The best book recommendations tend to be word of mouth, and today’s teens typically talk on TikTok. The community built around this idea, lovingly portmanteau-ed into “BookTok,” focuses pretty heavily on the Young Adult and New Adult demographics, with special investment in the romance and fantasy genres. Romance is truly the king of this environment, and if you do any reading there at all you will hear about Sarah J. Maas. Originally posting her novels as serialized freebies online, Maas has taken the older teen/younger adult world by storm for her setting of epic paranormal romances within high fantasy plotlines. A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) is her most prolific series; you may already be familiar with the naming trend now seen across YA. ACOTAR is also praised for the main love interest, Rhysand, and his characterization. I’d seen his name in what felt like hundreds of posts before picking up the first book (also named ACOTAR) to see – was it worth the hype?
Full disclosure, I… did not particularly enjoy A Court of Thorns and Roses at first. It felt like so much of the book was spent waiting for the real show. And then, roughly two-thirds of the way through, Rhysand finally makes his appearance. At first, I was a little jarred! The focus veered so heavily from established characters to this new one. Was that worthwhile, I wondered? Later, I would tell my friends this redeemed book 1 for me! I’ve realized, especially having now finished the main trilogy, that Rhysand and his relationship with protagonist Feyre are what the series really wants to be about. He’s a classic “bad boy for a good cause” – a brilliant and enigmatic leader of his domain (called the Night Court). He puts on a fierce face to protect his loved ones, and above all else strives to give people a hand in governing their destinies. This theme of choice and consent in all forms is a stark departure from other characters’ beliefs in fate and predestination, especially as it applies to Feyre. Rhysand gives her control and dominion over her life after it is taken away, which makes her eventual decision to be with him incredibly sweet and cathartic. I crashed through the second book, A Court of Mist and Fury, which mostly centers around developing this relationship, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
When we try to describe books by genre, it can create a natural pressure to supersede for differentiation. When we try to identify what makes a great book resonate with many, oftentimes we try to describe how it goes above and beyond its constrained contemporaries. What makes ACOTAR so successful is how well it executes a simple premise of its genre – fantasy romance. This allows subtleties like Rhysand’s characterization to shine uninhibitedly. Maas’ presence in the BookTok world is so firm because she knows exactly what she wants to write, and her work delivers soundly and satisfyingly on that promise.