There’s a line in A Court of Mist and Fury that I just can’t stop thinking about. Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy series isn’t exactly known for brevity, but about a hundred pages into the second book sit a few short sentences that completely changed my perspective on one of the major characters.
(As the title suggests, this post comes with a content warning for domestic abuse.)
Let’s backtrack for those not familiar. If you haven’t read the Court of Thorns and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas, be aware that there are spoilers ahead.
In the first book, our protagonist, a young human woman called Feyre, finds herself caught up in a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling in which her beast is the handsome faerie lord Tamlin.
The story is grand, sexy, and at times quite romantic, but it’s also pretty troubling. As a Beauty and the Beast story, Feyre and Tamlin’s relationship can’t really follow real-world rules of a respectful, healthy relationship. It has to begin with a kidnapping and include some super problematic power dynamics. It’d be silly to expect a relationship you’d actually want for yourself.
But Tamlin always bothered me a little more than your typical beast character. Much of my initial review centered on my reservations about his general uselessness and poor treatment of Feyre. If I observed those behaviors in a real-life relationship, I’d call his insistence that Feyre isn’t really a prisoner “gaslighting,” his lies and condescension “manipulation,” and the couple’s first intimate encounter “sexual assault.”
When unhealthy relationships are at the center of a story, often an author’s intention can make all the difference in how I feel about the work.
When an author writes a controlling relationship without recognizing it, you can get harmful messages baked into a story that romanticizes abuse.
If, however, an author is deliberately writing an unhealthy relationship and focuses the story on that conflict, you can end up with something much more interesting and valuable.
The fact that Tamlin is, by most metrics, not actually a very good person built a fundamental tension into his relationship with the compassionate Feyre. If this was what SJM was going for, she set up an opportunity for a relationship more layered and dynamic than I was expecting.
As ACoMaF begins and the trauma of the last book leads Tamlin to become increasingly controlling, I wasn’t sure yet what SJM intended. Tamlin’s toolery was taking a toll (repeat that three times fast) on Feyre physically and mentally, but they honestly loved each other and I wasn’t sure how this character tension would be resolved.
It wasn’t until chapter 10 that I was sure the relationship would never be repaired. If you’ve read the book, you’ve probably already guessed the scene I’m talking about.
During an argument with Feyre, Tamlin releases a burst of magic that blows apart the room and could have seriously hurt Feyre if she hadn’t instinctually shielded herself with her own latent ability. It’s sudden and uncalled for and entirely brought on by possessiveness and wrath on the part of Tamlin, who has no reason to know that Feyre wouldn’t be hurt.
While this violent moment is certainly an instance of abuse, the act itself is not what really reveals this as an abusive relationship. The true tell is what Tamlin does next. As soon as Feyre drops her shield, Tamlin rushes over and puts his arms around her, though she hasn’t said anything yet. He says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” as he holds her, then goes on to say:
“I’ll try,” he breathed. “I’ll try to be better. I don’t … I can’t control it sometimes. The rage. Today was just … today was bad. With the Tithe, with all of it. Today—let’s forget it, let’s just move past it. Please.”
“I’ll try to be better,” he said again. “Please—give me more time. Let me … let me get through this. Please.”
That was the moment I knew things were never going to be fixed. SJM wouldn’t have written those lines if she weren’t deliberately presenting an abusive relationship. A loving partner’s first priority wouldn’t be to “move past it.”
Individual acts of abuse in the form of violence are very easy to identify from the outside. They’re dramatic and visual and lead other people to think, I wouldn’t stand for that if it were me. What is less visible, less obvious—and what prevents victims from simply deciding “not to stand for it”—is the cycle of abuse that allows perpetrators to trap their partner in the relationship.
The cycle of abuse is well-studied by experts who are far better people to consult on the subject than I am. It’s important to note that the classic three-stage cycle, as first proposed by psychologist Lenore Walker in 1979, is a highly simplified way of analyzing abusive relationships that has been criticized for a lack of nuance and allowance for individual circumstances. The cycle is typically used to describe domestic abuse, but can also describe power relationships other than those between romantic partners.
The classic cycle is made up of three distinct stages: tension building, crisis, and honeymoon (sometimes subdivided into two separate phases). Each stage repeats in a continuous cycle that follows violence with adoration and affection with control.
In the Feyre/Tamlin relationship, the incident in the study clearly represents the “acute” or “crisis” phase, one in which “the abuser tries to gain power and control,” according to the Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention. While this stage, sometimes known as the “battering phase,” is typically thought of as violent, it “may or may not include physical contact; it may involve verbal, emotional, and/or psychological abuse.”
Tamlin’s explosion of temper lasts only seconds. As Chapter 10 begins, he immediately expresses remorse, rushing to physically comfort Feyre. Tamlin has already shifted into the next stage of the cycle, in a way that betrays his intentions.
The crisis stage is followed by the honeymoon phase, sometimes subdivided into “reconciliation” and “calm,” both of which well describe the aftereffects of Tamlin’s outburst. Tamlin apologizes and rushes to make excuses for his actions. He never meant to, he’d never hurt her, it was just the stress, just the things going on in his life… he can’t help it, she just needs to be patient with him, it’ll get better with time…
The cycle of abuse, of course, does not improve with time, it only worsens. The Encyclopedia argues that the sudden calm after the violence only deepens the abuser’s control:
“This decrease in tension is, in itself, reinforcing. In other words, violence wins because it works and the abuser gets what he wants in the relationship.”
Tamlin and Feyre experience all the hallmarks of the honeymoon phase: apologies, declarations of love and remorse, passionate intimacy, gift-giving, and outward signs of improvement. Tamlin “doesn’t stop apologizing for days” and lets up very slightly on his monitoring of Feyre’s movements. Feyre is frightened by the incident but truly believes things are getting better. The two settle into the post-crisis “calm” that they believe will be the new normal, and it is this, not the threat of violence, that locks Feyre into the relationship.
Later, when a third character asks about the incident, Feyre insists that it was simply “an argument” and “it was nothing,” dismissals of the sort often seen in the calm phase. When offered a chance to explore leaving the relationship, she thinks to herself:
“But Tamlin had made exceptions—he’d lightened the guards’ presence, allowed me to roam a bit more freely. He was trying. We were trying. I wouldn’t jeopardize that.”
The honeymoon has fooled Feyre into thinking that the relationship is improving and she’s terrified of compromising Tamlin’s goodwill.
While outsiders may sometimes think that the calm phase is the easiest moment at which to flee an abusive relationship, it can be impossible for victims to see a way out at this point. Tragically, many relationships only end when the crisis phase goes too far and the victim is forced to flee or is killed.
The former, of course, is how Feyre’s relationship with Tamlin ends. He finally hurts her too deeply (in this case, locking Feyre in the house, badly triggering her PTSD) and other characters have to physically remove her from the situation. It takes a long time for Feyre to begin to see that relationship for what it was: abuse built on a need for control and unaddressed trauma.
YA fantasy isn’t the right place to look for a how-to on healthy romance and I’m not suggesting we can always apply real-world standards to fictional relationships. I am grateful, however, that so many teens are reading about a strong woman who finds herself a victim of the abuse cycle and manages to fight her way out. SJM’s unflinching portrayal of the Feyre/Tamlin relationship as controlling and unacceptable is a valuable model for young readers.
You can find two other perspectives from book bloggers on abuse and assault in this series here and here. I don’t agree with absolutely everything in these posts, but they’re both very well thought-out and valuable reads.