Games of throne
Feyre Archeron made it out from Under the Mountain, but no one would say she came out unscathed. Haunted by what she went through—and what she did—Feyre isn’t the same person she once was, on so many levels. Struggling with the life she thought she wanted, Feyre finds herself rescued by the least likely person—one who shows her a different side of High Fae life.
But conflict among the Fae is far from over, as the king across the sea plots his next move and an ancient weapon comes into play. Stopping it might be up to Feyre… if she can just master the surprising powers she’s inherited.
In 2018, I read all of Throne of Glass in just a few weeks, and chronicled the whole thing here. This year, while we wait for the March release of Maas’s first adult novel, Crescent City, it’s time for A Court of Thorns and Roses!
As before, this is a first-read, so please: no spoilers in the comments for the series beyond the book currently under discussion.
A Shortish Summary of What Happens in A Court of Mist and Fury
Feyre died at Amarantha’s hands, but it didn’t stick: she was reborn as a High Fae, strong and immortal and with unexpected powers. She’s the betrothed of Tamlin; she has a new High Priestess friend, Ianthe, in whom she can confide; Prythian may be bracing for war with the King in Hybern, but her life looks like something from a story.
Except that it’s not. The kind of trauma Feyre went through doesn’t vanish overnight, and she feels trapped and controlled. Tamlin won’t let her train with her new powers, won’t hardly let her out of his sight. She doesn’t want to paint; she hardly wants anything. But when, on her wedding day, Feyre silently begs anyone to help her, Rhysand, the High Lord of the Night Court, appears to call in his bargain: that she spend one week of every month with him. He whisks her off, gives her space, and begins to tell her a few things about what’s really going on in Prythian,
When the week is up, back she goes to Tamlin and his Spring Court. When Tamlin locks Feyre in his house, it’s a step too far. Rhys sends his cousin, Mor, in to get her. It’s a rescue, but the important part is what Mor says to Feyre: “You’re free.”
Rhys doesn’t control her, doesn’t limit her movements, doesn’t tell her what to do (except to teach her to read). He trusts her with the secret of his hidden city, Velaris; introduces her to his Inner Circle of winged Illyrian fighters and mysterious beings; and, most importantly, he gives her space to heal—something he also has to do after his own time Under the Mountain. But Feyre isn’t just traumatized; she’s also new to herself, and she needs time to both grow into who she is, and to accept what she did to survive, and to save everyone.
Of course Rhys also has plans, and Feyre is central to them: he’s learned that the King wants to use the Cauldron to destroy the wall between the Fae and human lands and bring back war. They need to find a powerful Book that can stop it—one that only Feyre may be able to use. One half must be stolen from the Summer Court, one bargained away from the six human queens. Amid all this, someone is hunting Rhysand; Tamlin fiercely wants Feyre back; Feyre has seven new powers (and general Fae strength) to master; and the teasing flirtation of Feyre and Rhys’s friendship is clearly building into something else entirely.
When Rhysand is injured in an ambush, Feyre snares the Suriel, knowing that it can tell her how to heal him. It also tells her that Rhysand is her mate. Overwhelmed and feeling betrayed that he kept this from her, Feyre retreats to a mountain hideaway where, at long last, she begins to paint again. When Rhys finds her, he explains everything: not just his actions Under the Mountain, but that he was aware of her for years. He’s honest and true and he understands and accepts Feyre and her needs. They get very passionately naked for quite a long time, but there’s still the matter of the Book and the Cauldron.
The plan is simple: infiltrate the King’s castle, nullify the Cauldron’s powers, and get out. Everything goes awry, in large part because Tamlin, desperate to get back what he thinks is his, made a deal with the King—and brought him Feyre’s sisters. (The treacherous human queens have also been working with the King.) The King mutes everyone’s powers, but he can’t fully limit Feyre, whose magic isn’t like anything else. He turns Nesta and Elain into Fae, transforming them in the Cauldron to show the human queens it can be done safely.
In all the chaos, Lucien becomes aware that Elain is his mate. And Feyre makes a deal: let everyone else go and she’ll go with Tamlin. The King breaks Feyre and Rhysand’s bargain, thinking he’s breaking their mating bond, but that’s not possible. While everyone else escapes, Feyre remains, a spy in the Spring Court, playing the role of the person Tamlin always wanted her to be.
Here’s That Plot You Asked For
If A Court of Thorns and Roses felt very prologue-y, Mist and Fury grabs the plot ball and doesn’t look back. But it’s a marathon, not a sprint: a well-paced run that allows a lot of time for character and relationships. Maas is quite good at building the connections between her characters—especially the romantically entangled ones—through action, in both the little gestures (Amren giving Feyre a magical amulet that’s nothing of the sort, know she needs something to hold on to) and the huge ones (Feyre defending Velaris with her newly mastered powers).
The plot can feel predictable: of course Feyre is super-powerful; of course within a hundred or so pages I’d written a note to myself that says “She’s totally going to become High Queen”; of course the item hidden in the Weaver’s hut was an engagement ring; of course sneaking into the King’s castle wasn’t going to be a breeze. But this isn’t a story that’s trying to be unpredictable (though occasionally there’s a good twist!). In a very real way, it’s an exploration of some of the parts of fantasy that can get swept under the rug: the way that fairy-tale relationships might be nothing of the sort, and the fact that there is a lot of trauma involved in the kinds of stories fantasy often tells—stories full of war and death and treachery.
Feyre puking up her guts every night is much like Katniss hiding in closets for parts of Mockingjay: the reality of winning is that it comes at a cost, especially when to win, you have to kill. It’s easy to want Feyre to enjoy herself, to enjoy her powers, to explore the world that she’s saved—but she’s got a lot of processing to do, and Tamlin is crushingly underqualified to help her do any of that. He’s the High Lord of the Denial Court, the one who wants to keep calm and carry on and lock up everything that matters to him so it can never get hurt or taken again.
I know some readers felt that Tam got character-assassinated in this book. I feel that way more about Lucien, who is an exile without the powers of a High Lord, trying to get through things as best he can. Tamlin’s actions are a straight line from his behavior in the first book—controlling, possessive, secretive—but he’s not granted much (some, but not much) understanding that he also went through hell under Amarantha. Not to the degree of Rhysand or Feyre, but it’s clear that his extreme behavior is also a result of what Amarantha did to him. No one is helping Tamlin work through his shit, in part because there’s no one close enough to try (his ego takes up a lot of space). Ianthe is at best enabling him and at worst encouraging him. His situation is a mess, but I find myself with a sliver of sympathy for him all the same.
Fae Society: Not So Fair
Mist and Fury reveals a lot of ugliness among the Fae, from Tamlin’s (false) assertion that women can’t be High Ladies to his treatment of the water wraiths to the horrible things we learn about how the Illyrians maim their females to keep them for breeding. A class war between the High Fae and the “lesser” fae is brewing, yet few of the High even want to acknowledge the lesser creatures. Fae leadership isn’t as downright vicious as Amarantha, but it still clings to power.
I’m still working out how I feel about all of this; some of it seems unnecessarily cruel in an almost salacious way. These kinds of social structures are so common in fantasy, and people have been asking why for a long time: Why do we still lean on inventing worlds where certain groups are subjugated? Why do certain kinds of suffering seem so central?
The point of all the cruelty and misogyny in Prythian seems to be to show us that people can unlearn these behaviors—that Rhys and all of his Inner Circle are breaking the patterns, moving away from the behaviors they learned. The problem is that only the most powerful, with the rarest gifts, the strongest and most wonderful, are narratively given that opportunity. (Some of them came from nothing, but they still have unusual talents and rare strength.) If that’s what it takes to unlearn centuries of damaging behaviors and traditions, what hope is there for ordinary people of ordinary strength and talents? And at what point do enlightened Illyrians try to create change from the inside? (It’s good that Rhys requires his war-lords to train girls alongside boys, but that’s not going to solve centuries of mistreatment.)
Maas’s stories are deeply invested in suffering and what comes after—in characters, particularly women, overcoming the terrible things that have been done to them and growing stronger in the process. The healing is the point, and the simple fact that healing is possible. This series intentionally brings a lot of very traumatized people together to heal each other; the bonds between Rhys and his Inner Circle are deep and strong in part because they all know what they’ve all been through. These are friendships that demonstrate to Feyre that someone can see all the pieces you think are broken and still love you not in spite of that, but in part because of it.
And all of the ugly history definitely has a role to play, as we see with Rhysand and Tamlin. Their hatred of each other isn’t just about Feyre (thankfully!). It’s about the violence in their family history, and the choices their families made in the war; it’s about the way those choices echo down through time, and the way violence begets violence. And how does the cycle stop?
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Rhysand’s found—or made—family is quite enjoyable. (And given the emphasis on things that are Made, Maas is definitely making the point that the family you choose can be so much more than the one you’re born into.) I want more of Amren, who makes me think of Sabriel’s Mogget: something entirely unfamiliar wrapped in a package we think we recognize. I’m curious where Maas is going with Mor; naming her Morrgan, and eventually referring to her as “the Morrigan,” is a pretty specific invocation. (It’s also specifically interesting to me, as one of my most beloved books as a kid was The Hounds of the Morrigan.) Azriel is awfully close to Azrael, which you may, as you choose, take as a reference to the angel of death or to Gargamel’s cat from The Smurfs (who probably thought of himself as the angel of Smurf-death).
After the all-male cadre of the Throne of Glass books, it’s deeply refreshing that Rhys (if not the other High Fae) doesn’t hew to anything resembling restrictive gender norms. He has a mysterious and seemingly ageless ancient being in a female body as his second in command—and maybe the goddess of war as his third. And it’s also great that while Feyre has her moments of jealousy, they’re not about these two. It’s important that Mor rescues her from Tamlin’s manor not just because Rhys couldn’t do it without starting a war, but because Mor can. She’s powerful, she’s capable of great gentleness, and her action throws into sharp relief the failings of Feyre’s sisters. (And of conniving Ianthe, though the less said about her the better.) There are different ways to support one’s friends and family; not everything is a rescue mission. But when Feyre starts to think about how they let her carry the burdens of the family… she’s not wrong. She’s been a solitary wolf for so long that she needs these examples of how people support each other as much as she needs space and time and freedom.
That said, I still love Nesta, with her sharp tongue and her fire. It feels a bit too convenient that Elain is Lucien’s mate (does that happen when she turns Fae? Do Fae often have human mates?) but if that’s what it takes to get Lucien out from under Tamlin’s thumb, I guess I’m semi-reluctantly all for it.
It’s No Myth
“Only once before was a human Made into an immortal. Interesting that it should happen again right as all the ancient players have returned,” Amren observes when she meets Feyre. But which ancient players does she mean? The king—or the Cauldron? Or are there other ancient players whose movements we haven’t really seen yet?
The Cauldron the king has found and restored seems to be the one from this world’s mythology—the one that made the world. But Maas never quite comes out and says so. The Bone Carver tells Rhys and Feyre, “They say all the magic was contained in it, that the world was born in it.” But they say isn’t the same as it is so. Even saying that it “Made all things” could be myth. Or it could be fact. Or mythological fact! Because where did it come from? Who makes the maker? Who cooks the Cauldron?
With the introduction of Ianthe, the High Priestess, Maas complicates her mythology. One of Ianthe’s roles is the Voice of the Cauldron; she sometimes beseech the Cauldron and the Mother; she’s one of many priestesses, high or otherwise. (I hope they aren’t all as manipulative and untrustworthy as Ianthe is.) But who is the Mother, and how does she relate to the Cauldron? What about the nature-focused rites of the last book? What about the holidays that Amarantha banned, that seem to be reappearing slowly? And what about when Rhys thinks “you should be thanking the gods-damned Cauldron”—doesn’t that imply there are also gods? Where and who are they?
I should admit that I got distracted by questions like this before the prologue was even through: Feyre worried about her immortal soul, which made me wonder: Where does that concept come from in this world? Fae are immortal unless killed; does that suggest their souls live on? Do they have a concept of the afterlife? It’s entirely possible I’m putting way too much thought into this. But there’s something in the writing that suggests to me that these aspects of the story might fit together like a puzzle—the same way everything Rhys did, from the moment he met Feyre on, was a story he was already aware of, a collection of moments that add up to a bigger picture than Feyre ever suspected.
All these tidbits? They feel like that.
Whether it’s the Cauldron or a Cauldron, it sure reminds me of The Black Cauldron. That one raised armies of the undead, which makes me worry about Elain and Nesta (though less so the rotten human queens), and was destroyed by someone willingly climbing into it as a sacrifice.
This one seems like it’ll go a little harder. Or not at all: Can you unmake something that made the world?
(And speaking of those human queens: What’s up with the missing sixth queen, the one who was never ill? Are we to think she disagreed with the others and so is locked up or hidden?)
Creation and Consent
The question of things being Made is a quiet one, but constant. Until the end of the book, Feyre is the only one of her kind: a human Made into a Fae. Before her, there was Miryam, a human granted long life, and Amren, the exile turned Fae. They’re all Made, in a way, and “only that which was Made” can use the spells hidden in the oddly named Book of Breathings, which can negate or control the Cauldron. But why is Making so powerful that it gets a capital M every time?
The Bone Carver, who tells Feyre and Rhysand much of this, is nothing if not a master of the infodump (I’m certain that he appears to Feyre as her future child). But it’s not just a bucketful of plot—it also ties into one of the series’ huge themes: consent.
For all his dubious actions Under the Mountain, Rhys checks with Feyre about everything now, even before their relationship becomes physical. He sees and understands what being controlled and contained means to her, how it puts her back in that dark, dark place and slows her healing. So he asks, and checks in, and gives her choices. Tamlin doesn’t, and the ways in which he fails to ask Feyre for her consent are a reminder that consent isn’t just about sex. It’s also about how people are allowed to live.
Elain and Nesta do not consent to what happens to them. No one who was under Amarantha’s spells consented (and her use of Rhys makes this very explicit). Did Jurian have any say in being brought back from his horrible existence? (Jurian, who just stands around being grumpy, is kind of a letdown.) What will that mean for all of them, for their lives, for whatever powers they might now have? When some of the most powerful men are refusing to allow women control over their own lives, what does that say about power and how it’s wielded?
Maas is interested in another kind of power, too: the power of a relationship in which you can be your true self. Much of Mist and Fury is about Feyre figuring out how she wants to be: how much she wants to give up (the Bone Carver’s questions); how much she wants to fight (training with Cassian); how much she wants to play political games (her conversations with the lord of the Summer Court); how much she wants to paint, and what and who she wants to love. And for all my skepticism about Rhys in the first book, he lets her choose all these things. He shows her the city and lets her make her way to the artists’ quarter in her own time. She flips out a little that he didn’t tell her about the mating bond, but—the Suriel’s tattling aside—he was giving her space.
And he was also being really enjoyably clever about flirtation as healing distraction, which, as goofy as it sometimes gets, I understand. Who hasn’t enjoyed the way a playful text message can take your mind off things, if only for a moment? Maybe you don’t expect the High Lord of the Night Court to make dick jokes, but let’s be honest: it kind of suits him.
The High Lady of the Night Court is playing a very dangerous game with the High Lord of the Spring Court, isn’t she? (I admit I loved the secret-wedding-High-Lady-making twist.) But she’s learned so much, and she has so many powers, and she kind of has Lucien under her thumb, even if that magic eye of his sees things she’d rather it not see. How long until someone catches her note-exchanging with Rhys? What will Tamlin do when he figures out the extent of her powers? Will she wear gloves all the time to hide the new tattoo? Can she glamour it? How will she—and Maas—deal with Tamlin’s expectations about the physical side of their relationship?
So many questions. Up next: A Court of Wings and Ruin!
Molly Templeton has been a bookseller, an alt-weekly editor, and assistant managing editor of Tor.com, among other things. She now lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. You can also find her on Twitter.
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