By Marlo Avidon
Sarah J Maas has had an undeniable influence in the genres of Young and New Adult fantasy, from her 2013 debut, Throne of Glass, to her newest release, A Court of Silver Flames, the fourth novel in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series. However, despite being a New York Times best-selling author and the frequent recipient of the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards, Maas’s writing is often disregarded by critics and readers alike as being ‘trashy’ romance that cares more about smut than world-building or character development.
It is true that there is valid and incisive criticism of Maas’s writing: the lack of racial diversity in her novels and her portrayal of LGBT characters, and the hyper-masculine and sometimes toxic behaviours of her love interests. But, for all of Maas’s faults, she has an equal number of strengths, and it is unfair to simply write off her work because of its romantic emphasis.
Maas has mastered the art of constructing complex and relatable (if chronically white and heterosexual) female characters: from Throne of Glass’s Celaena Sardothien, to ACOTAR’s Acheron sisters, and most recently, Bryce Quinlan, the ‘party-girl’ heroine of Maas’s first adult-fantasy series Crescent City. Each of these women are fundamentally distinct from one another and grow tremendously throughout their respective stories as they learn to heal from their pasts and embrace their own (often supernatural) powers.
This is not to mention the array of female side-characters, each of whom is unique and important in their own right. Many of these women play an active role in their own romantic lives, embrace their sexuality, and demonstrate that a woman can be strong and courageous while maintaining her femininity.
Many of Maas’s characters, both male and female, are also deeply flawed, and she does not shy away from allowing them to come to terms with their past mistakes, apologise to those they’ve hurt, and accept themselves for who and what they are. Though Sarah J Maas’s books may be fantasy, her characters feel incredibly real and allow the reader to form an inherent and deeply personal connection with them that extends well beyond the romantic elements of the story.
If anything, it is more apt to classify Maas’s novels as part of the burgeoning New Adult Fantasy genre, alongside the work of authors such as Jennifer L. Armentrout and V.E. Schwab. These books are designed to appeal to an older reader, incorporating steamy romance alongside a complicated and nuanced plot and more mature characters.
This growing group of writers and their work is redefining what it means to craft an easily readable fantasy novel designed for readers in their late teens and twenties, incorporating many of the best elements of Young Adult, Romance, and Adult Fantasy into a compelling and captivating narrative. Certainly, a glance at any book reviewing website or sales chart shows how powerful this new demographic of readers is, whether the books are ‘trashy’ or not.
Clearly, there is far more to Sarah J Maas and her writing than ‘smutty faerie fanfiction’, as so many like to believe. To detract from the enjoyment of Maas’s books because of their sexy or romantic elements is an undue and unfair criticism, as the characters and world-building hold up to most scrutiny, despite some awkward repetitive and cringe-worthy phrases (velvet-wrapped steel anyone?).
Yet even if this wasn’t the case, we as readers should allow people to find enjoyment in whatever books they please. There should be no need to defend ‘trashy’ literature if it brings people joy and serves as an introduction to the wonderful world of books.
For many readers, the steamy romance at the heart of Maas’s novels is what makes the books so special and provide a sense of escapism from the monotony of everyday life, often in the arms of a wickedly handsome and charming high fae male.
Illustration: Hannah Slack