I wanted to like it, I truly did, but there is simply nothing here worth pretending is acceptable...
There WILL be spoilers in this review, and crude language (not all of it me cursing at the thing, but some actual quotes & paraphrases that address SJM's tone)... But for now, let me say, this felt like a knock-off stage production housed in a low-rent theater, created by a psychotically invested artiste of a wanna-be director and acted in by 2 people who kind of care about the director and therefore managed to drag their half-resentful friends along to auditions...
The prose is limp and lame, her dialogue tagging conventions are irksome, and the metaphors she uses are very galaxy-brain bits of nonsense that feel like symptoms a dangerous drug-high. Also. There's no plot. Like at all. (I'm all for character-driven stories, but seriously, for character-driven narratives to be at all effective, the characters have to be slightly more exciting than damp cardboard... Final non-spoilery points: there was too much sex that didn't do anything to contribute to the narrative, the mental health handling (read: dismissal) was pretty insulting, and it was way too frickin long a lead up for a predictable, boringly obvious ending that rendered all of the hyper-attentive foreshadowing utterly useless.
Beyond all that, the new covers are hideous.
I liked the House and the blossoming of female friendships. But that's about it...
I wanted to like this one, I really did. It's just been a few years of SJM not writing up to her potential, but still showing that potential... I walked into this with low expectations, high hopes, and a careful detachment that would let me read this without my dislike of Nesta getting in the way of my enjoyment.
Don't get me wrong, I don't hate Nesta. I've just always found her rather irksome; she was annoying but interesting enough that her purpose as a foil to her sisters worked rather well. She was never main character material because she was never meant to be. SJM actually did alright with fleshing her out enough to hold up a main character role, but Nesta just isn't a piece on the board. She's not significant enough to the world to NEED to be anything more, which means she's just there far too much of the time to be interesting as a central figure.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Any story needs its side characters. To promote a side character to MC status is difficult, but can be done, so long as you reframe the rest of the narrative along with them. SJM didn't.
Which means that all the elegant character building and world crafting she put into the first three (*cough* Frost and Starlight was a travesty that I will forever ignore *cough*) just evaporates. Because to make Nesta seem fleshed out and solid, the rest of the characters became pitifully flimsy cardboard cutouts of themselves.
Like even Mor and Azriel were barely there and only the slightest bit participatory. It was tragic. Az had a few good quips, but it was an SNL skit of Clinton with Bengazi compared to the world-shaking political impact of the Shadowsinger's true glory.
That was the main thing for me. This was a character-driven story without any truly great characters... And zero plot. 700-something pages of hints and preamble, but with zero follow through.
Again, here there be spoilers. Very direct, spoilery spoilers:
The sex in this one wasn't hyperbolic in an amusing way and it wasn't anything that contributed to the story at all. In fact, sex for the sake of sex with random strangers and no strings was mentioned early on as being Nesta's primary maladaptive coping mechanism. But apparently sex for the sake of sex with broodingly handsome loyal-to-the-point-of-self-harm servants to the Crown is a good thing...
But here's a breakdown of my real concerns, the ones I am actually offended by, and the ones I should be more offended by, but have fallen to deep into the SJM pseudo-patriarchy to be as offended by as logic says I ought to be....
Magic Fight-Fight Skills:
Nesta spends 3 weeks (maybe like 36 by the end, if I'm extremely generous), and she only trains for 2 hours a day during those short weeks. It's like a pity-party post-break-up cardio-kickboxing class, at BEST... And somehow she's magically better at fighting than the Illyrians who've spent all day, every day, for their whole lives (and immortal lives at that) training with the best teachers that can be produced by a culture that worships warfare... Like, seriously, that's not even Mulan-level determination means everything shit, that's just excessive propaganda for Nike or UnderArmor or something...
And don't even get me started on her Avatar-level meditational skills, like wow, if trauma could be pushed aside with a couple deep breaths and an ocean metaphor, no one would ever need a therapist again.
Demi-versity...? because Diversity is hard...?:
Like nobody in the entire thing is anything but white, tan, muscled, and gorgeous. Ever. Even the bad guys are 'grotesque but gorgeous'... No one has any legit CULTURE. It's all just extra-generic vague-fantasy. There's some vague mentions of rituals differing between Courts, but no demonstrations of actual cultural differences. The food's not even different in different places. Or the fashion. And no one has any kind of soul-deep religious beliefs at all.
And like Emerie is the only non-perfectly-straight character depicted in this story, and it's only shown in one throw-away line like 3/4 into the book. Oh, and like I guess Mor's bi, right? But she barely has any screen time, period, let alone any meaningful lines or actions...Male / Female instead of Men / Women...
I don't even have a BS reason to explain this one... Like WHY? I don't get it. What's the point of this bit? I mean it. Could someone please explain what SJM thinks this is accomplishing? All it does is dramatically dehumanize the characters and subtly remove their agency. Animals are male and female. Children are male and female. 2-D figures in artistic depictions are male and female. People with agency and personhood are men and women.
Piss Poor PTSD Representation / HORRIFYING Trauma Care:
This is the only one I actually noticed myself getting angry about, largely because it's the most aggressively offensive of the lot. Nesta is severely depressed and exhibits a few well-rendered PTSD trauma symptoms (and some that aren't so well-rendered). And the Family's solution to having a suicidal, directionless sister is to ISOLATE her and give her pointless BUSYWORK and take her on useless walks to nowhere while so thoroughly ignoring her that she nearly dies of dehydration.... Like NO. Full stop. Screaming halt. Absolutely no shits given, no quarter taken, no excuses, shut the fucking hell up and learn yourself a thing. If SJM wanted to kill Nesta off, this is how it should be done. It is an utterly inexcusable and abhorrent way in which to treat anyone, period, and it's NAZI WAR CRIME level awful in how to treat someone with a mental illness of any sort. This is NOT okay.
You do not ISOLATE a suicidal person, you don't leave them to their own devices and self-hatred without supervision, and you do NOT give them pointless busywork that contributes even LESS to giving life real meaning than drugs and alcohol do. And the whole stick is so aggressive, like so far beyond the pale... being both controlling and dismissive at once. And like, when Tamlin responds to Feyre's struggle with PTSD by controlling her behavior it's abusive but when Feyre does it to Nesta it's a brave sisterly intervention... especially because not only is Feyre controlling Nesta, she's also hiding the shameful kook away in the attic and pretending everything else is fine. At least Tamlin kept paying Feyre attention when he was controlling her every move, even when he did it badly he was at least trying to engage with her (because we totally needed a reason to 'forgive' Tamlin for being an irredeemable, abusive arsehole)...
It's HELLA creepy.
And worse yet, it's boring.
It makes the book drag. This is no helpful to making Nesta work through her trauma, it doesn't even work IN the narrative (Nesta doesn't begin to rise above what happened to her until she gives herself a real job) and it takes up a solid 300 pages of blah uselessness just to reach the conclusion that this dumb isolation / busywork thing ISN"T HELPING. That's 300 pages that could've been summed up in a few paragraphs and then we could've spent like 100 pages exploring ACTUAL, HEALTHY trauma care...
It pissed me off. A LOT.
Bodily Autonomy as Non-Existant...:
Speaking of trauma and piss-poor care-taking, none of the female characters (literally NONE OF THEM) have any real agency in their physical locations. Even the frickin High Lady of the Night Court is 'contained' by Rhys and limited in her movements by a) Rhy's over-protective bastard-ness and b) by the risk to the beloved little parasite threatening to kill her if she so much as takes a spin on the dance floor. Nesta gets carried to more than 50% of locations to which she travels, even within the House of Wind. Gwyne CAN move on her own power, but she's basically just human in terms of physical abilities and can't fly or winnow herself anywhere so she's basically in prison at the House. And the Illyrian lady, Emerie, her wings are broken, so not only is her physical movement limited, she (and the audience) is reminded of that limitation every time she so much as strolls forward. And that's just in the walking around bit.
That's not even counting the most disgusting thing of all: the ENTIRE NIGHT COURT CONSPIRING AGAINST TELLING FEYRE THAT HER BELOVED PARASITE IS GOING TO KILL HER. Not may kill her, WILL kill her...
THIS IS WHY PRO-CHOICE IS A POLITICAL STANCE.
This isn't just a 'difficult labor' issue, this is that everyone is entirely certain that this baby WILL kill her, and thereby kill the High Lord of the Night Court as well (leaving the entire Faerie world in complete and utter turmoil as the threat of war becomes an open conflict...). Everyone knows, with absolute certainty, that the baby WILL kill Feyre, and they all, to a one, consciously elect NOT TO TELL HER. And are depicted in such a way that the reader is coned into applauding them for it... I honestly didn't notice something creepy was up with it until like the 5th time it was mentioned that Rhys is freaking out (to the point that he has to exorcise his worry using violence against a friend)...
Not only are they not giving Feyre control over her own body, they aren't even allowing her to have KNOWLEDGE of what's happening with it.
It's legitimately SCARY.
It's utterly terrifying that SJM thinks that such deceit is not only okay, but that it could ever be sweet and romantic and worthy of accolades...
Dangerous Body-Negativity / Hypersexualization:
Speaking of bodies... The physical form of any of these characters is only ever mentioned in 2 circumstances: to display sexy perfection or to draw attention to a problem that is depicted as requiring a solution to fix it. Nesta is skin and bones and hideous because she's depressed. She's slightly less depressed, but still in a dangerous mental state, and suddenly 'looks better, with lean muscle and sexy curves'. Emerie's wings are ruined and the Night Court repeatedly insists she gets them healed. Chlothl's hands are 'gnarled messes' and beyond healing, but she's a respected (but ignored) (non)authority in the House who remains hidden away until needed to deliver a message like a sad old-lady carrier pigeon.
And if a body part is not being mentioned in order to draw attention to a problem that needs fixing (or hiding), it's part of a sex scene (or sexy-musing scene). A body is only worth caring about if it's broken and needs fixing or if it is actively participating in sex or a sex-tangential fantasy.
Worse, sometimes a mentioned body part is doing both. Nesta is skin and bones and dying because she won't feed herself, but somehow she still has full, luxuriously plush breasts for Cassian to fantasize about squeezing...
Problematic 'Feminism' / Damaging Neuvo-Patriarchy:
All the guys in this story are super-feminists on the surface. But they only like it when women have choices when the choices those women make are the ones they want to work with.
Otherwise, the concept of choice doesn't even exist. You get dumped in a tree and abandoned or imprisoned in the House of Wind, or sent back to the library, or dragged out on pointless hikes to nowhere... or worse yet, not even told about the factors that may influence your decisions. Azriel is the least troublesome in this regard, but only because he has exactly zero power to offer people choices. He really just doesn't do anything in this book but exist to allow for Cassian to have sexy-bro-banter moments. Cassian isn't quite a sexist pig with relentless romantic pursuit of Nesta, but instead of that being a good thing, it's extra creepy because he doesn't give her a choice about it: he puts the onus of moving forward on her, does not inform her of that fact, and then proceeds to behave as if she has active rejected him (and yet he still pursues her on occasion)... And then there's Rhys. dear god, I loved him in the second book. He was still an abusive arsehole, but his redemption arc was just so elegantly laid that I didn't even care... But here? WOW. I want to kill him. Slowly, painfully, and with a 3-hour power-point presentation on the dangers of misogyny playing in the background. (more below)
The Fall of Rhys... Or more like Plummet...
Yes. Rhys gets his own bullet point. Because he is THAT problematic. He makes decisions for his wife without consulting her, and while ACTIVELY LYING TO HER. He is an openly raging asshole to everyone and the narrative depicts his aggression as something the reader ought to fid 'cute' and 'endearing'. He swings widely from actively disparaging Nesta (and the other women) as having any potential at all to exploiting their (particularly Nesta's) skills to achieve Court aims without every asking their consideration for it.
He uses violence, against a friend and comrade (that is so aggressive and visible that said comrade is forced to comment on his injuries) who then excuses said injuries as an 'endearing' display of Rhys's worry for his wife.
He's suddenly become the worst war-strategist on the planet and couldn't be expected to plan his way out of a diner party with any grace (again excused by being a 'cute symptom of worry' for his wife) despite being looked to by everyone for answers on how to SAVE THE WHOLE DANG WORLD. His only priority is Feyre and he not only expects everyone to understand that and forgive it, but to SHARE that stupidly single-minded focus (without telling ANY OF THEM why saving Feyre actually IS critical to the future of the whole world because he made a Fey Bargain about dying with his wife's death because THAT is a sane decision for the ruler of the free world to make...)...
The only thing Rhys opens his mouth to say in the entire 700+ pages of this tome are lies to Feyre, insistence of lies to Feyre to his Court, crass sexual jokes, or Lordly declarations that remove other people's choices... He doesn't even comment on the weather or the food or anything.
Poorly Rendered Sexual Assault Trauma:
This gets its own bullet point because, while tied to the poorly rendered trauma mentioned above, it really deserves a second mention for the poor depiction of symptoms... The above really says more about the handling of trauma than the depiction of its symptoms and that's okay because most of the PTSD symptoms are actually pretty well done, including the way in which Nesta reacts to triggers. But there's one scene where she's essentially sexually assaulted by a seahorse and it's supposed to be a moment of triumph and taking back the night and whatnot, but a) the assault is weird because the kelpie's kiss gives her air which saves her life and allows her the oxygen needed to kill it, b) we don't get any flashbacks to Nesta's other significant sexual assault, c) Nesta conquers her demons with abject violence, literally killing what she fears, and c) it's never mentioned again...
She's conquered her fear of sex from sexual assault and is now just fine with being inside her own skin as a sexual entity that people are now allowed to care about... It's just plain WEIRD and really not in an okay kind of way...
Creepy Over-the-Top Sexual Content / Pointlessly Crass & Sexual Language:
I like that Nesta reads romance novels. I like that she and Emerie and Gwyn and the House all bond of reading romance novels. I liked best that the romance novels are mentioned as being steamy and then we moved on from them. I didn't like how 'steamy' the rest of the narration was... There was a crude joke, or a reference to Cassian's straining cock, or 'velvet-wrapped steel', or 'kisses that tastes like crackling embers' (which is a fire-reference linked to Nesta's most prominent trauma Trigger), or the power of sexual need being enough to conquer all mental (or traumatic) resistance, or 'needing to give the females a break' 'for now', or 'purely male pride' being something that can only relate to knowing how to use his cock (and never EVER tied to any other kind of accomplishment) on every page... EVERY SINGLE ONE.
Essentially, this book is saying that violence leads to empowerment, empowerment leads invariably to sex, and sex leads to healing and world-saving...
Even characters like Gwyn and Emerie who don't have real romance lines begin having sexual thoughts and making sexual comments after they start their empowering fight-fight lessons with Cassian. Prior to it, they READ 'steamy romances' but they don't use crass language in daylight as normal-convo commentary (like about Cassian's male-pride strut invariably resulting from how he used his cock on Nesta the night before).
That's creepy and boring and lame.
But the WORST part is simple: Easy Fixes Gone Ignored
There are a few simple ways to fix the problems listed here completely that not only alleviate my hatred of it, but also improve the narrative itself:
- Real trauma care.
Cuts off 300 pages of boring nonsense for actually healthy work-projects. Seriously. If Maas simply have the Night Court's inner council have their war-room meetings in the House of Wind, Nesta would've drifted into to attend them, and assigned herself a job in proactively helping to prevent war WAY before she muscled her way in on page 400-something.
- Less crass / useless sexual nonsense.
Keep the sex, fine. Whatever. It doesn't contribute, but I don't care. Just lose all the rest of the overdone sexuality. Slim down the sex scenes to like 3 pages max. That'll pull at least 100 pages out of the final manuscript.
- Have the side characters DO things / have a plot.
Having Nesta involved with the war-planning, and getting rid of the pointless sexual jokes, opens the door for an actual plot to develop. It would be much more Zoya at the Little Palace and THAT could be a compliment to anyone. Seriously, Rule of Wolves handles trauma just as severe as any in this series, but does it for more characters in more varied and more healthy ways that act in elegant concert with the plot development instead of halting all progress so we can brood dramatically about (fake) 'choices' and violence as empowering sex appeal... (Seriously, check out Rule of Wolves. It's AWESOME.)
2 small changes that open the door to a third alteration, and boom. The book would be at least 100 pages shorter and 50k times better / more engaging / more worth reading.
I've been pissed at SJM for a few years now, but it seems like my lack of actual fury this time isn't indoctrination (as I initially supposed), it's simply resignation and defeatism.
This really is NOT worth reading, CERTAINLY not worth paying for, and that makes me sad, but I really can't pretend I'm shocked anymore... Which is a tragedy in its own right. I would like to leave it off my AVOID AT ALL COSTS list, but it really deserves to be there and it really is a problematic contribution to what had been a promising series.
Such a shame.