Melissa Marr’s ‘Faerie Romance’: Representing Sexual Violence in YA Faerie Fiction

Lenise Prater |

Andrew Milner has recently argued that fantasy and science fiction (and utopia) are ‘cognate’ genres: “above all, because they are each tales of wonder” (44). He adds that this is an argument for analysing fantasy ‘in addition to and alongside’ science fiction (198). It is precisely the element of ‘wonder’, the ‘non-realistic’ in the faerie romance that I explore in this article. Young adult novels featuring faeries (and sometimes fairies) have become an important part of the paranormal romance genre, competing with urban fantasy fiction featuring vampires, werewolves and angels in recent years. Prominent authors of young adult fiction, such as Melissa Marr, Holly Black and Malinda Lo, have all written books featuring romantic relationships between human and fey characters. While plenty has been written about faerie romance on blogs and in reviews, the treatment of romance and sexual violence in faerie fiction has received little sustained academic attention thus far. This is particularly the case when contrasted with the discussion of the werewolves and vampires in young adult fiction, and Twilight in particular. Lydia Kokkola has, for example, discussed the implied sexual violence of the vampire bite in Meyer’s series (174). Anne Torkelson writes, in depth, about the exploitative and sexually violent heterosexual relations between humans and vampires, and humans and werewolves (209–223) and is just one of the scholars who outlines the normalization of domestic violence in Twilight (Wilson: 55–70). My short piece here will make some inroads into a discussion of other supernatural representations of sexual violence in young adult fiction, focusing on Melissa Marr’s acclaimed Wicked Lovely series in order to evaluate its challenge to dominant constructions of sexual assault.

Wicked Lovely

On the surface, the Wicked Lovely series empowers young women in relation to sexual assault. When Faerie Prince Keenan tries to woo young and mortal Aislinn, he takes her to a carnival and gives her “too much summer wine” to drink (Marr 2009: 200). She passes out and the last thing she remembers is that she said yes and he kissed her. Aislinn is worried that things went further and blames herself for it. Seth, her partner, tells her that “[i]f you’re fucked up, you can’t consent. It’s that simple. He shouldn’t have done anything, Ash. If he did, he’s the one who’s wrong. Not you” (202). Seth places the blame where it belongs, on Keenan for taking advantage of her, rather than suggesting that Aislinn should have taken better care and limited her autonomy because of what others might do.

This challenge to stereotypes about sexual assault is built on further in the second book in Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, Ink Exchange, where the young teenage girl, Leslie, is raped by one of her brother’s friends. Ren, her brother, is a drug addict and after getting into debt with drug dealers, sold Leslie’s body to them. Ren drugged Leslie’s drink (14) in order to minimise her resistance to this. Her response to her fear that this will happen again is to stay out of the home. The locations in which she feels safe, particularly a tattoo parlour, are exactly the kinds of places women and girls are discouraged from visiting if they want to avoid rape. Indeed, Anderson and Doherty conducted a series of interviews based on vignettes which described a scene in which a woman is attacked while taking a ‘short cut’ home. The vast majority of interviewees blame the victim for behaving in an unsafe fashion (2008: 75 – 82). Marr writes that Leslie “felt safe [in the tattoo parlour] – away from [her school], away from the unpleasantness of her father’s drunkenness, away from whatever leeches Ren brought home to share his drug of the week” (27). Leslie’s home is transformed from a safe space to a dangerous one in this passage. In the process of avoiding the dangers of her home, Leslie must stay outside. This is particularly significant given that sexist constructions of rape prevention implicitly blame women and girls for rape by suggesting they should restrict their movement in public spaces (see: Anderson & Doherty 2008; Young 1998; Marcus 1994). The Wicked Lovely series, then, challenges this construction, and insists that women and girls are often more unsafe inside their homes.

The Limits of Agency: The Faerie Bargain as a Metaphor for Rape

Leslie is the victim of another violation, a magical one, and there is a point at which the novel emphasises Leslie’s power to consent when, in the circumstance, she did not know what she was consenting to. She gets a tattoo, and, unbeknownst to her, the ink was mixed with the Faerie King, Irial’s, blood. This forges a connection between them, making it possible for Leslie and Irial to feel each other’s emotions. The result is a return to the victim-blaming narratives debunked in the surface narrative; Leslie is cast as responsible for the consequences of this link even though she gives uninformed consent.

Leslie wants the tattoo to represent: “Being safe. Control. No more fear or pain” (31). The paradigm shift in this text is that she learns that these are not actually the best things to wish for – no more fear or pain leads to a shallow existence. It is part of a classic faerie bargain, where the faerie does give the mortal what they ask for but with unintended and often disastrous consequences. The Dark Court is in trouble, and Irial thinks that the ink exchange is required to help them survive. The ink exchange means that Irial and his court can feed on human emotions through Leslie, but being a funnel for emotions leaves Leslie feeling numb – without fear or pain, as she requested. This, however, leaves her hollow and unconscious for much of the time.

Ink ExchangeThe convergence between the supernatural narrative and the narrative located in the human realm is, in urban fantasy texts, often a site of tension – they can reinforce or undermine one another in various ways. The tattoo, a symbol which was supposed to reinscribe Leslie’s ownership of her body, instead becomes a sexualised violation to which she does not give informed consent. And while in some ways it does provide her with what she asks for, a lack of fear and pain, in others it does exactly the opposite of what she wants – she wanted to reclaim her body but the link with Irial denies her bodily autonomy. She muses after getting the outline of the tattoo that, “her growing emotional instability had become so pronounced that it was like being a visitor in her own body” (186). The sexual nature of the tattoo is implied throughout the text – Leslie feels “languid” after getting the outline of the tattoo (54) and another character, upon hearing that Leslie has “[gotten] ink” that the tattoo artist “‘must have been pleased. Virgin skin, right?’” (97). The parallels become even more obvious given a nightmare Leslie has about Irial after getting the tattoo where she saw “Irial’s eyes staring back at her from the faces of the men who’d raped her” (126). The links between the ink exchange and rape are clear, yet later in the novel Leslie emphasises her choices, thinking that: “She was the person who chose this route.” Leslie adds aloud to herself that, “‘I might not have had as many choices, but I’m still choosing’” (287). This construction of uninformed consent as consent takes the concept of the young female hero’s agency too far. Meaningful consent is largely absent, and the ensuing loss of self and identity is certainly contrary to Leslie’s desire for ‘control’ when she asks for the tattoo.

The tattoo also means that Irial becomes irresistible to Leslie, for example, she “knew that whatever he had done to her made her not want to be anywhere other than with him” (261). This is a situation where her ability to choose, and hence her ability to consent, has been stolen. While the tattoo is represented as bad, the novel ends with her getting rid of it, but the text nevertheless emphasises that Leslie chose this and deemphasises the uninformed nature of her consent. For example, Leslie feels wrong, and her experiences are completely disjointed for some time, but: “She didn’t want to return to pain, to worry, to fear, to any of that. She wanted euphoria. She wanted to feel her body go liquid in his arms” (264). Here her desire for Irial blends with desires that are constructed as hers – and hence I argue that the text establishes that she does consent to this.

Marr’s narrative represents Leslie as a rape survivor with agency rather than as a passive victim. The conflict is between this rather laudable goal of representing women as temporary victims who nevertheless have agency, and the genre of the faerie story. Fey are renowned for being unable to lie, and for doing as they promise (Briggs: 132) – it is just that when they deliver there are consequences that the mortal does not foresee. The problem is that this text features a bargain between mortal and fey, where mortals have never been able to consent with full-knowledge of the ramifications of their wish. When this is the magical framework for the story of a rape survivor, issues of meaningful consent are blurred.



Anderson, I. & Doherty, K. 2008. Accounting for Rape: Psychology, Feminism and Discourse Analysis in the Study of Sexual Violence. Routledge, Hove.

Briggs, K. 2002. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. Routledge, London.

Jameson, F. 2005. Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso, London.

Kokkola, L. 2011. “Virtuous Vampires and Voluptuous Vamps: Romance Conventions Reconsidered in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series,” Children’s Literature in Education, 42: 165-179.

Marcus, S. 1994. “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention,” in J. Butler & J. Scott (eds), Feminists Theorise the Political. Routledge, New York: 385–403.

Marr, M. 2009. Ink Exchange. HarperCollins, London.

Marr, M. 2008. Wicked Lovely. HarperCollins, London.

Miéville, C. 2009. “Cognition as Ideology: A Dialectic of SF Theory,” in M. Bould & C. Miéville (eds), Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Pluto Press, London: 231–48.

Milner, A. 2012. Locating Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool.

Suvin, D. 1979. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Torkelson, A. 2011. “Violence, Agency and the Women of Twilight,” in M. Parke & N. Wilson (eds), Theorizing Twilight: Critical Essays on What’s at Stake in a Post-Vampire World. McFarland & Co, Jefferson: 209–223.

Wilson, N. 2010. “Civilised Vampires Versus Savage Werewolves: Race and Ethnicity in the Twilight Series,” in M. Click, J. Aubrey & E. Behm-Morawitz (eds), Bitten by Twilight, Youth Culture, Media & the Vampire Franchise. Peter Lang, New York: 55–70.

Young, A. 1998. “The Wasteland of the Law: The Wordless Song of the Rape Victim,” Melbourne University Law Review, 22: 442–465.



Dr. Lenise Prater’s research focuses on popular fantasy literature and how its genre conventions shape the representation of gender, power and romance. She completed her PhD thesis at Monash University, Australia and is currently a Lecturer in children’s literature at Deakin University.

One thought on “Melissa Marr’s ‘Faerie Romance’: Representing Sexual Violence in YA Faerie Fiction

  1. I very much enjoyed reading this. If I could offer a note, however, I’d say that the reason that

    “Leslie feels ‘languid’ after getting the outline of the tattoo (54)” and that she is having “a nightmare Leslie has about Irial after getting the tattoo where she saw ‘Irial’s eyes staring back at her from the faces of the men who’d raped her’ (126)” was because post-rape, in that journey from victim to survivor, some of us go down some dangerous routes with chemicals and unhealthy relationships.

    The languid experience of getting inked (needles pierce skin & euphoria sets in) was intended as a drug metaphor, not sex. It was, quite literally, how I coped post-rape: delving into numbness via drugs & dangerous men. Irial was her “dealer” in the metaphor. He provided her the numbness she sought. He (like all dealers) didn’t tell her that it would kill her if she stayed on that path.

    The reason the tattoo experience is described as it is in text is twofold–
    1. It’s how I understand tattoos. (I have 40+ hours under the needle, & in prior years was tattooed without ink on a few occasions for the sheer rush of the pain.)
    2. It is is to be a drug-like experience, & good drugs are, unfortunately, just as pleasurable as good sex.

    When Leslie sees Irial in her nightmare, my intention is that she is–as one must do to reach the other side of the destructive behaviour–admitting to herself that this pursuit of the numbness is just as devastating as rape.

    I’m not going to say that your theory that the “links between the ink exchange and rape are clear” is in ANY way invalid. Once a text is written, it is the world’s to do with what they will, & I really enjoyed reading this. As I told my own students when I taught: if you can support your assertion with textual excerpts, there is validity in it.

    However, I wanted to point out that the intention was that the ink exchange was a representation of the journey that I and various friends went on in our post-rape experiences. A) Find a way to numb the pain, B) eventually discover that sex and drugs are making things worse not better. Not all of my friends reached stage B, but some of us did. Still, we all got worse before we could start to get better.

    Much, much thanks for writing your article. It was a pleasure to read.


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