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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J. Maas - a cautionary review

From the BLURB:

Feyre's survival rests upon her ability to hunt and kill – the forest where she lives is a cold, bleak place in the long winter months. So when she spots a deer in the forest being pursued by a wolf, she cannot resist fighting it for the flesh. But to do so, she must kill the predator and killing something so precious comes at a price ...

Dragged to a magical kingdom for the murder of a faerie, Feyre discovers that her captor, his face obscured by a jewelled mask, is hiding far more than his piercing green eyes would suggest. Feyre's presence at the court is closely guarded, and as she begins to learn why, her feelings for him turn from hostility to passion and the faerie lands become an even more dangerous place. Feyre must fight to break an ancient curse, or she will lose him forever.

The start of a sensational romantic fantasy trilogy by the bestselling author of the Throne of Glass series.

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is the first book in an erotic adult fantasy series by US author Sarah J. Maas that has long been miscategorised as young adult fiction … which is the whole reason I’m writing this review/caution.

Look. I wasn’t going to do this. Sarah J. Maas has been around for a long time now – since her debut novel ‘Throne of Glass’ came out in 2012, and ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ released in 2015 – and the issues I’m about to detail have been discussed ad nauseam and probably by more qualified people than me, since then.

Long-time readers of this blog may have also noticed that I don’t really do “take down” reviews anymore – not that I ever did (that was never my thing) but I read a few truly abysmal books in my time and gave them 1 and 2-star ratings accordingly, and always justifying my ranking. Sometimes I’d be so disgruntled with a truly terrible book that I’d take it one step further – vis-à-vis my ‘The Anita Blake 'Hit List' Drinking Game’ to mark my officially breaking off with a series that I felt was punishing me as a reader. But never take-down reviews for the sake of it.

But since becoming an author and literary agent myself, I am much more careful with the privilege and “power” I wield (or am perceived to), especially in the Australian books industry. Look; I do not have tickets on myself, but I am especially aware that Australia is a small industry and so is youth literature globally to some degree – so I have no interest in needlessly hurting those for whom I am working in the same small fishpond, or burning bridges in my own backyard. Basically – I step a little more carefully nowadays.

All that being said – I’m writing this because there is no way me sharing an honest review of Sarah J. Maas is going to damage her juggernaut of a brand. She’s a NYT-bestseller and will continue to be for the rest of time, it seems.

This also isn’t intended to be a “take down” on her either.

But I did want to put *something* out there on ‘my solo book club’ blog about Sarah J. Maas and my first encounter with this author … because I’ve put off reading her for a long time, and largely because I didn’t like the things I was hearing about her from other people.

But then I decided that it was high-time I jumped in and gained first-hand knowledge of her series and the problems surrounding it being labelled YA, and I put it out there on my Instagram (via stories) my reading it, and offering but a *hint* of the issues I was having, and … people came into my DMs. Parents, teachers, librarians, guardians – gatekeepers –who had 10, 11, and 12-years-old who were reading or had read Sarah J. Maas and they had no idea what was wrong with the books (because there is a *lot* wrong with them) and they wanted me to explain a little more clearly.

And just a P.S. – normally when talking about youth literature the term “gatekeepers” has weirdly negative connotations, like all librarians are prudish and burning copies of Twilight around a book-banning bonfire … no. That’s not what I mean when I use the term, and I wish we had a better one; henceforth when I write “gatekeepers” I mean those who have a vested interest in what young people are reading, and who want to connect young people with the best books for them.

So I’m writing this review – this “caution” if you will – on the off-chance that some people with young children in their lives may be wanting a little more detail around these books. And specifically; why I think these books are outright harmful for tween readers, and the damage that lazy metadata and marketing could be doing by putting these books in young people’s hands.

So with that in mind;

This series is adult fantasy erotica – not YA – and the publisher should do better

Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go because I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a book with more murky metadata (a set of data that describes and gives information about other data – basically how books are sold on the back-end to retailers and online marketing places, it’s the categories that determine how a book will be sold, and shelved in libraries etc.)

This series is not YA. It’s adult. But it is marketed as being ‘for children’ – and that’s the fault of the publisher, Bloomsbury  

Exhibit A:

This is a screenshot from the official Bloomsbury (AU) website, and how they categorise ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’.

They label it under ‘Children's > Books for teens 11+’ in two locations on the website, and they also brand it as “Bloomsbury YA”. None of this is clear: books for 11+ are middle-grade (which is a readership for 8-12 year-olds) YA is for 13+.

So even that category “teens 11+” makes ZERO sense; 11-year-olds are not teenagers. Do … do I need to draw a diagram? And on the off-chance someone is reading this and thinking; “great, but MY kid is an advanced reader and very mature for their age,” – to you I’d say, cool. Great story. Happy for you and your kid. But categories are not designed for the exception; they are designed to set the ground-rules.

So it’s concerning and disturbing that the publisher of the Harry Potter series has this so, SO backwards.

Their categories are wrong. They just are. But they are leaders in this market and Sarah J. Maas is just one example of how they’re doing a lot of damage by making deliberately murky age-ranges that do a disservice to readers and the gatekeepers who are trying to give them the best and most appropriate books for them. 

Exhibit B:

It’s not until you scroll all the way down to the blurb, that you see one little note of apprehension at the bottom of the synopsis: “Contains mature content. Not suitable for younger readers.”

Not good enough.

“Not suitable for younger readers” and yet you market is as being for 11+?

You know one real easy way to clear this all up?

Mark it as adult-fiction. Because that’s what it is.  

I’m not going to pretend to have any “insider knowledge” as to why Bloomsbury would so wildly miscategorise these books and this author as being YA when she’s clearly writing adult content. I’ve not read Maas’ original series, ‘Throne of Glass’ but I assume that one started out YA and they were looking for “brand” consistency?

Which – if that’s the case – is gross. Them trying for brand consistency should not become the burden of readers and gatekeepers, which is exactly what’s happening here. I’m sure many gatekeepers whose job it is to put good books in young reader’s hands have probably been led to believe that Maas’ series is fine – they’re for teenagers aged 11+, awesome! But Bloomsbury choosing branding over honesty creates backlash for those gatekeepers who are just trying to do their job, and help readers connect with good books *for them*.

I could also speculate wildly and say they did it in a sleazy cash-grab attempt. Marketing something as YA when it’s really adult-content ensures you get the best of both worlds, to a degree – starting with readers as young as 10 (which – yes, I’ve heard of 10-year-olds reading Sarah J. Maas) as well as all adult readers. Bigger age-range means bigger audience and more sales, maybe?

But as to why these books are most definitely not for “teenagers 11+”...

UPDATE: since posting this something has changed on the Bloomsbury AU website - the '11' age-category has disappeared. But as you can see - it was there from the screenshots I took. The fact also still remains that this is an adult series being labeled as YA. 

Maybe the miscategorising of Maas is misogyny?

Y’know what? Entirely possible!

Mya Nunnally wrote a great piece for BookRiot earlier this year; ‘There's a Weird, Sexist Problem in Fantasy That We Need to Talk About

In this, Nunnally basically unpacks and asks why the assumption is always that fantasy with sex and romance is *for girls* - and it probably comes down to certain genres having perceived less value (like, romance – and also, YA) and keeping female authors in an almost nurturing/mothering role of being “for children” rather than letting them own sexual agency and placing them in adult fiction (as well as this attempt to keep “proper” fantasy as being “for men”).

But it could also go deeper – like why does YA fantasy for girls get explicit sex scenes, and are we just too comfortable with sexualising young girls from an increasingly earlier age? Why can’t female fantasy heroes have a journey without men and a heteronormative sexual awakenings?!

All of these are very relevant questions and discussions – and they could very well apply to Sarah J. Maas, which is something Nunnally certainly thinks.

But it doesn’t negate the fact that Bloomsbury messed up, and are continuing to – … and maybe it’s also largely because YA female authors make bank, and they’re not going to ever course-correct when Sarah J. Maas is currently one of the most prolific and saleable authors around, even if it means feeding largely sexually inappropriate content to majority young girls?

Age Matters – children’s fiction, young adult, new adult and adult fiction

First of all – protagonist Feyre is 19-years-old when the book begins. She is hunting for her family’s dinner most nights, has already dealt with the loss of one parent, and is open about having been in a mature sexual and casual relationship for about one year when the book begins.

Now, making Feyre 19-years-old is a little bit canny … she’s still technically a teenager. But only for one more year, right? After that she’ll be a fully-fledged adult, no ‘teen’ to it.

Maybe this was Bloomsbury and Maas hedging their bets again to start the series out on a YA platform for consistency in her author profile. Maybe?

And given that Maas’s debut launched in 2012, I’m also going to bet she was around during the murky time of publishers trying to make ‘New Adult’ a relevant sub-category readership; another stepping-stone between YA and adult fiction (for more on this, read a Kill Your Darlings freelance piece I wrote back in 2013; ‘Adults: Young and New’) the main thing you need to know though – is that Fifty Shades of Grey was largely responsible for getting the conversation started around a possible need for ‘New Adult’; that marked a distinct difference from YA for the mature sexual content especially, and a move away from high school settings into university campuses etc.

What really matters in the end though, is that by its content – what Sarah J. Maas has written is for adults, not teenagers and definitely not children.

This is an adult erotic fantasy series – and that’s an issue when girls as young as 10 are reading it

I have no problem with sex in young adult literature.

I just want to make this clear – that my issue with Maas and this series does not lie in a prudish wish for all YA literature to be “clean teen”.

I have no problem with sex in YA, because sex in YA *always* serves a purpose. It has to – because you’re writing for a very specific audience who are at various levels and understanding and awakening within their own lives.

Sexual content is most thoughtfully conceived and laboured over in the YA readership and the romance genre than any other category of publishing – I’m going to say. Because authors in both readerships and genres (and especially that intersection of YA romance) understand the power they wield.

Nobody is having more discussions around consent and the #MeToo movement impacting literature than romance authors, for instance; ‘The Romance Novelist’s Gude to Hot Constent’ – dives into this brilliantly, discussing how the romance genre always has to reflect modern society and changing social-norms back to their largely female readers, to respect their agency. Romance is a feminist genre because it’s women writing about women for women, and it’s largely all about centring female pleasure and observing sex and relationships through the female gaze (prime example: Outlander, something else I’ve written about in the past).  

Young adult literature, likewise, understands that it’s being read by a very impressionable audience – never more so than when sex is involved. And of course it has to be; because YA’s job is (much like romance) to reflect modern-day and social norms back to its readers … and hey: NEWSFLASH! Teens have sex. They think about sex. It doesn’t mean they’re going to *do* sex, but they’re certainly starting to think about it and explore their bodies and their desires.

For that reason – young adult authors wield sexual encounters in their fiction very carefully.

And while I’m a big believer in “just because teens are reading about it, doesn’t mean they’re going to do it” – I do want to make clear that YA authors know there are *some* exceptions. Like suicide – and if you need any clearer an example of miscategorising and misunderstanding target audience and content, look no further than the toxic depravity of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why – and a recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health, which proved that dire warnings around Netflix’s sloppy portrayal of youth suicide had real-world consequences;

The study stated that “13 Reasons Why” was “associated with a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the month (April 2017) following the show’s release, after accounting for ongoing trends in suicide rates.”

Similarly – those who work with young people know that portrayals of sex and sexual relationships can have undercurrents to the real-world, and how young people form their ideas and desires.

Again – ‘Sex in YA’ is something else I’ve written about for The Stella Prize, when I interviewed a number of Australian YA authors and asked them how they tackle the responsibility of writing sex and sexual encounters very seriously. I particularly liked what author Fiona Wood had to say;

“It’s important to me to present some positive representations of sex and sexuality to the readers. The sad truth is that casual sexism, objectification and crimes of sexual violence are permanent fixtures on the girl-radar. Misogynistic images and messages are prolific and unavoidable. Social media comes with its own set of problems. But fiction can offer some sane counterbalance: young women characters with agency, self-respect, and equal rights to pleasure, to initiating sex, to saying yes or no to sex. I want to show sexual experience in the context of individual identity, not as a stepping stone to happily ever after.”

For all these reasons and more, I want to be clear when I say; I don’t believe that ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is romance. I think it’s erotica, and there’s a difference.

Romance = Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Erotica = comprises fictional and factual stories and accounts of human sexual relationships which have the power to or are intended to arouse the reader sexually.

There is a difference between portraying “relationship and romantic love” and largely focusing on “accounts of human sexual relationships”.  And I think ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ largely does the latter (though sub out "human" for "fae" - same thing!) 

The brutal sex

When I started sharing that I was reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ on my Insta-stories, I had more than one person come into my DM’s to see if I was aware of a little game the Internet likes to play with Sarah J Maas books … the game is to pick a passage from any given book and have someone guess if said passage is a sex-scene, or a bear attack.

And reader, having now read this book and started the second – I can assure you … it’s not always clear.


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 … 
This reads like erotica, to me. And possibly an erotic bear attack? 

And maybe I can justify that as titillating on one level, because I’m a grown-ass 32-year-old woman.

But I know of kids as young as 10 who are reading this. And mostly, tween girls. And they’re having it presented to them as one of the complex romantic entanglements Feyre finds herself in in this series.

That’s a problem for me that I can’t forgive. Because as others have pointed out – the consent in this series is murky as all get out.

Blogger Tiff of ‘Mostly YA Lit’ has got a *wonderful* summary of her issues with the sexual violence within Maas’s book, and I highly recommend you go and read; ‘Sexual Violence, Bad Boys And A Court Of Thrones And Roses’ because that’s it, EXACTLY!

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is basically trying to be a fae-version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retelling – without any attempts to interrogate the most disturbing aspects of that fairytale (mainly; consent, stockholm syndrome, and the “alluring misogyny” of a captor/captive “romance”).

I can also say that I’ve started reading second book ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’ and 24-pages in there’s already been a very explicit sex scene. How explicit, you may want to know?

Well you determine if this is something a 10-year-old girl will be able to comfortably fathom and read;

Before I could answer, he nipped at my breast, then licked over the small hurt – licked as his fingers at last dipped between my legs. He stroked lazy, taunting circles. “No,” I gasped out. “But I don’t want people …” Cauldron boil me, his damned fingers – “I don’t know if I can handle them calling me High Lady.”
His fingers slid into me again, and he growled in approval at the wetness between my thighs, both from me and him. “They won’t,” he said against my skin, positioning himself over me again and sliding down my body, trailing kisses as he went. “There is no such thing as a High Lady.”

Does that read like it’s for “teenagers 11+”?

Because according to Bloomsbury and barring a small note about “Contains mature content. Not suitable for younger readers.” – it is.

I take issue with this series being read by a disproportionately large female audience under the age of, say, 15. It presents murky consent, rough sex, and an abundance of sex that is really the only motivation and purpose of the female protagonist’s story.

To End

I’m continuing to read this series not because I’m enjoying it – truly; the writing is mediocre at best, downright dull at worst – but because I had no idea of the harm it was perpetuating in the readership, and how rapidly it has distorted youth lit categories.

Maas is writing this series for adults, but I know that kids as young as 10 are reading it – and gatekeepers doing their due-diligence would see Bloomsbury metadata and think that was okay. It’s for those “teenagers 11+” after all.

But I’m going to say that ‘common sense media’ are edging closer to the true age-range as starting at 15+ (even though the issues of consent and rough sex still have me firmly labelling it as adult fiction, not anywhere close to YA).

This a series of flabby writing and lumpy plotting, poor representation and damaging sexual boundaries, particularly for female characters and readers – I cannot wrap my head around anyone younger than 15 reading it, and if you’re an adult on the fence as to whether or not you should be concerned that a young person in your life has delved into this murky world … I’d suggest you be very wary indeed.


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