What’s new, readers? If you’re a reader who’s drawn to young adult fantasy, you’ve most likely heard of Sarah J. Maas (though her recent work has been labeled “New Adult” and then simply “Adult” due to its—how can I word this properly—sheer horniness). I myself started getting into more of this subgenre last year, including Maas’s Throne of Glassseries. This subsequently led me to A Court of Thorns and Roses, her gritty and immersive riff on “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tam Lin” with aspects of Greek mythology included. On February 16 she published A Court of Silver Flames, the fifth and latest ACOTAR installment. Whereas the first three books told the primary narrative from the POV of Feyre Archeron, the 19-year-old huntress protagonist who felt an awful lot like Faetopia’s version of Katniss Everdeen, and the fourth book, A Court of Frost and Starlight, was a novella laying out the aftermath of that story, ACOSF focuses on two side characters: Nesta, Feyre’s fiery and arrogant elder sister, and Cassian, a wisecracking High Fae warrior in Feyre and her mate Rhysand’s Night Court.
**Trigger Warning** Readers, please beware the deep dives this book takes into PTSD, suicidal thoughts, sexual abuse, and alcoholism.
Scarred by Prythian’s war with the invading country of Hybern—during which she witnessed the wicked King of Hybern slay her father right before her—and by the experience of being dunked into the Cauldron and forcibly Made into High Fae, Nesta has since then distanced herself from Feyre, their baby sister Elain (whom the Cauldron also Made into High Fae against her will), and the rest of their Night Court crowd, and suppressed her trauma by routinely getting drunk in sordid taverns and going to bed with equally sordid males. Her reckless and self-destructive lifestyle spirals so deeply that her family and friends have to step in with an ultimatum: return to the human lands where she would face vehement anti-Fae hostility or sequester herself with Cassian up at the House of Wind for hardcore physical training to bolster her soul and remedy the hurt within her.
ACOSF has turned into a contentious read if you look it up anywhere on the Internet or social media, particularly in regard to Maas’s pick for the protagonist. Nesta herself is a divisive character, having endured a ton of flak from readers who perceive her as a selfish and cold b-word who treated Feyre horribly. Personally, I saw her as a character who started out incredibly unlikable, then became increasingly interesting and sympathetic over the course of the series as a stubborn, quick-tempered, and proud woman who didn’t take shit from anyone who felt like they’d been burned by the cold flames of her personality. Once I read ACOFAS and got a peek at the life of drinking and sex into which Nesta sunk herself after taking the field against Hybern, it actually amped up my anticipation of how her story would play out in ACOSF.
Now that the book is here, I can confidently say that it’s a strong standalone entry in the ACOTARseries. It’s not my favorite installment (A Court of Mist and Fury takes the cake on that one), what with the lack of multilayered plotting that I’ve come to expect from a Maas read and the quibbles I had with a few narrative choices that I found to be contrived or problematic. But it thrives on Nesta’s arc, a bittersweet and dynamic account that the author steeped in slews of compassion and insight. It makes sense that the author, having spoken about her own struggles with mental health, would be equipped to handle this material with the affection and sensitivity that it deserves. PTSD and grief have always been issues that beleaguered Maas’s heroines (Feyre, Throne of Glass’s Celaena Sardothien, and Crescent City: House of Earth and Blood’s Bryce Quinlan), and they certainly play a major role in Nesta’s narrative. This doesn’t mean it will be easy for readers to find her lovable when the book opens—far from it. However, it’s her flaws that position her as even more of a compellingly imperfect protagonist who we want to follow in the hopes of watching her recover from not only her anguish but also the accompanying guilt and self-hatred. The training she undergoes with Cassian hones her both physically and psychologically, showing the healing power of mindfulness and exercise. The companionship she forms with two priestesses during her daily grind in the House of Wind’s hallowed subterranean library gleams with love and devotion, reinforcing Maas’s oft-used theme of found family. Even her offbeat interactions with the House itself grow into a surprisingly endearing friendship (I couldn’t get enough of the joyful running gag with Nesta and the House exchanging romance novels, or as Cassian calls them, “smutty books”).
Let’s not forget the blazing romance for which Maas planted the seed earlier in the series. Sometimes in previous books it felt like Cassian and fellow warrior Azriel were playing overly similar roles in the plot. That’s why I appreciate ACOSF fleshing out his story by giving him his own losses to confront while building up intense romantic and sexual chemistry between him and Nesta. Having witnessed her at her most crushed and her most badass, he continues to stick by her side no matter how hard she tries to shut him out or how much she threatens to kick his balls across the land, making the two of them all the more shippable. Sure, the plot won’t subvert your expectations—“an embittered spitfire sheds her fury and despair and learns to love herself with the help of a couple new friends and an understanding and loyal partner” could be the tag line for dozens of romances—but it’s no less touching and well-crafted. The love scenes are integral to their relationship development and measure up to, if not exceed, the uberscorching standard set by Maas’s past work. Seriously, don’t read this book or listen to the audiobook with people in your immediate vicinity unless you’re fine with them seeing you get hot and bothered.
Now, as much of a Maas fan as I am, the stark lack of inclusivity in her work persists in ACOSF, especially since Morrigan, the only queer character in the main cast, is barely present in the story. The author is such a master at creating fierce, complex, and self-sufficient heroines to lead her books, so I find it frustrating that she keeps relegating POC and LGBTQ+ representation to the minor roles. Plenty of novels in the fantasy genre are able to reflect the diversity of real life, an element that I very much want Maas to incorporate into her novels. Just saying.
Prepare yourself for Nesta’s transformative journey of self-love and self-healing in A Court of Silver Flames, a powerful and vulnerable tale of brokenness, mental health, and forgiveness.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 90/100