What I liked:
World building – With ACOTAR, I felt that the world was way too constrained (only Tamlin’s manor and Under the Mountain, with occasional mentions of other courts) and eagerly anticipated seeing more in the sequels. ACOMAF delivered on that front, but I still felt like I had an incomplete picture of Prythian. A Court of Wings and Ruin went even further, and if memory serves me correctly, we’ve now visited all of the courts except one (the Day Court), which is great. Sarah J. Maas’s descriptions of settings are lavish, finely written, and mesh well into the story.
Huge cast of characters and character history – I ended up liking ACOWAR’s side characters a lot more than its main circle. There are a ton of new people and names, including those given to characters who have only been mentioned by title or description until now, à la ASOIAF. Nephelle’s story was a particular highlight, and I had chills down my spine while reading it. I loved the spin on Exodus we got here–there are many other instances of integrated mythology from various cultures, all added with a twist.
Jurian – Where to start? It was great that he wasn’t a villain. There was this general portrayal of of him as “just as bad as Amarantha,” which is a pretty dangerous false dichotomy to get into–Jurian was absolutely coming from a horrendous background with his people enslaved for millennia with their short lives seen as spare change. I understood his rage, and anyways, he was one of the most interesting characters in the book. I’m a fan of his sense of humour.
Eris – Speaking of humour, this guy was hilarious. Sure, he’s a complete snake with a next-to-nonexistent moral compass and the foulest mouth in Prythian, but he definitely received better treatment from a writer’s viewpoint than I’d expected from what we heard of him in ACOMAF. I can’t wait to see him kill his dad.
Dagdan and Brannagh – Okay, okay, they were evil and I was rooting for Feyre as she offed them both, but hear me out. Their villainy was so caricatural and/or dryly self-aware at times (“why do you think I had such fun in the War?”) that they were easily two of the most entertaining characters in the book. This is the closest you’ll ever get to Jaime and Cersei in YA fiction, all the way down to him acting as her obedient right hand man, so the soap opera-side of ACOWAR definitely got amped up there.
Women in general – Women, females, whatever, there were plenty of them and they ran the gamut from angelic to Satan incarnate and hilarious to (unfortunately) dead boring. Despite that, it never veered into “GIRRRRRL POWERRRR” territory and all the relationships between them were multi-faceted and as realistic as a story about immortal hot High Fae can be. As Amren wisely tells Nesta, there are other kinds of strength besides killing people with a sword.
Tamlin’s lack of villification – After seeing the shockingly excessive hate some aspects of the fandom directed at Tamlin (such as shipping him with Amarantha, hoping Rhys would tear his mind to shreds, etc, etc.), I was happy to see that Maas hadn’t turned him into a Joffrey, instead portraying him as the three-dimensional character that he deserves. Because, at the end of the day, he’s not evil, just hopelessly misguided and kind of, what’s the nice way to put it, obtuse. I’ve never been a Tamlin fan–I found him dull at his best in ACOTAR–but I do have to say that I appreciate how his story arc’s ended up. I definitely don’t want to read a spin-off of Tamlin, or in fact any more Tamlin than is strictly necessary for plot purposes, just due to how boring I find him–but giving his orb of light to Rhys and freeing Feyre of obligation was a perfect ending to this plot thread.
The plot twists – I’ve heard criticism of Maas’s plot twists as predictable, clichéd, and/or overly convenient, and I’m inclined to agree when it comes to a few of her other books (Nesta and Elain turning into Fae, I’m looking at you). However, she’s really outdone herself in ACOWAR. A great many of the plot twists fulfilled exactly the criterion that a good plot twist should: You don’t even think of the possibility beforehand, but as soon as you read it, all the clues fall into place and you go, of course I should have seen that. Now, not every twist, and there were a tonne of them, was equal–the poisoned apple was the most notable instance of a move I saw coming from miles away (the rumours that ACOWAR was a Snow White retelling didn’t help). That said, I thought Lucien’s parentage, Morrigan’s sexuality, and the recruitment of the death-god siblings were all done excellently.
Subversion of relationship tropes – I wasn’t really sold on Elucien or Moriel in the last book, despite much of the fandom’s obsession with both. That doesn’t say much, because I’m not a huge fan of any of SJM’s ships, but I appreciate how not every relationship that’s presented as another potential YA pairing ends up working out. That’s more like real life, after all, and it just ends up looking cheesy and a little bit eyebrow-raising when *cough cough* all of your eight main characters end up nicely paired off. Unlike some other reviewers, I didn’t find Morrigan’s status as a bisexual homoromantic implausible or unnatural either. I was happy for her when I read her long confession–sad that she had to carry that weight for centuries but so, so impressed that she made it through.
What I didn’t like:
The romance – This is more a matter of personal taste, but bleh. I am really not a fan of the way SJM writes romance. Maybe it’s because I’ve never felt the kind of all-encompassing romantic love she describes, but I really had to squint sometimes and think, really? Rhys and Feyre just get blander and blander the more I read. Can’t recommend except to say that it’s a definite improvement over Feyre and Tamlin.
The sex – Again, like the above. Her writing becomes rather overwrought and repetitive, it felt like I was reading the same mashup of graphic-vanilla-mixed-with-stream-of-consciousness I’d read in ACOMAF and Empire of Storms. Maas’s sex scenes don’t do anything for me and I found myself skipping all of them in ACOWAR.
Character development of main characters – Remember when I mentioned how I found many of the side characters more interesting than the main ones? For various reasons, I didn’t really like the direction some of the Inner Circle went. Feyre got a tad too manipulative and entitled for me to fully get behind, Rhys continued his trajectory of devolving into a perfect boyfriend fantasy, and Nesta’s entire personality was reduced to hostility. I’m glad that Maas is writing in Nesta a woman who doesn’t have to be all smiles and politeness, but her snappiness and refusal to compromise really got on my nerves. A couple exceptions to the above: Mor, whose character arc I quite enjoyed, and Lucien, whose background of Autumn Court scheming definitely took a captivating turn, to say the least.
The King of Hybern – As the Big Bad, I’m putting him under his own little section. I swear he has to be one of the most one-dimensional villains I’ve read, such that Maas didn’t bother to give him an actual name besides “Hybern.” The same applies, to an even greater extent, to his many goons, none of which receive the attention of more than a sentence (a couple, if Maas is feeling extraordinarily generous) for them to be stabbed/burned/drowned/devoured/misted by the way more powerful, combat-gifted good guys. Which brings me to the point, why in the world is this seemingly-endless supply of cannon fodder still fighting for him?? And I say seemingly-endless because we see Rhys mist hundreds or thousands at a time and yet there’s always two to replace each one that fell. If I were a lesser faerie with limited magic who found myself up against somebody who could blink me out of existence, you bet I’d haul ass out of there, whatever it took. Now, I realise that Hybern supposedly had five hundred years to brainwash the populace into fighting his war, but I think a little more explanation as to these expendable pawns’ motives would be in order. A replacement for the many pages of sex, maybe?
Purple Prose – I have a general dislike of the way overblown purple prose Maas usually employs. “Night Triumphant–and the Stars Eternal.” I cringed there. In my opinion, there’s definitely a place for that kind of word choice, and it’s at the climax and pivotal moments. The final battle against Hybern, for example–go ahead, use language so dramatic that a thesaurus wouldn’t contain it. But the quote above was in a bridging scene at best, the preparation for a meeting to discuss war. I thought it was a bit much.
Pacing – Part One, Princess of Carrion, was good. Same with Part Three. The middle dragged on for quite a while when I just wished the story would get to the action. This wasn’t that big of an issue and pacing could have been a lot worse in the hands of a writer less skilled than SJM.
Spin-offs I want to see:
Jurian: The Story (a.k.a. A Series of Unfortunate Events: Tales of Jurian and Amarantha)
A no-holds-barred Game of Thrones-style novel where it’s just Eris scheming his enemies out of the way, with some Lucien in the mix (a.k.a. A Song of Eyes and Fire)
I know that both of the above are unlikely to happen, but a girl can hope.
Spin-offs I don’t want to see:
Anything with Nesta, Cassian, Lucien, Elain, Azriel, Tamlin. Don’t really care for these characters. I know that these are the likely spin-offs and I’d still end up buying them, but meh.
Final verdict: Fun novel, don’t take it too seriously and just enjoy the absurd, campy elements for what they are. Wish fulfilment rules!