April 15, 2013 by Heidi
Title: The Girl of Fire and Thorns [Goodreads]
Author: Rae Carson [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Book one in a trilogy.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: September 20th, 2011 by Greenwillow
Format: Hardcover; 423 pages
Source: Borrowed from my local library.
Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.
But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.
Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.
And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.
Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.
Most of the chosen do.
You may remember Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns making my list of four series that are wrapping up this year that I’ve been saving to devour in long gulps. As fortune would have it, The Girl of Fire and Thorns was thrown out as a potential YAcker title for April, and of course received my vote. I was so happy to have an excuse spurring me to read these books, particularly if I would have a place to discuss them. I was slow to start, however, and in my dawdling I became quite nervous. See, several YAckers had already read it and not been much impressed, and several more in the process of reading were quite annoyed by certain things. I began recalling in my mind the complaints I’d heard about Elisa, about the religion, and I questioned whether I would enjoy Carson’s work as much as I’d initially predicted. I needn’t have worried. I was immediately sucked into Carson’s world, I was behind Elisa from the start, and I found the presence of faith in this book to be both intelligent and beautiful.
Admittedly, The Girl of Fire and Thorns falls into one of the fantasy tropes I’ve come to dread and avoid: the chosen one. However, Carson very carefully formed Elisa in a deprecating way that allowed her journey from uncertainty to leadership to be organic rather than predetermined. The most obvious way that she does so is through Elisa’s weight issues–which is also one of the most divisive issues I’ve seen from those reacting to this book. When the story starts Elisa is heavy. Weight is a constant issue and struggle for her as one who has clearly turned to eating for comfort. To me, Elisa’s constant awareness of her body is so real. Yes, it can get frustrating after a time to see her whining about her weight as she stuffs pastry down her throat, but it’s also understandable. When you are overweight, it is a big deal. Especially if you are a teen, and I can imagine even more so if you’re a teen placed in the spotlight as royalty and someone who is constantly judged on appearance with more meticulous observation than a ‘normal’ young woman. The physical changes Elisa undergoes throughout also made sense to me in the context of the story, and I also don’t see them as necessarily extreme as I’d expected.
Weight aside (though again, yay for a non-stereotypical female lead), what mattered to me most when seeking a connection with Elisa were her other characteristics. From the get-go I saw her as in possession of a level head and an inner strength, bearing a compassion and instinctive understanding of others that goes beyond her station as a Princess. Living in the shadow of her sister’s strengths, her country’s forced ignorance, and her husband’s reluctance to action, it was so easy to see how Elisa’s meager confidence would crumble as often as it would remain firm. Seeing her growth throughout The Girl of Fire and Thorns was a pleasure–it worked so masterfully because the obvious foundation was there, Elisa only needed the right situation and experiences to build upon. Indeed, I felt all of Carson’s major characters were multifaceted and well developed, leading us and Elisa to change our perceptions as we got to know them.
The other main complaint I’ve heard in reaction to The Girl of Fire and Thorns is that it is too religious. I, however, saw the religion and the world and so deeply intertwined that they were insepperable, and this was its beauty. I have always had a certain taste for mythologies, whether of our world or those created by others. I love fantasies where the gods play an active roll, and in Carson’s case, the mythology is everything. Perhaps readers were made uncomfortable by a monotheistic religion because it drew parallels more easily to major religions (namely Catholicism) in our own world? In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I felt Carson played adeptly with the idea of faith, and power of belief–how it can drive humanity to do both horrible and great things, how people will always interpret the will of God, but will rarely truly understand. The religious atmosphere worked hand in hand with the Spanish influence of the world building to construct a world that was both unique and wonderfully real.
Carson’s writing is so natural, it is easy to be caught up and swept away in Elisa’s story. Told in the first person present tense, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is powerfully intimate and immediate, fluid in a way that makes it easy to discount the difficulty of writing well in this format. However, there were also some hiccups with the writing that kept me from really falling head over heels. When I realized that Carson wasn’t afraid to kill off characters, I initially cheered, but by the story’s end I became worried. I fear that Carson is using convenient ways of ousting conflict when she writes herself into a corner that would be tricky to extricate oneself from otherwise. In terms of the climax, I found it to be simultaneously poetic and fitting, but absolutely silly. I also felt the last two or three pages of the book really brought it down for me–it became too blatant in its message, spelling things out rather than letting the reader understand Elisa’s growth on their own. Sadly, I also have to admit that I am also not at all a fan of the cover art for this series–the gems with the model’s faces just push it over the edge into embarrassingly cheesy for me.
When all is added up in the end, there is certainly much more that I loved of The Girl of Fire and Thorns than not. It is a book that is solely Elisa’s, setting up for a series that can branch greater stories, connections, and romance, but only after she has become who she must be. It is a story of survival, war, and faith–and you must enjoy these core tenants to appreciate this book. A promising start to a fantasy series, and hopefully, a fantastic career.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: Um…I was so into this that after 50 pages I rushed over to Edelweiss to request a copy of The Bitter Kingdom. And thanks so much to HarperCollins for saying yes so that I can devour the rest of this series pronto!
Recommended for: This is the perfect read alike for those who loved Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst (or vice versa since this one is probably the more widely read of the two).
Real life repercussions of reading this book: This was our YAcker pick for April! Quite an interesting one at that since only a couple of us really liked it. Prepare for dueling words!