night to go participate in the Blood Rite, which is basically the Hunger Games. They literally sleep up in trees like Katniss, while “alliances” are formed, and somebody dumps a bunch of supplies for their rivals. Don’t know why the Illyrians think it’s such a great idea to risk killing half their potential troops, but oh well, gotta have that intense and utterly illogical fantasy military training.
Nesta finds an injured Emerie and drags her to safety. Emerie has a head injury that leaves her unconscious for more than a day, but Nesta is all relieved when she stops bleeding. Right, cause that’ll make a difference if she’s brain dead. Honestly, wouldn’t it have benefited them to spend a week or two of their training on wilderness survival and basic emergency medicine?
The trio make it to the sacred mountain they’re supposed to climb in order to win the Rite, and share stories of their respective traumas. In any other book, this might have been a cathartic scene, but I just can’t summon the energy to give a shit. Also, Gwyn was rescued by the Inner Circle after being gang raped, because of course she was.
This asshole Bellius—remember him? No? I didn’t either. He’s another generic sexist Illyrian, and that is literally all you need to know. Anyway, he and his cronies are catching up to the trio. Nesta can’t keep carrying Gwyn up the slopes of Mount Doom—I mean Ramiel—so she tells Emerie to drag Gwyn to the top while she holds the line. The writing in this part isn’t actually bad. Let no one say I don’t give credit where it’s due.
During all this, Eris has been captured, and there’s some drama about how Rhys can’t go rescue him because he literally made a suicide pact with Feyre—if one of them dies, they both do. My dudes. Your codependency is fucking weird as fuck.
Cassian and Azriel have a brief run-in with Koschei.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.
Emerie and Gwyn win the Rite. Nesta is about to get killed by Bellius, but Cassian shows up and kills him. Except, he’s being mind-controlled by Briallyn. She gives a speech about wanting power and her youth and beauty back, because remember. She’s OLD. And UGLY. And dark-eyed and dark-haired.
Cassian is literally trying to kill Nesta and she thinks AGAIN about how she doesn’t deserve his love. Is Cassian Jesus? No, sorry, that would be Rhysand, but WHAT THE FUCK, NESTA. YOU SAY “I DON’T DESERVE HIS LOVE” MORE THAN THE AVERAGE EVANGELICAL PASTOR.
Briallyn orders Cassian “Kill”, so he exploits the dumbest loophole ever and tries to kill himself instead of Nesta. She takes advantage of the distraction to lunge at Briallyn, and “unmake her.” We’re reminded one more time how ugly she is before she dissolves into ash.
Just when I think the book is finally over, Feyre goes into labor.
(Yes, this is basically Breaking Dawn 2.0, as others have remarked)
The healer suggests a c-section, and I’m like, FINALLY SOMEONE SAID IT. C-sections (even successful ones) have been around in some form since the 1500s, and these guys are MAGICAL FAERIES who can do MAGICAL ULTRASOUNDS. Also this world has flushing toilets, and FUCKING FLUFFY SWEATERS AND LEGGINGS. But the healer says there’s never been a successful c-section, and you know what? I don’t care. I want Feysand to die anyway.
Finally, something good is happening in this book, but all the characters are crying and praying.
Nesta uses the Mask, Crown, and Harp to stop time right before Feyre dies. She, uh. She gives back the power she took from the Cauldron, to save Feysand and the baby. No, I am not fucking joking, do I look like a person who has the energy left to tell jokes?
Nesta calls Rhys her “brother,” and I’m like…. what? When? What happened? When did these two ever express any emotion toward each other that wasn’t vitriol? Then Rhys kneels to Nesta to thank her, which is actually a nice reversal of what I was expecting. Then they hug, for some damn reason.
Nesta hangs out with Gwyn and Emerie, and she thinks about how if Emerie’s shitty family punishes her for winning the Rite, she’ll hunt them down with the Trove objects— “Which was why the Trove should be kept far away from her.” And, okay, I’m fine with the notion that people should know their temptations and limitations, and acknowledging those is a part of the healing process. But.
RHYS NEVER HAS TO DO ANY SUCH THING. HE SPENDS EVERY SECOND OF HIS PAGE TIME IN THIS GODS FORSAKEN BOOK FANTASIZING ABOUT VIOLENT REVENGE, BUT FOR HIM IT’S ALL SEXY AND MASCULINE AND POWERFUL.
GOD. FUCK THIS BOOK.
Feysand name their baby Nyx, in case anyone gives a fuck.
Then Nesta accepts the mating bond with Cassian and—
Jesus. Fuck. Okay. She says she used the last of her power to remake her womb so she can carry an Illyrian baby. She says to Cassian, “I don’t want to rule the world, I just want you.”
(pictured: my sanity)
I went into this book with the best of intentions. I gave SJM the fucking benefit of the doubt. I even wanted this book to be good, because I really liked Nesta as a character, and sometimes SJM does write decent shit. I have pointed that out where I’ve seen it. I’m not here mindlessly hating on her books. But, considering the amount of racism, misogyny, bad writing, homophobia, and horrible handling of serious issues that she’s refused to address after THIRTEEN BOOKS, I was bracing myself for ACOSF to be a disaster anyway.
I honestly did not think it could possibly be this bad.
I was bracing for shit on my shoes, but this is GI bleed diarrhea in my face. Thank fucking god it’s over.
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(This post will contain spoilers for the A Court of Thorns and Roses series, including A Court of Mist and Fury, A Court of Wings and Ruin and A Court of Silver Flames. There will also be frank discussions of sex, pregnancy, sexual violence and alcoholism.)
The ACOTAR series has long been lauded for its allegedly strong heroines, uplifting romances, sex positivity and explorations of female empowerment. I have often found these claims dubious at best and outright contradictory at worst, as past forays into the series have shown me little progress has been made in the genre of paranormal romance wherein dominant, alpha male love interests conquer and claim the female lead whether or not she is willing. The only thing that appears to have evolved is the thin veneer of illusion that she has a “choice” in the matter and yet the forces of fate and narrative combined will determine to push her into the eager arms of this brutish man regardless. Resistance is futile. Alternative paths are closed. There is no escape from the shackles of traditional femininity and heteronormative gender roles.
The series originally follows Feyre Archeron as she is taken from the human lands to the fae society over the Wall as penance for killing a fae disguised as a wolf. The fae society in this world is a martial one filled with warriors and a more primitive approach to gender relations. The words “male” and “female” are often used to refer to fae men and women. There are mystical forces that predetermine sexual partners and misogyny is rife. Feyre soon goes from the arms of one hypermasculine fae male known as Tamlin to another known as Rhysand and after a war with a neighbouring fae territory is resolved they are left to settle into their Happily Ever After.
In this instalment of the series, the romantic storyline follows Nesta Archeron, the elder sister of Feyre, and Cassian, the general of Feyre’s mate, Rhysand. Up to now Nesta has been grappling with being forced to turn into a High Fae by the series’ prior nemesis, the King of Hybern, whom she later killed during his war to claim the fae territories of Prythian across the channel. The ordeal has left her traumatised and angry at the world, engaging in increasingly spiralling behaviours until Feyre and Rhysand forcibly intervene.
Until I read this book I had never felt I was being peddled outright conservative agendas from Sarah J. Maas. Yet with each passing chapter, I was met with another in an extensive line of worrying implications and disturbing scenarios to a point I grew fearful I might not even be able to fit it all into this one review. Let us try, therefore, to take it step by step. I am going to be focusing on a few of the aspects that bothered me most. That is, the Heroine’s Journey itself, the Romance, the Sex (which will surely need its own section) and the Reproductive Trauma. Thus without further ado, let’s delve right in…
THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY
Ultimately, this was meant to be Nesta’s book and Nesta’s journey, as she moves on from her traumatising ordeal with being forcibly turned into a fae by the Cauldron and learns to love and accept herself. Maas has often been praised for her ability to write and handle female trauma and healing arcs, yet at the end of this book I was left woefully unsatisfied by Nesta’s and the conclusions she comes to.
We start off the book with Nesta suffering with alcoholism and engaging in promiscuous sex with strange men whose names she cannot remember.
The fact that she is so intoxicated she cannot even recall the nights before is never seen as cause for concern that she might have been assaulted, especially considering she is already a victim of attempted sexual violence. Instead, we get continuous misogynistic commentary from Nesta herself and others as she is berated for sleeping with strange men. Such a thing is not out of the ordinary for this world, which is drenched in misogyny, yet all of this to the very end goes unchallenged by the author. That isn’t to say this isn’t unhealthy behaviour but there is such a base lack of concern and empathy for Nesta’s wellbeing rather than puritanical judgement that it left a sour taste in my mouth.
This is juxtaposed with sections from Cassian’s pov where he is also shown as having a promiscuous past but it is brushed off as a mere aspect of male nature.
In the first few chapters we see Nesta is issued an ultimatum by Feyre and Rhysand. She is forcibly moved out of her shabby apartment and mandated to train physically with Cassian and work in a library that hosts survivors of male violence. In a way, this intervention isn’t completely unreasonable for a woman spiralling out of control. But what bothered me most about it was that it was mandated that Nesta ought to spend time around Cassian whom she had shown nothing but belligerence towards, instead of say, her sister Elain who was her closest bond or her newly made friend Amren. But the romance must go on and so on and so forth.
My feelings about the romance aside, the sections with both the House of Wind and the Library were one of the few highlights of this book as Nesta forms a kinship with a sentient house made by her own magic and learns to build friendships with two other women who have suffered trauma the way she has. It was the merest glimpse of what this novel could’ve been without the odious romance shoehorned in and I will always mourn its potential for that very reason. Just as I was beginning to enjoy Nesta’s interactions with Gywn and Emerie and her unexpectedly charming interactions with the house, here came Cassian to cast a shadow over the experience and darken my mood in turn.
At the core of Nesta’s post-traumatic stress is the unresolved issues she has in her childhood where she berates herself for misbehaviours she had as a moody adolescent, resentful of her father for not doing enough after their mother’s death, the loss of their wealth, and allowing Feyre to go out and hunt for them in the woods so they wouldn’t starve. In spite of all these supposed misdeeds, I came away wondering what it was that made Nesta so awful, so unforgivable, that she needed to atone. In a book full of murderers and sexual predators, I am supposed to believe that a teenage girl who did not perfectly handle the stress of her mother’s death and loss of comfort is the true monster?
It would be one thing if this was seen as another aspect of Nesta’s distorted sense of self but this goes unchallenged by the novel and is reinforced by everyone else informing Nesta of just how horrid she is that I remained completely perplexed. Character growth is one thing but Nesta was in no way needing a redemption arc. And it would’ve been much more meaningful to me if she’d done this work with Feyre and Elain as they learned to heal and forgive each other, rather than spending the majority of the book arguing and sleeping with Cassian.
Then, of course, there is the subject of her mother, who is villainised for wanting her daughter to marry well in a world where that was the only way for women to elevate their station.
I do find it tiresome when people want me to think women who understand the game and wish to play it to their advantage are terrible for it. Love marriages are a modern invention, there is no reason why a woman of the past would expect it or even care about it in most cases. Nesta wanting to marry well is not something she needed to “unlearn” and it’s not as if she or Feyre will ever have to, as they conveniently fall in love with rich, powerful men.
But while Nesta is said to be closest to her mother, it is her father who gets the most emotional weight in this book and his death is the one seen to have plagued her, the one that she needs to forgive herself for most. While Nesta’s mother is only spoken of negatively and mentally associated with the worst parts of her, Nesta’s father gets to be seen as a font of love and heroism.
His failures neglect to matter because he tried to save her in the end, and it is Nesta who instead failed him by being unable to act. Once again, male characters are portrayed as the eternally wronged parties that Nesta simply needs to soften towards and forgive because they love her and want the best for her really. And once she does, everyone else falls in line.
The fact that Nesta’s journey completely revolves around men and male validation continues to be a point of contention during the plot, particularly when she gains vast supernatural power for herself bestowed by the Cauldron itself. In spite of Nesta’s great power, we don’t really get to see a lot of it. She is either shown as being unable to control it, thus needing to be saved by the intervention of the male characters around her, having other men covet her for it and desiring to make her their “queen” or she all but gives it up in the end anyway, as the most important thing to her is decided to be Cassian.
And on that note, this is the perfect segway into my first section…
What to say about this romance other than it left me feeling baffled? Our premise is that they follow a standard trope of belligerent sexual tension wherein the two snap and snarl at one another to keep at bay the growing amounts of physical desire they have. This is not a trope that is, within itself, terrible - though I do grow weary of reading male love interests belittle and deride their heroine regardless - but it is something that I feel requires a delicate touch, one I do not think Maas’ sledgehammer subtlety possesses.
The stage is set for their arc within the first few chapters where Cassian visits a hungover Nesta who had taken a strange man whose name she cannot remember into her bed the previous night. He thus proceeds to sexualise her emaciated body (that somehow, inconceivably, still has mouth-watering curves for him to drool over) and expresses territorial fury over her having had relations with someone else while the two exchange contrived, vitriolic barbs. This is pretty much the state of their relationship throughout the novel.
For an unreasonably long amount of chapters we watch as Cassian insults Nesta, hurls hurtful words at her that clearly leave an impact on her already lowered self-esteem, sexualises her malnourished body and fantasises simulating sex with her to the point he has to leave rooms to prevent himself from “taking her right there and then.”
That is not to say Nesta is without vitriol herself, however, her relative power in comparison to Cassian is lessened considering the instigating scene of the book is that she has been forced to train with him in order to combat her alcoholism and promiscuity under the threat of exile. Once again, Nesta is going to be forced to accept Cassian whether she desires it or not, as he has been assigned to be her only means of support during an emotionally tumultuous time in her life. Why not any of her sisters with whom she also has a strained bond with at this time? Why not her estranged friend Amren? Well, that might prevent the romance from occurring! And it must occur, as I’ve said, whether Nesta wants it or not.
It doesn’t help that Nesta in the past has done nothing but reject Cassian out of turn, even when he makes aggressive advances upon her and derides her for refusing. When the plot point emerges that they are mates, Nesta is understandably hesitant to oblige to a supernatural force that has predetermined her partner. Cassian, in turn, takes offence at this and yells at her for resisting the bond as well as hurling that he did not ask to be “shackled” to her either. Keep in mind this is very late in the novel and by now he still cannot keep himself from making deeply hurtful comments towards Nesta when she does not act as he wishes her to act.
We are left at the end of this novel to believe that Nesta is at fault, that she does truly desire Cassian in all his brutish, hypermasculine glory. Indeed like Feyre does. There is only room for one version of female desire, the one in which they all long to submit to a domineering, muscular alpha man regardless of the woman’s own established personality or background, etc. No woman can ever want a man who’s not befitting of the mould Maas has placed on the pinnacle of the sexual hierarchy. Such men are boys.
And like this, Maas continues to reify gender norms in male-female relations which is seen no clearer than in that of her sex scenes. Which leads me to…
I have long had issues with the portrayal of sex in fantasy novels and ACOSF has all of my grievances and more. Past the overblown prose, cringeworthy dialogue, and repetitive scenarios we are left with a version of female desire that, to me, seems nearly identical to the types of simulations one might find in the male-driven porn industry.
To give Maas some credit, she does at least allow for Cassian to do more than use Nesta as a vessel for his “enormous, beautiful” member. There are passages in which Cassian does take the time to learn to pleasure Nesta and she him, but for me it is dampened by Cassian’s bestial conduct and degrading dialogue, all of which we are meant to view as “sexy”. I won’t deny that perhaps some of what occurs here might be desirable to another woman, yet I find myself craving portrayals of sex that somewhat go against the grain.
Because really there is nothing new here that we haven’t seen before. The man is dominant, beastlike, he takes control of the smaller, submissive female as she marvels over the “sheer size” of his impressive genitalia and desires to fit him into her mouth and body. She has no qualms about potential injury or discomfort, rather these are mere obstacles to overcome.
She can “take” it, you see. And she’s not allowed to do anything else. Partial penetration? Unthinkable! Sex in which penetration of the penis into the vagina (PIV) is not seen as the pinnacle of all acts? Preposterous! There are barely any scenes where we see Nesta take control of her own desire, to use Cassian in a means to pleasure her. Instead, Cassian is always the one in control “sheathing” himself in Nesta and “pounding” her until she is having implausible, earth-shattering orgasms over it.
It is not exactly an unknown fact that the above generally does not lead to female orgasm in most cases. Yet where are all the portrayals of sex in which the focus is on ways in which women typically do find their pleasure? Why must we always be fed the propaganda that intercourse in which a man has his way with us is meant to be mutually satisfying when in reality the scales of balance tend to be weighed very heavily in one favour? Would it be too much to ask for to see alternative scenes, other forms of sex such as outercourse, sex in which penetration has no presence at all even? I would expect a genre in which women dominate and write for women would be precisely the place to find it. And yet, romance only appears to replicate the messages we see everywhere else. Sometimes in much worse, more egregious ways.
Outside of the sex, the nature of eroticism and desire is handled no better. Cassian’s sexual desire of Nesta is portrayed in a disturbing manner, he is near animalistic towards her, his thoughts edging dangerously close to that of an offender each time he worries about “losing control” and having her, even in moments where he is convinced his desire is not reciprocated.
Nesta herself, when the sexual relationship begins, finds her thoughts emptied of anything else but wanting to pleasure and be pleasured by Cassian. We see her stimulate herself more than once, but it is always viewed as paling in comparison to the superiority of Cassian’s penis. Kudos to Maas for showing a non-stigmatised portrayal of female masturbation, points off for the implication that Cassian’s penis is better at pleasuring Nesta than her own hand is.
Most worrying of all is the relative carelessness these two have engaging in intercourse wherein Cassian freely ejaculates, considering the lingering shadow of Feyre’s pregnancy storyline in the background (which I will get to). Besides a brief throwaway mention of herbal birth control, there seems to be a flagrant disregard for the fact that as an Illyrian male Cassian is capable of impregnating Nesta with a foetus that could kill her.
Including one laughably absurd moment where the two are discussing Feyre’s very likely death in childbirth and then paragraphs later are discussing having intercourse the next. The tonal disconnect, the lack of concern for female safety, and the hyperidealisation of PIV sex all combined together to leave me in a state of disgust and bewilderment while reading this book. But certainly no more than the actual pregnancy storyline itself. Which leads me to…
THE REPRODUCTIVE TRAUMA
As with sex, I have long had grievances with the portrayal of pregnancy and childbirth in fantasy. When it is not leaving a barrage of dead, forgotten mothers in its wake, it is providing me with utterly ludicrous and bone-chillingly horrifying plotlines to make the concept of pregnancy far worse of an ordeal than it already is for women in real life. Maas is no different for I don’t believe there are any mother characters who have escaped unscathed in her novel without being brutalised or killed. Rhysand’s mother? Murdered. Feyre’s mother? Death by sickness. Cassian’s mother? Brutalised, then killed. And on and on and on it goes…
It should’ve come as no surprise to me then that the reveal Feyre was carrying a small bundle of joy would not be that joyful at all. Yet, I was still taken aback at the sheer ludicrousy of this storyline where Maas appears to go out of her way to contradict her own canon to toss in a completely unnecessary thread of reproductive trauma porn. Why is it contradictory? Well, the nature of the aforementioned mating bond described between Nesta and Cassian is a supernatural force designed to select mates who will make the “strongest offspring”. Nesta and Cassian are one mated pair. Feyre and Rhysand another. The entire purpose for them is to procreate. And yet, in this very novel Maas goes on to explain that Illyrian males (which Cassian and Rhysand are) have a specific batwing gene that is incompatible with the biology of High Fae females (which Feyre and Nesta are) and such pregnancies between the two often lead to labours where the wings get stuck in the pelvis of the mother, leading to both mother and child dying. Magic cannot resolve this (until it conveniently can) and caesareans may lead to the death of mother and/or child anyway.
Where this becomes ludicrous is that we are supposed to believe that fate would pair up a male and female whose unions will often lead to pregnancies that might not only kill the mother but also the child, defeating the purpose of them breeding anyway. Why this was necessary I will never know. But at least it allowed us to be witness to another revolting titbit that Illyrian males know sex will often lead to the death of High Fae females yet continue to impregnate them anyway. Lovely. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but go into Cassian and Nesta’s sex scenes with a certain amount of anxiety, worrying in the back of my mind that we would be left with two nightmare pregnancies on our hands. Something neither of them appeared to pay any mind to, until the end (which I will get to… again).
What makes this particular plotline worse is the way Rhysand goes behind Feyre’s back to speak to her healthcare professional and conceals the knowledge from her, asking for everyone else to do the same. In this regard, Rhysand has not only once but twice deprived Feyre from essential knowledge she requires to make decisions for her own body “for her own good”. He is pathologically territorial and controlling, having Feyre walk around with a shield which prevents anyone from touching her (but presumably him) to mask her “pregnancy scent” and forbidding her from talking to anyone he perceives as a threat, and when Nesta reveals the danger of Feyre’s condition, he vows to try and kill Nesta. For revealing information his wife should’ve been privy to in the very beginning.
It’s fascinating how much his behaviour mirrors that of Tamlin in ACOMAF and yet Rhysand’s abusive nature is portrayed as a consequence of nature, he’s just so protective because he is a fae male, you see, and his mate is pregnant. Or he was just trying to protect Feyre. Or or or. No end to excuses for his vile behaviour even when it surpasses that of Feyre’s abusive ex.
Anyway, like the self-sacrificing madonna that Feyre is, she resolves to keep the child and weather the pregnancy, the subject of abortion is never once broached. She just loves the little foetus so much already that she thinks the chance they both might die is worth it.
Of course, Maas is not so grim as to take this to its natural conclusion and on the brink of death Feyre is saved by the intervention of Nesta’s great supernatural powers, which she sacrifices so that her sister and the babe might live. This leads to what might be one of the most infuriating lines in the book where Nesta reveals she had altered both her body and Feyre’s so that they might be safe from any future lethal pregnancies their selfish male partners wish to inflict upon them.
I think what angered me most about this is that it was portrayed uncritically that the fault lay with Nesta and Feyre’s bodies, that they should be the ones who would need to change in order to protect themselves from the indifference of Cassian and Rhysand. Never mind all the other hapless women left to the whims of Illyrian males who can still impregnate them with these deadly hellspawn as and when they wish. The concept of altering Cassian’s body so that his sperm can no longer produce batwings was never even suggested. Nor giving him a magical vasectomy. It is Nesta who must change, who must endure, as is her lot as a woman. She must want babies and she must be willing to suffer the risks that come of it. The men, as always, will sacrifice nothing.
I do wonder, have we not surpassed the need for storylines in which women are given great power only to give it up or be murdered for it lest they spiral out of male control? I’ve often seen the sentiment that to desire power and strength is an inherently masculine storyline and it is more feminine for women to care more about nurturing others and love. But what of women who do desire power and do not relate to the concept of sacrificing it for love? Do we not also deserve rich, fulfilling storylines in which we see our fantasies come true? Why must we continually be disappointed, time after time, with promises of female characters having grand destinities and incredible gifts only to see them put it to one side in favour of a marriage and family, as though this is the pinnacle of our achievement? As if this message is not reified in every story, every genre?
Truth be told, we are not lacking in stories telling us it is okay to seek love and desire men. It is the opposite in which we find ourselves a wide dearth of content. And I, for one, am tired of it. For once I would simply like to see a woman say “fuck love, give me power” and not have her villainised and pivoted away from her overall goal. For once I would like to see her smash the ceiling and continue upwards and onwards.
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