Cristina’s Close Look is a more specific type of discussion here at Girl in the Pages, where I find a trope, topic, or theme and explore the topics more in depth with a little bit of analysis and a lot of enthusiasm. Feel free to join into the discussion in the comments!
Topic: Abuse and Assault in Fantasy Featuring A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas
Sarah J Maas’ new book, A Court of Mist and Fury, has caused no small amount of controversy in the bookish community, largely due to the fact that major elements regarding the protagonist’s romantic relationship changed. I for one was apprehensive about this book due to the shift in relationships, however I’m so glad I kept an open mind. Sarah J Maas does something incredibly important with ACOMAF: she makes readers confront multiple types of emotional and physical abuse, and makes the repercussions and consequences of such abuse matter. This is rare in a fantasy novel, when so often instances of abuse are integrated for the plot, but are never called out because the genre usually doesn’t serve as a popular platform to do so. Contemporary novels are usually the format in which instances and cycles of abuse are addressed as are so often seen as “issue book” where the readers are expecting some sort of scrutiny of the relationship and commentary on the situation. However, by implementing abusive relationships in ACOMAF and forcing Feyre to confront them, Maas makes readers accountable- they unknowingly will have to confront such issues without any preconceived notions since the book is first and foremost a fantasy rather than marketed as a book dealing with abuse and domestic conflict.
By having her characters confront and call out abuse in ACOMAF, Maas sends two messages:
1) That no genre or relationship is exempt from using abuse as a plot device that can be explained away
2) Stories that contain abusive relationships leave a mark no matter their genre or intended audience
Maas’ radical notion of using a fantasy series to present and critically examine abusive relationships is really brilliant, as it tears down the suspension of disbelief regarding acceptable romantic and familial behavior readers so often have when reading non-contemporary novels. It’s powerful and, I believe, more effective than confronting such issues in a contemporary where readers may be expecting it and therefore braced against it. I’ve decided to analyze some of the major abusive relationships presented in ACOMAF and why it’s important that Sarah J Maas chooses to represent them in her story.
Domestic Spousal Abuse: Tamlin and Feyre
Tamlin and Feyre’s relationship is perhaps the most obvious, blatant, and talked about situation of abuse to appear in this series, and the one that is most divisive for readers. I’ll admit, I was a HUGE fan of Tamlin in ACOTAR. Did I notice problematic elements of his personality? Yes. Did I choose to ignore it or overlook it? Yes. I believe I did so largely due to the book’s genre. A fantasy, and a fairy tale retelling no less, I expected some of his possessive/controlling behavior and short leashed temper to come through due to the fact that the book was largely based on Beauty and the Beast (a story that has many problematic elements of its own, but that’s a worth a whole separate post).
However, I was initially genuinely surprised when Sarah chose to take Tamlin’s personality in the direction that she did. I was crushed, because ACOTAR had a plot that leaned so heavily on their romance. I was devastated because I didn’t want to turn into one of those people who is intentionally blind to how horrible a literary love interest is because they elicit some swoons (AKA Fifty Shades of Grey fans). I will say that I wish Tamlin’s behavior had been a bit more nuanced and that we could have seen the paranoia grow in him those first initial months after the situation Under the Mountain. That complaint aside, as I read further into the novel I grew to appreciate the role that Tamlin played in the grand scheme of the narrative, and what an important message his actions send. He provides such a critical, devastating lesson to readers: Abuse does not always come immediately, or at the hands of strangers. It so often can be at the hands of someone close in physical and emotional proximity, and cannot be excused based on prior feelings or actions.
“Nothing in those eyes, that face.
I cried out, instinct taking over as his power blasted through the room.
The windows shattered.
The furniture splintered.
And that box of paints and brushes and paper…
It exploded into dust and glass and wood” (100).
The above instance was really the point for me, as a reader, to jump that ship and truly start to hate Tamlin. Up until that point we had seen the not-so-subtle emotional manipulation, the excuses of “protection,” etc. Yet there will come a point in ACOMAF where, hopefully, every reader will recognize, as Feyre eventually does, that despite Tamlin’s good intentions and help to Feyre in the past, that their relationship is unhealthy and no longer sustainable.
Physical and Sexual Abuse: Rhysand and Amarantha
For me, the second most obvious and apparent cycle of abuse and assault in ACOMAF was that of Rhysand at the hands of Amarantha. She keeps him as a personal servant of sorts Under the Mountain, and while he plays the part to keep himself alive and his Court of Dreams safe, he is still blatantly being taken advantage of and violated.
“So she began to trust me- more than the others. Especially when I proved what I could do to her enemies. But I was glad to do it. I hated myself, but I was glad to do it. After a decade, I stopped expecting to see my friends or my people again. I forgot what their faces looked like. And I stopped hoping” (521).
Rhysand’s torture at the hands of Amarantha is so important because it draws awareness to the fact that males can suffer assault and abuse at the hands of females, a fact that is often overlooked often due to gender-specific differences such as build, weight, height, etc. Maas is known for writing strong female characters, and this extends to her villains as well, and she is able to show that assault and abuse are possible and occur even outside the more typical types of relationships, and that the victims are not always the most obvious people. In my review of ACOMAF, one thing I really respected about this novel was that Maas goes to great lengths to depict the PTSD and trauma that each characters suffers after their time Under the Mountain, and she does it with great nuance as well. Rhys, a character who is skilled in keeping up a very specific facade or persona to protect his court and himself, would be easy to brush off without delving into the trauma he suffered, since he had an end goal and a plan to try and overthrow Amaerantha. Yet despite his eventual success, Maas still shows his immense and realistic emotional scars that he carries from his time being assaulted, and though he copes in a much more subtle way than Feyre or Tamlin, his coping is important as it reinforces the fact that each victim’s experiences and healing processes are different.
Domestic Parent/Child Abuse: Morrigan and Family
While ACOMAF is ripe with romantic relationships, Maas extends her representation of abusive systems through the depiction of parent/child abuse too. Morrigan, Rhys’ “cousin” and one of the members of his inner circle, was born a powerful female inside of the Court of Nightmares. Despite her incredible abilities, her agency is completely diminished by her status as a female, and her overbearing and controlling father makes all of the decisions regarding her future, especially regarding her physical body. When Mor, desperately seeking her way out of an arranged marriage that will likely result in another cycle of abuse, engages in intimate behavior with Cassian to ruin her “worth” as a commodity to the Autumn court she is supposed to be married off to, the below brutality ensues:
“Eris had a reputation for cruelty, and Mor…begged me not to let it happen. For all her power, all her wildness, she had no voice, no rights with those people…[she] decided she’s do the one thing that would ruin her value to these people. I didn’t know until after, and…it was a mess…Her family they…When they were done, they dumped her on the Autumn Court border, with a note nailed to her body that said she was Eris’s problem.” (397)
Mor’s history of abuse is an important anecdote to the narrative of abuse in the novel, and it is perhaps the most brutal and disturbing because it happens at the hands of her family. There is no argument that Mor should have “moved on” or “not let herself be treated poorly in a relationship,” as the dynamics are arguably even more nuanced and complex when the completely brutal assault is perpetrated within the lifelong familial system you’ve been born and raised into. Mor wasn’t blinded by lust or love, she was born into a family with no empathy and no belief in her personal agency. It’s arguably the scariest type of abuse portrayed in the novel. However, it’s also one of the few instances where we aren’t witnessing the abuse first hand as readers, rather we meet Mor after she has escaped from her situation and developed her strength and independent status. We as readers see that Mor, while emotionally scarred, has developed a full and thriving life despite the circumstances she grew up with, and the gradual sharing of her story throughout the 600+ plus novel is a clever way of allowing us to view Mor not as a victim or survivor, but as a fierce conqueror of her brutal circumstances. It’s a stark contrast to characters such as Feyre, who are in the middle of battling their demons. Mor showcases that the cycles can be broken, and that their can be meaningful bonds created even after some of the most important ones as shattered.
Providing a Balance
Maas balances the intense and devastating abusive relationships in her novel with bonds that are built upon trust and time, the most prominent being that of Rhys and Feyre. Both survivors of assault and/or abuse, their relationship is so important because it allows them to mutual respect and agency. Their choices still remain defined by their status as individuals, even after they are established as a couple, even after they are mated. The health and happiness of their relationship is depicted as having an ebb and flow that’s equally dependent on both of them putting in effort, and thus they are both held accountable for their actions to each other. There are the little things that showcase how this relationship is meaningful and important (such as Rhys insisting Feyre learn how to read, so that she’s never forced into ignorance by illiteracy again) and grand gestures that really drive home that despite background, personality, gender, etc., you can still be an equal to your partner (such as Feyre being bestowed the title of High Lady of the Night Court). I believe Maas’ including of all of her relationships, both painful and productive, were purposely in crafting a larger narrative about relationship health, expectations, and respect.
There are so many different types of relationships depicted in A Court of Mist and Fury, and many of them drive larger purposes that providing an entertaining story. So tell me, do you believe that Maas integrated the unhealthy and abusive pairings in order to present a larger theme or message within the series? Was there a negative relationship that impacted you the most as a reader? Which character do you think rises above their abusive circumstances most effectively? Do you think that implementing such relationships in a fantasy novel can be more or less effective that in a contemporary story? Do you ever find yourself “excusing” problematic themes such as abuse or assault in fantasy novels that you would in other genres? Do you think Rhys and Feyre’s relationship is a good counterbalance to the systems of abuse in the series? Let me know in the comments!