The novel opens in a snowy forest. The narrator and protagonist, a young woman named Feyre, is hunting for food farther from home than usual. Feyre sees a deer and draws her bow but then notices the glowing eyes of a huge wolf. Because of its size and stealth, she wonders if the wolf is a faerie from Prythian. The wolf attacks the doe. Feyre shoots the wolf with an arrow made from ash wood, which has the power to kill a faerie. She leaves the woods with the doe and the wolf’s pelt.
Feyre returns to the cottage she shares with her father and her sisters, Elain and Nesta. The family lost their fortune eight years earlier. Father walks with a limp since creditors shattered his leg. Feyre bears the responsibility for the family after making a deathbed promise to her mother to care for them. They feast on venison that night and plan to ration the rest of the meat. Feyre plans to take the pelts to market to sell, with her sisters already asking for a new cloak and boots. Feyre and Nesta argue over Nesta’s love for Tomas, the woodcutter’s son. Feyre tells Nesta they don’t have a dowry and she’ll be a burden to his family. Nesta accuses Feyre of having a lover named Isaac Hale. Father encourages Feyre to let Nesta believe in a better life, but she retorts that there’s no such thing.
Feyre, Elain, and Nesta walk down the snow-covered road to the village. A member of the Children of the Blessed stops them to talk about the High Fae. The sisters rebuff her, not interested in the worship of faeries who once ruled over humans. Feyre approaches a mercenary, who offers to overpay for the pelts, noting that someone once showed her the same kindness. Feyre takes the money. The mercenary warns Feyre not to venture far into the woods as she’s heard rumors of faeries crossing the wall. In spite of the Treaty between fae and humans brokered hundreds of years ago after the war, attacks by faeries have been increasing. The mercenary shows Feyre scars from her faerie run-ins before Nesta drags her away. Feyre gives her sisters money and says she’ll see them at home as she leaves to meet with her lover, Isaac. Feyre returns home to have dinner with her family. After the meal, they hear a roar as a beast bursts through the door.
Feyre grips her hunting knife, a meager defense against the golden beast in the doorway. The creature is the size of a horse and resembles both a wolf and a cat, with curved horns, large claws, and sharp fangs. Feyre knows the creature is a faerie. The beast yells “Murderer,” as Father, Elain, and Nesta huddle in fear. Feyre thinks of how to get to her bow. Feyre hurls her sisters’ iron bracelets and her hunting knife, which he bats away. He wants to know who killed the wolf and who will pay the price of a life for a life demanded by the Treaty. Feyre confesses to the unprovoked attack, and the creature gives her two choices: die now or live in Prythian forever. Her father begs and offers gold they don’t have. Feyre agrees to go, hoping to escape. Her father tells her to make a name for herself somewhere new. Feyre follows the beast into the woods.
As Feyre rides through the woods on the creature’s white horse, she does not regret killing a wicked, awful faerie. She thinks of terrible legends she heard growing up and knows no human ever returns from Prythian. Still, she worries more about her father and sisters than her own safety. Feyre smells metal and falls into an enchanted sleep. She wakes as they pass through a gate.
The first chapters of A Court of Thorns and Roses establish a tone of physical and emotional isolation. As seen through Feyre’s eyes, the forest setting is cold, harsh, and unwelcoming. Alone in the woods, Feyre is both physically and emotionally isolated from others. Driven by hunger and her concern for her family, Feyre is at the mercy of dangerous animals and fae in the woods. Taking such a great risk illustrates Feyre’s driven and determined nature and her capability as a huntress. The encounter with the wolf reinforces just how much Feyre is truly on her own. The fact that mortals like Feyre no longer have gods to pray to in dangerous situations highlights the bleakness of Feyre’s solitary world. Returning home to her father and sisters does nothing to ease Feyre’s isolation. They pay little attention to her, only valuing her for what she can provide for the family. The loss of the family fortune has a lasting impact, driving resentment within the family and separating them from the wealthy elite of the village who were once their peers. Feyre's responsibility of caring for her family forces her to display strength, bravery, and determination which results in bitter isolation. Even Feyre’s relationship with her lover, Isaac Hale, breeds loneliness in Feyre as their lovemaking is a purely physical act and the two share no true love or connection. Whether Feyre hunts in the woods, walks through the village, or sits at the table in the family’s humble cottage, her loneliness runs deep.
The youngest of three daughters, Feyre bears the weight of a promise she made to her mother on her deathbed. Perhaps sensing Feyre’s strength and determination, her mother burdens her with a promise to keep the family together and look after them. The vow to her mother becomes the guiding principle in Feyre’s life, more important than any religion or law. Feyre regularly puts herself in danger in the name of keeping her vow, hunting in the forest and facing off against a wolf that is really a faerie. Feyre is singularly focused on providing for her family, ignoring the danger of possibly killing a faerie because her family needs the money from the wolf pelt and the meat of the deer so badly. Feyre’s vow weighs even more heavily on her because her sisters and father completely take her sacrifice for granted and do not pull their weight in any way. Feyre’s potential as an artist remains completely unlocked so long as she is bound to her ungrateful and lazy family. The chipping designs that she has painted all over the cottage symbolize how Feyre’s individuality is being slowly eroded by the weight of her vow. Regardless of how bitter Feyre feels, she puts her family first in every scenario. When the golden beast bursts through the door, demanding Feyre’s life in return for the wolf’s, her concern for her family and their well-being outweighs any concern for her own safety, illustrating how seriously she takes her promise. Even Feyre’s parting words to Nesta that she not marry the abusive Thomas Mandray emphasize how she privileges her family’s well-being over her own.
The frequent references to the dangerous and mysterious fae foreshadow Feyre’s adventures in Prythian. Feyre’s negative perspective on faeries early on provides important backstory in the conflict between faeries and humans. The fear humans feel toward faeries is palpable and creates an ominous tone that sets up Prythian as a terrifying place from which no human has ever returned. While most humans wear iron and buy ash wood in order to protect themselves from the fae, the Children of the Blessed represent a contrasting perspective on faeries. In the human realm, the Children of the Blessed are treated like a misguided cult for worshipping the fae, and their actions only heighten the ominous tone surrounding the fae. The fact that Children of the Blessed never return from Prythian implies they are killed or worse for their misguided beliefs. The mercenary's warning tales of deadly and near-deadly encounters with the fae reinforce the characterization of the fae as powerful monsters. Feyre’s departure to Prythian occurs under this cloud of fear and creates a suspenseful beginning to her journey.