ACoTaR’s Rhysand Should Have Stayed a Villain

CN: spoilers for Sarah J. Maas’ entire A Court of Thorns and Roses series; sexual assault/abuse; ableist and sexist tropes

In Sarah J. Maas’ New Adult fantasy series A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACoTaR), Rhysand should have made a great villain, but the series swerves to rehab him into a dreamboat romantic hero instead. Series like ACoTaR are immersive. Afterward, all the plot holes and problematic tropes seem obvious to me. I loved Rhys when I thought he was a major antagonist. Yes, this series is full of cliches, regardless, but fun to read. Still, Rhys seemed like the kind of manipulative, alluring villain I love to hate, and who might become a problematic love interest, but only in fan fiction. To make him Feyre’s canonical “mate” and romantic hero was a terrible idea. It undoes all the action of the first book and any claims to feminism.

Jordan Harvey’s excellent YouTube review from 2018 helped me refine my opinion. Unlike Harvey, I thought the world-building was good. This may be because I was in the mood for fairy tale retellings. I read this series immediately after another Beauty and the Beast retelling with much better disability rep but much flimsier world-building. I understand why Feyre hated the Fae at first. She was raised to do so for her entire life. Most humans in Feyre’s homeland never venture to the bordering Faerie country, Prythian, which is separated by a magical wall. They believe all Faeries are necessarily malevolent.

The only humans who don’t hate the Fae are the Children of the Blessed, a cult who worship the Fae. They’re considered a weird fringe group but otherwise basically ignored. I hated the way the Children of the Blessed were treated in this series. They’re plot devices to provide exposition or be murdered by the evil characters. Ironically, the Children of the Blessed would die or kill for the opportunities Feyre wastes. In her video, Jordan Harvey says that Feyre’s punishment for murdering a faerie is to live in prosperity in Prythian with faeries forever, which is ironic and puzzling. Living in prosperity and being accepted by the Fae would be the Children of the Blessed’s wildest dream. However, if they ever do cross the wall, they’re usually used as cannon fodder. The Children worship the Fae. Feyre begins by hating and killing Fae but eventually becomes one and is venerated by the other Fae.

Feyre’s character development is shallow, but her character arc is amazing. Arc and development may sound similar, but the difference here is depth: a creative concept vs. underdeveloped execution. Feyre begins the series feeling like a nobody. Her father is a merchant who lost their fortune, so she lives in poverty, hunting to keep her family alive. Her future and romantic prospects are grim. By the end of the series, she’s a wealthy, immortal High Fae. And she’s not just any Fae, but the High Lady of the Night Court and savior of Prythian, with Rhys as her gorgeous, doting, immortal husband and mate. We go on quite a journey with her as she ascends in the story.

I do agree with Harvey that the plot of the first book is contrived and convoluted. She points out that when the plot becomes unnecessarily complicated, it’s often because it tries to hew too closely to its vague myth and fairy-tale inspirations. Why have three main trials, plus unrelated, separate tasks? Reviews like Jordan Harvey’s are instructive for what not to do when writing fiction, as one commenter says.

As I Tweeted earlier about another Beauty and the Beast retelling, I love the simplicity of Belle wandering into the castle — or her dad wandering in and her choosing to take his place. Why overcomplicate this timeless fairy tale — usually making the power imbalances worse, not better, in the process? Maas said Rhys was loosely inspired by the Hades and Persephone myth. I find this fascinating, but it doesn’t make Rhys any less awful.

In the first book, Rhys is extremely creepy. He beheads a High Fae and sends the head to Tamlin as a warning. I also suspect that the faerie who bled out in Tamlin’s court was Rhysand’s doing. Under the Mountain, Rhys coerces Feyre to make a bargain to save her life. In exchange for healing her broken, potentially infected arm, he asks her to spend two weeks per month for the rest of her life in the Night Court with him. She bargains this down to one week. Saving someone’s life should never be transactional like this. It should be selfless, no strings attached — and what could be more of a string than their psychic bond? In contrast to Rhys, Lucien does heal Feyre without asking anything in return. If Rhys was a safe person who truly cared about her, he would have done this as well.

Rhys is a master manipulator, sexual harasser, blackmailer, and gaslighter. I always knew he had ulterior motives for saving Feyre. That he later attempts to justify and idealize those ulterior motives as romantic is irrelevant. In A Court of Mist and Fury, Rhys tells Feyre that when she broke her arm, “I found my way in with you.” This is inherently manipulative and opportunistic. He has the power to save her, as Lucien did earlier, no questions asked or bargain needed. He chooses to coerce and entangle her instead. A decent person would never see her life-threatening injury as his “way in with” her.

The halo effect (in this case, the fallacy that a person must be good because they’re hot) often comes into play with Rhys. Long before Feyre expresses any desire to have a sexual relationship with him, he dresses her in body paint and scanty clothes and then ogles, gropes, and parades her around. This is all about objectification, domination, and ownership. He even admits this to her later. So, Rhys’ best excuse is that he used Feyre as a pawn in his multi-dimensional chess game to provoke Tamlin and Amarantha. This is inexcusable, regardless, but his stated excuse is also illogical. If he wanted to keep Feyre safe, it would make no sense to broadcast his own lust for her so publicly. The bond with the tattoo, Feyre’s “escort duties,” and Rhys being the only person who bets on Feyre — all of these make his interest conspicuous. Instead of openly treating her in a mean, lascivious way or betting on her, he should have ignored her publicly, then healed her in secret — like Lucien did!

Like the scanty clothes, Rhys’ psychic bond with Feyre, and the tattoo signifying it, suggests Rhys’ public ownership of Feyre. This might be fun and kinky if she were safe and chose it from the beginning, but these are not the circumstances whatsoever. By the time she sits on his lap in the Court of Nightmares in the second book, she’s enjoying it, but she was humiliated and then drugged/unconscious Under the Mountain.

Rhys constantly violates Feyre’s boundaries. No, he doesn’t rape her, but that’s a pretty low bar. The psychic bond gets inside her head long before she wanted any type of intimacy with Rhys. It causes her to drink against her will. Rhys gets inside her own mind to force her to drink, perform lap dances for him, and pass out. This is like being roofied without being raped.

I agree with many of blogger Tiff’s points about Rhys’ abusive behavior here. However, I do also agree with commenter thechefette’s opinion on the same article that Rhys is not a rapist in the text. I also agree with commenter Alex, who wrote that “telling someone that you make her drink so that she can forget what happens looks more like the justification of a rapist than anything else; because it’s never fine to make someone drink in order to forget ! I really hate the way Rhysand is described in ACOMAF, like someone perfect and all, as if the author wants to make us forget all the bad things he had said and done during the past !” I agree! Saying, “I drugged you to make you forget” is an abuser/sexual predator’s logic. No one has the right to force another person to drink to erase bad memories.

We’re meant to think the body paint would definitively show whether Rhys sexually assaulted Feyre, but the text contradicts itself on this. The paint magically fixes itself after Rhys touches her. It only shows whether OTHER people (besides Rhys!) touch her. The marks on her waist are non-consensual, intimate touching — sexual assault no matter what. The paint can’t be used to prove he didn’t assault her. And of course, it can be re-painted, especially if she was unconscious.

I think and write about trauma bonds in fiction a lot. Here, I wrote about an excellent SFF series that uses a magical, interpersonal bond as a boundary/consent violation and evidence of a character’s villainy.

Rhys is a master of spin and gaslighting. He later apologizes to Feyre for kissing her without her consent. He says that he kissed her after Tamlin did, both to make Tamlin jealous and to hide Tamlin’s scent on Feyre from Amarantha. Rhys had also kissed/licked Feyre’s tears away Under the Mountain, even kissing her eyelashes until she jumped back. Later, once they become romantic mates, even this becomes an erotic gesture between them. Rhys says that he intentionally made her angry: “I wanted you to fight.” Feyre’s anger at Rhys “kept me from shattering completely,” she narrates.

With Rhys, there’s a clear pattern of double standards: anything abusive he did to Feyre was for a secretly heroic reason and for her own good. Meanwhile, we’re meant to interpret anything romantic or kind Rhys does — even with ulterior motives — as his real, secret self. He even applies this to unnecessary choices that appeared to sexually gratify himself and not Feyre. This is textbook sexual harassment — and sexual assault/battery once it becomes physical.

The series constantly tries to have it both ways with Rhys. Rhys also apologizes for “pretending to be that person you hated.” He says that if Amarantha and her allies had known Feyre was Rhys’ mate, “they would have done such unspeakable things to you, Feyre.” However, as I described earlier, he only endangered her even more by using her as a pawn for his own gratification. But I did it FOR you, abusers say — as if this is somehow relevant or exculpatory.

Rhys says that his bargain wasn’t really important, and the true, mating bond is the lasting one. “The bargain was nothing….like a cobweb,” he tells her — but Feyre didn’t know that at the time. She thought it was binding: impossible or fatal to break. Feyre leaves the court Under the Mountain expecting to be a victim and captive, physically and/or sexually, each month. She agreed to this only to save her and Tamlin’s lives. I was relieved that this never happens, but it doesn’t change Rhys’ earlier abuse. Rhys leaves Feyre alone for her first three months back with Tamlin. He only calls in the bargain when she silently wishes to escape her own wedding. The series frames this as a 180-turn from bad to good. It is to some degree, but the bond that shows him Feyre’s thoughts was a violation in the first place.

If you’re not familiar with trauma bonds, and have never known someone as manipulative as Rhys, I’m happy for you. The cunning of an abuser like him may be hard to recognize. Without divulging any personal details, the person who abused me always had a sob story, too. These heartbreaking stories often went all the way back to his childhood. He was always playing on other people’s sympathies. Feeling sympathy can be good, but when it’s weaponized to excuse abuse, that’s manipulation. No excuse or ret-con can justify abuse, and A Court of Mist and Fury unsuccessfully attempts to explain away Rhys’ entire personality in the first book.

I also hate Tamlin’s territorial/possessive behavior, but Rhys is just as domineering and possessive in his own ways. Rhys frequently says things like, “This one’s mine” about Feyre — before they’ve agreed to a romantic relationship or she knows they’re mates. Like many other popular series with love triangles, ACoTaR resolves the tension by suddenly making one character’s behavior awful. This doesn’t change the other love interest’s flaws, though.

In the later books, Rhys acts reformed and romantic, but he still endangers Feyre unnecessarily. In book two, he makes Feyre risk her life to steal her own future engagement ring from the Weaver. So romantic! I understand that this was a test run for stealing the magical Book later on, but it was totally unnecessary. And the series frames it as romantic and further evidence that Feyre and Rhys are mates.

(my parody of the last book):

Rhys: My gift to you is a cloak and an easel for your painting, love of my life, my mate, for the Solstice, which is also your 21st birthday.

Feyre: My gift to you is my future pregnancy, which may still kill my immortal, 21-year-old body.

Rhys: Thanks. I’m such a feminist! You are my queen and my equal. I love you.

Disability rep/ableist tropes:

I understand why Feyre has such a negative view of disability. She lives in an ableist, inaccessible world full of fairy-tale tropes. Her father’s leg was damaged when creditors tortured him, which she witnessed. However, her dad’s leg eventually gets magically cured. Lucien’s metallic eye can see through magical glamours. This is an example of a magical superpower overcompensating for disability. Feyre finds Lucien’s eye creepy until she trusts him.

There’s also an offhanded line about torture and mind control “shattering (someone’s) mind and leaving him a drooling husk.” (Compare with Harry Potter’s Cruciatis Curse.) I don’t think this is intentional ableism, but I do want other writers to unpack the unconscious but false implications that brain damage or drooling somehow degrade or depersonalize someone. Also, the Weaver is ancient and blind, with “rotted eyes,” in a way that makes her seem more terrifying, as is typical for fairy tales. Feyre must hide from the Weaver, whose blindness is a plot device.

Feyre’s PTSD is well-done.

Clotho is a very minor character: a librarian/priestess who lives in Rhys’ library in Velaris. She was also disabled by torturers, who damaged her tongue and hands (see Philomel, Lavinia, and Ellen James for other characters who fit this type). Clotho serves little purpose in the story, except to depict Rhys as a good guy and his city as a refuge for vulnerable/ traumatized people. Rhys’ faux feminism also entails saying he’s a feminist and opposing the sexist practice of wing clipping. This is fine, but it doesn’t erase what he did earlier.

Ursula K. Le Guin was right that commodified fantasy fills an important role in readers’ imaginations. I actually got really into the world of ACoTaR while I was reading the books near the holidays this year. I needed to think about a new fandom for a while, and the fan art, characters, settings, and coloring book all look gorgeous. These fandoms are great examples of readers’ imaginations filling the gaps in a commercial fantasy, as Le Guin describes. For me, literary criticism also fills this role. If I had no problematic faves, I’d have no favorites at all.

I enjoy it too! I’ve gotten better at compartmentalizing when enjoying escapist series, but I do still notice problematic tropes. As a writer, I don’t support tagging writers in criticism of their work, but I think we need to point it out. I do want to state my opinion that ACoTaR is a fantasy not only in genre. It’s also an erotic/romantic fantasy. And as such, it romanticizes behavior that’s abusive and problematic. I’d rather admit that I enjoyed reading or watching something problematic than try to reason the problematic aspects away.

Another excellent essay: https://bookofmirth.tumblr.com/post/156294707672/rhysand-the-court-of-nightmares