The Night Court
Why the A Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas is the best fantasy series out there and you should read it right now.
When I first saw this challenge announced and opened yesterday, a veritable whirlwind of emotions went through me in what felt like a millisecond. Excitement, eagerness, passion, borderline mania, you name it.
Then, just as suddenly, I froze.
Wait. How was I supposed to choose just one fandom world to write about!?
Honestly. There are so many good books out there. As an avid reader, though I'm sure a lot of us are, trust me when I say that the options are limitless. My "To-Read" list is so long, I will never in my lifetime be able to even make a dent. I just keep adding things and adding things, reading what I'm obsessed with or the occasional other item on the list if I'm feeling particularly fancy and productive. All of this is to say that there are several worlds that have captured my attention, my heart, and my soul. I will give them an honorable mention here (hopefully it's allowed, ha!) and then move into the one I ~impossibly~ chose.
The most obvious will go first. Harry Potter. It's so everywhere that it's practically a household name. The world is intricate, well-developed, and inspiring. Feelings about the author and her personal behavior aside, it has shaped a great part of my adolescence and is a big part of who I am. (I have even assigned a house to my cat, so. #Slytherpuff ) As much as I would love to write about that world, I want to talk about a series that is lesser known maybe but by no definition any less impactful.
Next, Mortal Instruments (or Shadowhunters if you prefer) This was the first time I ever read a series and found myself legitimately sad when it ended. I felt like I knew the characters personally and any that died were like personal losses to me. Tragedies and struggles were like those I would support my real life family in. The world had depth, it has meaning, it has complexity. However, its writer sold her beautiful creation out when the opportunity to turn it into a television show presented itself so I'm still too hurt/angered by that to choose this series for this article. (Sorry other fans, I can't help it)
Last, or the last one I'm mentioning here, is Game of Thrones. Another household name, though I'm starting to realize that maybe all the GoT memes I saw about how nobody in the world hasn't seen at least an episode of the show might not be correct. I named my cat after a character from this series so you might be curious as to why it's not the one I'm writing about for this article. I don't really know the exact reason, honestly. I think it might be because I only watched the show and didn't read the books. I tend to connect more with things when I read them. I like seeing all the details that are lost in translation when a series transitions to television. It's still an amazing fantasy world, undeniably, but it doesn't win out in this case.
Now that those honorable mentions are out of the way, seeing as I can't list all the series I've loved or else I would definitely violate some word count or common courtesy rule, let's dive into the series I've chosen.
A Court of Thorns and Roses. The name of the series, I suppose, but as I show by using the title of Night Court for this article...it's a title I don't really feel applies. Not my choice, I know, but. I will stand by my opinion.
If you haven't read this series, go out and do it right now. Seriously, RIGHT NOW. I'll wait.
Now that you understand, perhaps this article isn't necessary anymore. Oh well. I will continue anyway because now I am all amped up thinking about it again and that energy needs to go somewhere.
I was introduced to Feyre and her world by a friend. It was one of many 'you should read this' mentions that I've been given over the years that, unlike the others, I didn't forget almost immediately after assuring said person I would definitely read it. Why was this one different? Well, she hit me right in a passion that I literally cannot ignore. Ever.
"It's a twist/re-telling of Beauty and the Beast"
Did you just say fairytale retelling? Yeah, that's Kryptonite. Excuse me while I read every word in that book and then immediately all the others in quick, obsessive succession. Though, the only book in the series that really fits that retelling description is the first one. Just in case you rush out and read (like I did) expecting more Beauty undertones.
Once I finished the first book, I had to know what happened next. I had to have more. Not just because Feyre is perhaps the most badass of all heroines to ever exist but also the world Maas has created is so vivid. So unique. Fae aren't exactly an unknown species in fantasy by any means but these fae? Yeah, I can bet you've never seen fae described like this. You might think of Elves in the style of Legolas or tiny creatures with beautiful insectile wings that thrive on attention like Tinkerbell.
These are not the fae you're looking for.
The fae of Prythian, particularly the High Fae which the books focus on, are as beautiful as they are deadly. They are a complex race, ruled (a loose term, to be sure) by a collection of High Lords that are split into Courts. Each court has a season/elemental theme, with powers and attributes that go along with that theme.
Let's let that sink in. Ignoring the patriarchy that comes to mind when you hear the land is ruled by High Lords, these fae live in courts that are split by season/element. Spring, Summer, Winter, Autumn, Dawn, and Night. I don't know about you, but that hooked me right from the start. It has a distinctly X-Men vibe with the different courts having abilities that correspond to their respective location and I am a sucker for anything with power that involves nature.
Without giving too much away, the only fae able to really wield the power of their court are the High Lords and their mates (in some cases) They have an almost animal-like quality in how they mate, how the power is transferred from Lord to successor, and the way they refer to each other not by woman and man but simply male or female. Very predatory. Very inhuman.
Humans know about the faerie lands but most of the stories are just that: stories. The tales are widely exaggerated, as no humans have ever crossed over the Wall (which is the structure that separates Prythian from the human world) and come back to talk about it. Until Feyre, that is.
The books begin with Feyre hunting to help her starving family and killing the wrong animal in the woods near the Wall. She's taken to the Spring Court by its High Lord Tamlin who has the ability to shapeshift into an animal (get the Beauty and the Beast reference now?) as punishment for this crime. She's to give up her family she had been trying to keep alive, give up the world she's known her whole life, and stay in his palace.
Despite this seemingly simple beginning, it's only that. A beginning. The complexities of this world are only at the tip of the iceberg in the first book. You see how the Spring Court lands are always in perpetual spring, something in later books is touched on jokingly when a character mentions hating the Court because their allergies are always bad when they visit. The Winter Court is a place Elsa would be right at home in. The Autumn Court has abilities that deal with fire and for all us Fall-lovers is likewise trapped in that season. (You can probably find Pumpkin Spice Lattes year round there!) Summer Court is a beach lovers paradise. Etc.
And then we meet Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court.
Unlike other fae, Rhysand does have wings but they are neither pretty nor insectile. They're more bat-like. It's not normal, not even in the Night Court, though his ability to slide inside someone's mind definitely is. He's dark and mysterious, just like the night, and he's presented as a villain. Yet, when you finally make your way to his home, the intricacies of both his story and his lands are more than fascinating. His mother, abused and cast aside by his High Lord father, was part of a race that lives high in the mountains that border the Night Court. Their society is different even than what we see in Prythian and the information just keeps coming.
Politics aside, as the books progress, we learn that things in Prythian are rarely as they seem. Characters who are allies might actually be plotting to stab you in the back at a moment's notice. Those that seem like a charming Lord who will whisk you away may turn out to be the worst monster of them all. And yes, there are actual monsters too. There are dark creatures, creatures even powerful High Lords fear, trapped in a unique prison underneath the mountain that acts as a sort of centerpiece in their world. A neutral ground, if you will.
I know I'm rambling about the story as I try and set up the world for you but I really can't stop myself. It's so intricate, so complex, I still find myself looking for a secret entrance to another land whenever I see a picture of a mountain.
Maas has created a world that is so well-woven, so complex, that you have no trouble picturing it clearly while you read the books. When I finished, it felt like I had been there. From the description of the courts to the way different characters are introduced and detailed, I was hooked on every word. I remember in the beginning wanting to find out about all the other courts and she delivered in later books. There's a perfect balance of giving you enough to keep you reading while not giving it all away at once so you're bored. You cling to every nugget of description you read, cling to each new character, and your mind immerses itself in figuring out how all the pieces fit together.
It's not just the world that hooks you, though.
While Feyre is an amazing heroine, she is no Mary Sue. She has flaws, a lot of them, and even though we meet her as the self-appointed savior for her family we learn that her family life is less than idyllic. The relationship between she and her sisters is beyond strained. Likewise, the one she has with her father is equally as difficult. Things only complicate further when more is learned about Tamlin and Rhysand, setting the scene for some truly diverse personalities and equally outside the norm relationships.
Relationships are another area where Maas shines, honestly.
Nothing comes for free, or easily, in these books. Sure, it's heralded as a fantasy romance but that doesn't mean the main characters meet and automatically fall in love and live happily ever after. Some don't get a happily ever after at all, in fact. Or at least not in the romantic sense. This is another thing that stuck out to me when reading. It's the first time I saw in fantasy that sometimes true love really isn't enough. Sometimes, you just can't get over or past things and that's alright. The bonds you build with people you've chosen as your family, with friends, with those you protect can be just as (if not more) fulfilling. You can still be happy, still live life to the fullest, without the fairytale.
Which brings me to my next example of what makes this series not just great but also important. Trauma.
I'm getting the above tattooed on me as my next tattoo, that's how powerful I find this quote.
Some of you may be thinking that this quote is a little aggressive. I guess it is, in some ways, but it's also true. I know everyone deals with their trauma in different ways so it may not resonate as much with someone else and that's okay. I get that. For me, reading about the various characters going through what I go through and fighting tooth and nail everyday to overcome it all was extremely meaningful. Sure, the characters aren't real people but they are going through very real traumas. They have the same guilt, the same shame, the same anger.
If these strong, resilient, powerful, and confident fictional fae can completely break and then eventually put themselves back together....maybe I can too.
There's war in the books, both inside Prythian and from outside it. There are secrets. There's violence. There's assault. There's violation (both physical and mental) There's abuse. Anything even remotely harmful and traumatic, it's probably in there. And not only does Maas tell readers it's okay to feel some type of way after something happens to you, she tells you that you can heal too. When you're ready.
She tells you that even if you feel ashamed because you know others have it worse, you're still allowed to hurt. There's no rule hidden somewhere that says only certain types of pain are acceptable.
There's no discrimination when it comes to trauma, either.
Another thing I love about this series is the focus on a strong female lead. Feyre's journey is powerful for many reasons but perhaps the thing that struck me the most was her resilience in the face of so much. She was brutalized, she was abused, she was assaulted, you name it and it happened to her. The road to recovery and the transformation into who she is by the time the latest book was released is not easy. She has to fight tooth and nail for that growth, that recovery, that peace.
And so does everyone else.
The Night Court has a main city called Velaris. They call it the city of starlight and even have a starlight festival every year. Yet, for all its beauty, there is darkness in the Night Court. Rhysand and his close friends refer to the main, more political oriented, aspect of the court as the Court of Nightmares. Their own little court, that they name the Court of Dreams. Dreams they have for a better life, for a better Velaris, everything. Dreams they never share with the more "old school" in their court.
Rhysand is kept prisoner himself when we first meet him, though we do not know the extent of this until later. He is used and abused, only to return to a home that is not entirely welcoming. A place where he and those he loves can't even be themselves out in the open. He's earned the loytaly of his inner circle with his blood, his tears, his everything. And yet the rest of his court only acknowledges his power and the facade he presents to them.
He has to fight his demons throughout the series too. Men have trauma, they have assault, they have abuse too.
I'm a huge supporter of women and women's struggles and rights. Often, this means I struggle to recognize that a lot of men suffer many of the same things we do. They stay silent for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that it's not 'manly' to cry or talk about what has happened to them. Toxic phrases like "men can't be assaulted" are tossed around as often as people greet each other with a bright "Good Morning!"
This series reminds us that we're all in this together and it's everyone's job to help each other rather than trying to destroy each other. Even the most difficult character, Nessa, deserves compassion and empathy. She deserves help in healing her own wounds even when she's pushing people away and acting out. Even when she doesn't feel like she deserves to be saved.
Everyone deserves to be happy but that happiness will require work. Hard work. It's not a quick fix or an easy task.
It's not something you ever stop having to work for.
I could honestly go on and on about this series. Maybe I will in another article. But trust me, I will actually fight anyone who reads these books and doesn't agree that it's the best.
Characters, world building, lore, romance, it has it all. And even better, it has a message.
I read in the author's notes at the end of the most recent book that she was going through some personal issues and used the books to write through her feelings and trauma. Just as I sat there thinking how good this series was for people who are struggling, she took my thoughts and put them right out there for everyone to see.
It's not just her writing that is meaningful but how she chooses to share the parts of herself that aren't the pretty picture some might imagine when they think of fantasy writers that really counts. She cares enough to let us know that no matter how dark things get, you can always look up and see the stars in the night sky.
"To the stars who listen and the dreams that are answered."