In Support of Sexy Books

I’ve been thinking about sleaze.  I haven’t really – I just wanted to use the word, because it’s a great word.  SLEAZE. But what I actually want to talk about is sex.

The reason this came to mind?  Among other things, it was the fact that I recently read A COURT OF FROST AND STARLIGHT.  (*Mini review* I’m a Feysand shipper all the way so this was a must-read. I’ve read a few reviews reacting with a certain cynicism to this novella, described as ‘bridging the gap’ between the events of A COURT OF WINGS AND RUIN and the next book, which I hear will focus on Nesta and Cassian.  I can see why some people have been frustrated by it, as it’s definitely a different proposition to the previous three books. It’s more a study of domestic detail – a meander through the daily lives of the inner circle as they prepare for the solstice. But I loved this. Tbh I had occasionally found myself longing for these quieter moments, particularly towards the end of the original trilogy when there was so much action and jeopardy and huge-scale stuff happening.  I really enjoyed this more contemplative study of relationship dynamics and how places and people heal after wars, running alongside the usual cheeky banter and antics. *Mini Review Ends*)

I rate a lot about Maas’ writing (her world building, her dialogue, her characterisation) but another thing I REALLY rate is the way she writes sex.  Sex is so much harder to write than people think and I think she gets it so right (when it’s so easy to get so wrong). What I love is how distinctly female it is – how owned by the female perspective.  For so long women have had sex ‘happen’ to them in books – even when it’s seen through their eyes they are taken; they are preyed on like a predator (or in the case of FIFTY SHADES – whipped by a psycho!  Sexy?! In what world?!). Maas’ heroines are full of a real, visceral passion, a desire that they are willing to indulge and act upon.

Maas has this amazing talent to write gorgeous men who are powerful and strong, but who are also looked at and enjoyed as things of beauty by their female partners, and by the readers. There is something genuinely empowering in reading her love scenes – a sense of equality that is at once exhilarating and inspiring.  I balk at lending these books out in the school library where I work, but only for fear of what the parents of my patrons might say if they read Chapter 55 of A COURT OF MIST AND FURY (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read these books and, if you haven’t, this chapter is one of the reasons why you must). In terms of what I myself feel is right and wrong for young people to read I am more than happy with these books.  I think sex positivity is important, and these books have that in spades. I am a dedicated member of the movement to eradicate the idea of young women (in their own minds as well as those of men) as sexual prey. I am also a dedicated member of the movement to eradicate the idea of young men (in their own minds as well as those of women) as predators. I have two daughters, and I want them to come to maturity in a world where sexual dynamics are aligned along a principle of equal partnership.

And I think we’re getting there.  Politics is one thing, and it has its part to play, but art (and therefore culture) also has a massive (maybe bigger) part to play in the story of us.  Humanity and its history are just the stories we tell in any case. And so the movies we make and watch, and the books we write and read (especially when we’re young and still forming our ideas) are going to be a crucial part of how we see things in the future.

I’ve never shied away from love scenes.  I love writing them and I’ve been told I’m not too bad at them. On the other hand I’ve also had feedback to suggest that some people think I go too far.  But I’m sticking by what I’ve written and here’s why: I want young people to read my books and feel empowered by the idea of wanting someone and being wanted back.  I want them to feel strong and sexy when they’re admired by someone they admire. I want them to look at the person they desire and see how beautiful they are and allow themselves to think that and feel that and say that and act upon that.  They don’t have to justify these feelings, or moralise them. Everybody makes mistakes so those are OK too. It’s fine to let it get messy – after all, this stuff is, by its very nature. If people think that’s going too far, it’s just something that I’m going to have to live with.  I’m not going to settle for anything less than brutal emotional honesty when contributing in my own small way to the story of us.

I know I can’t write sex like Sarah J Maas (can anyone?), but I’m going to keep writing it all the same.  And I’m going to keep writing it the way I do. It’s a brave new world, sexual politics wise, and I think it’s incredibly exciting.  I find myself constantly questioning things now that I had never even realised were so ingrained in my psyche. For a new generation coming through, free from those old beliefs, I believe that beautiful writing about desire and sex is going to be so important in reinventing the way they see themselves and their encounters.  So I think it’s important that I (as well far more skilled writers than me) keep writing about young people who own their own desire, and aren’t afraid of it, because these are the kind of people I think we’re all hoping to see in the shiny new future that increasingly feels like it’s just around the corner.  

A Court of Book Reviews

*SPOILER ALERT*  If you haven’t read at least the first two “A Court of…” books turn back now, as there are some hints at major spoilers and, seriously, just no.

Book boyfriends.  We’ve all had them.  And as a writer of love stories I’ve even created a few of my own.  And I mean obviously I like mine. Obviously I think mine are pretty great.  I wrote them the way I wanted them. And you would think – who could write a book boyfriend more to my taste than me?  Nobody – surely. There’s no way anybody could come along and conjure up a fictional man more enticing to me than one I quite literally designed to order – is there?

Step forward Sarah J Maas.  Now known to me as the creator of the ultimate, all-time number one book boyfriend.  But before we get to that let’s rewind a little. Let’s step back and give this whole thing some context.

There is a whole lot more to say than this about the “A Court of…” series.  I mean, there is, so much. For a start, Feyre. She’s understated. She’s an everyman.  She’s totally kickass and a chosen one and all that good stuff, but she’s also the kind of girl you know you’d like to hang out with.  Sometimes she’s frustrating, but she mostly makes solid decisions and she’s loyal and passionate and impulsive and fierce and she has that certain x-factor of likeability, and I’m here for it.

Then there’s the world.  So this is a world divided between humans and fairies but these are not the little daisy chain, gossamer-winged, bottom-of-the-garden type fairies but the real deal – bigger than humans, pointy-eared, powerful, magical, dangerous, ethereally gorgeous, irresistible in more ways than one.

The fairy world is divided from the human world by a hard border, held in place by magic.  Over this border and into the fairy world the domain is divided into different ‘courts’, all ruled over by a high lord (shades of the patriarchy but, never fear, Feyre is here to challenge all that, and there are definitely plenty of strong females to keep all the bros on their toes).  In the first novel in the series we are largely concerned with the business of the Spring court, and much of the narrative is shaped as homage/tribute to Beauty and the Beast which, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t hugely keen on. What drew me in however, even at this early point, were the riveting glimpses into the rest of Maas’ Prythia. It is utterly compelling, and with each page I found myself longing to find out more about each of the courts – Summer, Winter, Night, Dawn etc – with all their infinite possibilities for fashions and locations and architecture and philosophies and leadership stories and positions within a long and unfolding mythology which builds piece by piece into a rich tapestry that amazes but never overwhelms.  

And then about three quarters of the way through the first book, despite pacey narrative and the fabulous intricate world that Maas is drawing us into, Lord of the Spring Court Tamlin is hitting peak douche and we’re almost in danger of losing faith in the whole enterprise.

And. Then.  We. Meet. Rhysand.

Rhysand.  Rhysand Rhysand Rhysand.  Dangerous, deadly, beautiful, sexy, powerful Lord of the Night Court.  Rhysand insinuates himself into our hearts in the usual way of the bad boy love interest, to the extent that initially I hated myself a little for how much I almost immediately adored him.  But I didn’t have to hate myself for long…because Rhysand turns out to have pretty much the inside-out-upside-down of the typical bad boy trajectory. All we initially know about him is that he’s bad news, and so of course our girl Feyre knows she needs to steer well clear.  Rhysand is quite literally the villain of the piece and not even pretending to be any different. It takes a while for the clues to creep in that there might be more to him, that at least some of his actions might be survival tactics necessitated by his position as consort/sex slave of scary dictator and femme fatale Amarantha.

If book characters can have chemistry Rhysand and Feyre have it.  In spades. Their immediate connection, even while still enemies, is palpable.  This is as much due to their banter and the way they call each out as it is to do with the intense sexual chemistry they’re both in semi-denial about.  Every page they share blazes with it. It pretty much hijacked the story for me for a good portion of the series, and I was 100% on board that train.

So at this point let’s talk about sex.  I mean, these books are laced with some of the most intense, explicit and just plain hot love scenes I’ve ever seen in something that is labeled as YA.  They’re honest to the extent that I can rarely face loaning them out for fear of parental backlash. But you know what, I really wish I had the guts to do it more often, and I’ll tell you why.  The love scenes in these books are truly sex positive. They are joyous, full of female gaze and desire, and all-time-number-one-book-boyfriend Rhysand is a considerate, generous, affirming lover. I really believe that young people should read these books and heed these scenes as an antidote to the torrent of crap they’re exposed to during their wanderings on the internet and, if I wasn’t so concerned about the conservative views of the mainly Spanish-Catholic parents of my library clients, I would die on that hill.

So, to conclude, a brief advisory – do not read these books if you don’t want to spend the next several months working your way through every single thing Sarah J Maas’ has ever written like a thing possessed and LOVING every minute of all of them.  And definitely don’t read them if you don’t want to fall in love with a fictional character. I have actually informed my husband that in an AU where Rhysand comes to life and falls in love with me I would leave him in a heartbeat. He’s OK with it. He gets it.  He’s even buying me the next instalment A COURT OF FROST AND STARLIGHT, for my birthday, which just goes to show – we all know real men can rarely measure up to fictional ones, but they’re not so bad sometimes. And they do the hoovering and load the dishwasher and stuff so, you know, there’s that.