More Thoughts on the Series A Court of Thorns and Roses and Fantasy in General

Grace Lapointe
8 min readMar 11, 2023

CN: spoilers, rape, abuse, sexism, stereotypes, anti-sex worker language

In December 2020, I posted an essay here on my Medium blog arguing that Rhysand from Sarah J. Maas’ series A Court of Thorns and Roses is an abuser, not a feminist or a good partner. This is important because Rhys repeatedly is described as a feminist, both inside and outside the text. The books themselves are also often called feminist. I’d have less of an issue with ACoTaR if the series and its fans described the story as abusive, or a villain or bully fantasy, instead of a feminist romance.

My overall opinion hasn’t changed since then, but I wanted to clarify my arguments and add new observations. I couldn’t address everything I wanted to in my first essay. I focused on their relationship, not every important aspect of the series. Here, I’ll also examine the series’ double standards regarding sexual assault and gender and its world-building that’s insensitive to real history.

In the series, Amarantha rapes Rhys. Sexual assault is equally wrong with attackers and victims of any genders. If this were the message the story truly conveyed, it would be a good one, but I don’t think it succeeds in this. Is that the message implied by the story that many defenders of Rhys are taking away from it, though? Or is it something incoherent, more like: “A male sexual assault survivor is entitled to his own victim in turn?” which is dangerous nonsense.

I understand Rhys acting complicit with Amarantha while she was sexually abusing him. That’s a common response to trauma and danger. Her actions were awful, and that doesn’t excuse or explain Rhys manipulating Feyre to get what HE wants. The narrative uses Rhys’ trauma to rationalize or explain away his later treatment of Feyre. This doesn’t make sense because many survivors never become abusers, and there’s never any excuse for abuse.

There’s a huge double standard regarding gender in the ACoTaR books. Female sexual predators (Amarantha and Ianthe) are violently killed, which is justified by the narrative. Meanwhile, a male sexual predator (Rhys) is redeemed: turned into an idealized, perfect “mate.” The series and author may be trying to point out a double standard regarding male survivors of sexual violence and female perpetrators, but I don’t think they succeed in this. The narrative overcompensates and ultimately reinforces gender binaries and an old, gendered double standard that the “hot,” male love interest can do no wrong if he’s the “one.”

There’s also a double standard with the depiction of Tamlin’s trauma versus Rhys’. The ACoTaR books are revisionist regarding Feyre’s relationships with Rhys and Tamlin. I’ve never understood why the books blame Tamlin for Feyre’s trauma or for his response to it. The trauma was caused by Amarantha and by Rhys himself. Tamlin was almost sacrificially murdered! Feyre projects and misplaces blame onto Tamlin. While the narrative and many fans use Rhys’ trauma to justify his mistreatment of Feyre, much of Tamlin’s behavior appears to stem from PTSD as well. In Tamlin’s case, Feyre and the narrative don’t excuse him, but instead use even his coping mechanisms as evidence that he’s a bad match for her.

One of my least favorite parts of ACOTAR is its use of the word “whore” as a pejorative, which blames and shames victims and consensual sex workers alike. Rhys is called “Amarantha’s whore.” Several characters call him this, many times, including Feyre — all uncritically. At this point, the members of the Spring Court assume Rhysand consensually has a sexual relationship with Amarantha. They don’t know he’s a rape victim. Even so, disparaging a man who sleeps with the enemy by calling him a whore is not feminist. On the contrary, it implies as an insult that he makes himself similar to a sex worker, often a woman!

Under the Mountain, Feyre thinks: “Thus I became Rhysand’s plaything, the harlot of Amarantha’s whore.” (ACoTaR 354). In other words, Feyre is Amarantha’s “whore’s whore.” This is not remotely feminist.

The narrative always prioritizes Rhys’ supposed intentions — even if they’re opaque or part of a long-term agenda to seduce Feyre — over Feyre’s own experiences of how he treats her. While many fans consider chapters 54–55 of A Court of Mist and Fury romantic, I consider them textbook examples of manipulation and gaslighting. Abusers often have convoluted sob or cover stories to elicit their targets’ sympathy.

In my 2020 post, I wrote that Rhys considers Feyre breaking her arm “a way in” to manipulate her and get what he wants. This is opportunistic and abusive. He rationalizes his abuse, then describes it in vague, idealized language: “A way to defy Amarantha, to spread the seeds of hope to those who knew how to read the message, and a way to keep you alive without seeming too suspicious.” (ACoMaF 525)

This quote tries to make Rhysand sound like Cinna in The Hunger Games, making Katniss’ dress into the Mockingjay! It would better fit a Hunger Games situation. Here, it’s an excuse for abuse. The quote is baffling abuse apologism in context.

Rhys is so overprotective, controlling, and paternalistic. Rhys somehow hides Feyre’s own, life-threatening pregnancy from her. He also endangers Feyre unnecessarily. While reading, I thought: so, Rhys’ mother gave her engagement ring to the Weaver “for safekeeping,” which is why Feyre has to risk her life to steal it back? Couldn’t Rhys just pick it up?

The Inner Circle is often called Feyre’s “chosen family,” when they’re in fact her controlling mate’s friends. Rhys creates a magical shield around Feyre, preventing even friends and family from touching her, and withholds information from her about her own life-threatening pregnancy.

Feyre initially gets bad vibes from Rhys and tries to talk herself out of them at length. When she first meets him, she thinks: “I had never seen anyone so handsome — and never had so many warning bells pealed in my head because of it.” (ACOTAR 190)

This is not scientific, but anecdotal evidence from experience. Often if I get a strong intuition or sense of danger from someone when first meeting them, observe red flags, and then think or talk myself out of them by over-analyzing, then it’s a sign they’re being manipulative.

I said in my 2020 essay that the ableist tropes in ACOTAR were typical of the genre and likely unintentional. My point was that ableist tropes are everywhere in fairy tale stories, not uniquely bad in SJM’s work or reflecting her personal beliefs or actions. Unless authors consciously try to avoid them, fairy tales are often rife with stereotypes.

When I say a work of fiction is ableist or sexist, for example, that’s my analysis. I may even like some aspects of it. Many people will disagree respectfully, and that’s good. Opinions should open new conversations, or add to existing conversations, not close discussion down or be the final word on any work of fiction. That’s my approach because I have a BA in English literature, but it’s just one of many perspectives.

To paraphrase Helga Duncan, one of my favorite professors back when I was an English major: if it’s not possible to disagree with or argue against your thesis statement, or even try to argue the opposite, it’s not a good argument at all. It’s just a fact about the text. I take risks, but I try to use facts, evidence, and analysis to do it.

World-building

The world-building of ACoTaR is misguided at best and offensive at worst. As many people on Twitter have pointed out, Hibernia was one of the ancient Latin names for Ireland. The name Hybern is made even more offensive by the fact that ACoTaR draws on Celtic mythology, especially from Ireland and Scotland.

As the contributors at TV Tropes explain:

“Prythian and Hybern are loosely based upon the British Isles. The bigger island containing Prythian and the Mortal Lands resembles Britain in shape and size; Hybern, the slightly smaller island located to the west of Prythian, resembles Ireland. Prythian appears to be a portmanteau of Prydain (the old Welsh name for Britain) and Brython (Welsh for Briton). Hibernia is the Latin name for Ireland. The whole history with Prythian and Hybern warring for centuries is similar to the real-world conflict between Ireland and Britain, although weirdly it’s the Ireland-counterpart who keep trying to invade the Britain-counterpart; anyone who is remotely familiar with the history of the British Isles will tell you it was the other way around in real life.”

The word Prydain is sometimes used in fantasy: for example, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series, which drew on Welsh mythology.

In the first book, I liked how Feyre was raised to hate the Fae but then learned all her prejudices were wrong. Not everyone in Prythian was evil. Later in the series, Prythian is no longer the country where all the evil people are from, but that status has been shifted to Hybern instead. That’s not any better! The world-building is flattened into an “us vs. them” dichotomy.

Other SFF Books and TV Shows

The Perilous Gard, a 1974 novel by Elizabeth Marie Pope, has been a favorite since I was in middle school, and it was almost 30 years old back then! It’s also partly a retelling of the Tam Lin ballad, way before ACoTaR. I find it much more original, clear, and enjoyable than the Under the Mountain section of ACOTAR.

However, I do also notice issues when rereading The Perilous Gard, which is almost 50 years old by now. It uses the g-word (a slur for Romani people) for nomadic characters.

Even when I was 12, I noticed Christopher Heron “joking” to Kate, “Someday your husband will beat you, and if I could, I’d save him the trouble” (Pope 172). I’d internalized “moral relativism” at age 12, thinking abuse must have seemed “normal” in 16th century England, but I no longer believe this at all.

Also, Christopher is physically helpless: literally imprisoned in the rock underground, and ritually dead: “the king of the land at his death-time.” Please, Kate, I thought. If a man “jokes” like that, please do not marry him when he gets out. But then she does, which undermines the feminism of Pope’s novel. I love Pope’s novel but can’t recommend it without caveats.

My fanfic of Doctor Who contains a lot of my own ideas and inspiration from the TV series. It’s also partly a rebuttal to recent series about Fae, in which intoxication, fairy rituals, and magic make assault ambiguous or OK. It’s never OK!

I don’t usually like big age gaps in SFF, but I make an exception for the Doctor and Rose from Doctor Who because I think their relationship is respectful, not abusive.

Works cited:

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Thorns and Roses. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Mist and Fury. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Wings and Ruin. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Maas, Sarah J. A Court of Silver Flames. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Pope, Elizabeth Marie. The Perilous Gard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

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