When does a protective relationship turn controlling? And why don't Young Adult books know the difference?

Youth Board member Ruth Scott analyses depictions of domestic abuse and toxic masculinity in young adult novel, 'A Court of Mist and Fury' by Sarah J Maas

There’s no question that I am a big fan of a YA (Young Adult for the uninitiated) Fantasy and when I first discovered Sarah J Maas’ writing I was very excited. Strong female leads, complex magical lands and steamy romance – what’s not to love? I’d already made my way through most of her Throne of Glass series before hearing some good reviews of the second novel in her A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy – 10 points to Maas for the most awkward-to-say book title. I was particularly interested because of the supposed depiction of domestic abuse which is something very rarely addressed in YA fiction, despite young people being the group most affected by it. It seemed perfect, Tender’s work revolves around educating young people about domestic abuse and here was a novel doing the same thing, so I threw myself into the series.


***Spoiler warning for A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas***


At the start of the book the main character, Feyre (“Fay-ruh”) is living with her fiancé who is a High Fae (a fancy name for a fairy) and is preparing for the wedding. I say she’s preparing because he doesn’t seem to be at involved, he’s constantly off doing manly things like hunting and tracking whilst Feyre is left to the flower arrangements. At this point there’s a really good exploration of depression and how easy it is to sink inside your own mind if you spend a lot of time alone and the people around you don’t notice or care. Feyre is plagued by nightmares of events from the end of the previous book and the fairy fiancé is ‘High Lord’ of his court meaning that he’s a Big Important Man who goes off doing Big Important Things whilst he keeps Feyre at home – for her own safety of course – because of all the Things that happened in the last book.

This is very clear and well written and what Tender refers to as an Early Warning Sign of domestic abuse. He is actively controlling where she is ‘allowed’ to go but under the guise of it being for her own safety. Remember, no abuser appears to be an abuser when they start out, the relationship has to be good to begin with otherwise the victim would not willingly go into it. Props to Sarah J Maas for essentially writing an entire book dedicated to the romantic, exciting bits of the beginning of a relationship before introducing the abusive aspects in the second one. This is a really accurate introduction to this abusive relationship. We watch Feyre sink further and further into her depression climaxing in her wedding day where she is wearing a ridiculous wedding dress her fiancé picked out for her (controlling what your partner wears – Early Warning Sign #2) until another man-fairy suddenly appears to whisk her away from the horribly uncomfortable scene of her stumbling down the aisle.

It’d be a good point to note that the novels in this series are loosely based on old tales and mythology. The first one is a tale as old as Stockholm Syndrome – Beauty and the Beast – and A Court of Mist and Fury is based on the Ancient Greek mythology of Hades and Persephone. If you’re not familiar with this one, Hades abducts Persephone because he’s in love with her and long story short she ends up being shared between the mortal world and the underworld thus creating Spring and Winter.

Whilst at this moment, this ‘abduction’ is clearly beneficial to Feyre’s mental health, it is done without her consent. She is stolen by this book’s version of Hades. In the previous book, in exchange for her life Feyre agreed to spend one week a month with this other man-fairy. Basically the entire set-up for this romance is abduction and bribery all against the woman’s consent. Not the high-flying love story one might expect from immortal fairies.


This scenario goes on for a couple of months where Feyre’s time with the Fiancé-Fairy gets worse and worse, he has outbursts of magical rage where he destroys whole rooms with her in them but then excuses it as, he just loves her too much (Early Warning Sign #3, we all have someone we love a lot, it doesn’t mean we want to magic their faces off) and then we get to a pretty harrowing moment. Fiancé-fairy has ridden off on horseback to do Something Important and Feyre is left locked in the house where she has a big old panic attack.

Honestly, if this story weren’t about fairies and was a real-life couple, Feyre would not be whisked away by the handsome Hades-Fairy but instead would be stuck where she was with the situation getting worse and worse. At this point she is weak, she is not eating and her partner is clearly a lot physically and mentally stronger than her. She is isolated. We meet two other characters in this house who both follow the orders of Fiancé-Fairy, no matter how hard she begs them, and ultimately she believes that he has a reason for behaving the way that he does. She believes that the love-excuse is valid.

But luckily, we are reading Young Adult Fantasy here and she does get whisked away and goes to live with Hades-Fairy who she likes more and more throughout the book until they fall in love. Happy ending for Feyre, yes? Well…

At this point we hit on a dangerous concept which is also featured quite heavily in Sarah J Maas’ other series Throne of Glass. Because the characters written about are not human but fairies with animalistic tendencies, they have these primal urges which I find end up being a way to excuse quite damaging behaviour. Throughout reading this book, I found myself harking back to the heady days of Twilight with dangerously overbearing male characters whose actions are excused as ‘romantic’ and that ‘he just can’t help himself, he loves her too much’. Interestingly similar to excuses people use for tolerating domestic abuse.


In A Court of Mist and Fury, we once again have this trope of the ‘Mating’. In the same way that ‘Imprinting’ in Twilight is incredibly flawed (werewolf Jacob falling in love with a baby – generally paedophilia in any other universe), because the main characters aren’t human – well, arguably they behave exactly the same as humans despite having a bit of magic, but we are constantly reminded that they are in fact otherworldly creatures of great power. True Love isn’t enough for the fairies, when they find their ‘Mate’ they are deeply bonded for the rest of their (immortal) lives and essentially shag a lot. Whilst I think it’s a shame that these writers think human love is so boring that they have to create a newer, ‘better’ version for their characters, that’s a rant for another day. No, it’s not the ‘Mating’ that I have a problem with, it’s the way the characters behave because of it.


In both the Throne of Glass series and A Court of Mist and Fury, immediately after the main couple decide they are ‘Mates’…well after a few pages of shagging, there will be an encounter with another male who accidentally looks at the female ‘Mate’ and the male ‘Mate’ will promptly beat him up as his ‘animal instincts’ take over.

There is something quite dangerous about writing what is essentially an entirely human character apart from the traits that suit you. It is very damaging to display a volatile controlling personality as romantic because he’s part-fairy and it’s just his animal instincts taking over because he’s in love. In this moment, I felt that the good that Sarah J Maas had done in describing the first abusive relationship was completely undone by romanticising violence in a situation that I would frankly refer to as Early Warning Sign #4.

I feel that I would be less troubled by this bizarre outburst of toxic masculinity if we saw the same reaction from the females- seeing as pretty much every relationship Maas writes is heterosexual. But no, the women seem to be able to cope with these new, supposedly very intense emotions absolutely fine. And why is that? Because, despite everything Sarah J Maas supposedly stands for with her strong feminist main characters, the relationships that she writes are always between a pretty, delicate female and a strong, muscly man. It’s the 21st Century and we need to stop spreading these toxic concepts of relationships and gender stereotypes to our young people. Come on people, Cinderella is so 300 years ago.


If you’re now feeling miserable about the state of YA Fiction, please don’t! There’s some wonderful writing out there if you know where to look. Here are some of Ruth’s recommendations:

Looking for a YA Fantasy series with healthy relationships?

The Black Magician trilogy by Trudi Canavan – a relatable, strong female main character learns that she can do magic and begins to attend a guild for magicians


Looking for YA LGBT+?

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson – very good tackling of trans issues with more than one young adult character, Williamson worked for The NHS’ Gender Identity Development Service and the book is endorsed by Amnesty International UK

Our Own Private Universe by Robin Talley – set in a summer camp in Mexico with a bisexual main character and descriptions of safe gay sex including use of dental dams

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – fan fiction-style writing surrounding two boys at a Harry Potter-esque magic school – what’s not to love?


Looking for  YA diversity?

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – follows the Black Lives Matter movement, a young girl sees her best friend shot by a police officer and follows the trial after that, everyone should read this book


Looking for Non-Fiction aimed at a YA audience?

No Filter by Grace Victory – part autobiography, part advice book Grace tackles subjects such as domestic abuse, eating disorders and therapy, she’s ‘The Internet’s Big Sister’ for a reason


Please note, I am by no means saying do not now go and avidly read all of Sarah J Maas’ work. Ultimately the stories are very entertaining and she creates beautiful worlds, but I would encourage you to approach the relationships with caution and remind yourself of the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Also bear in the mind that there is a Trigger Warning for male victims of sexual assault in the A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy.

Best wishes and considered reading!

Written by Tender Youth Board member Ruth Scott

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *