Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

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April 15, 2013 by Heidi

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae CarsonTitle: 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!

Get a second opinion:
Liked it:
Good Books and Good Wine
Love Is Not a Triangle
Tripping Over Books
Late Nights With Good Books
The Flyleaf Review
Paranormal Indulgence

Not so much:
A Reader of Fictions
Book Harbinger

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35 comments »

  1. Alright, I am about to rush off to work so will leave a longer comment later, I just dropped by to say YAYYYYYY!

  2. Reynje says:

    Although this originally didn’t seem like my kind of book, so many reviews are making me rethink that :) I’ve heard really good things, particularly about how the heroine is developed. The religious/faith element seems like it’s well handled too – which is promising. Great review! Will look out for your thoughts on the sequel..

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah it’s hard to say, Reynje. I know a lot of people who really DIDN’T like this one, but even more who really did. I think it all comes down to your ability to connect with/enjoy Elisa as a character. The religion is so well handled–it’s a huge part of the story without having a religious agenda or being pushy.

      I’ll be reading the sequel very soon!

  3. I actually can’t re-call now the last few pages of this that turned you off from the novel a bit, but I’m so glad you loved it as a whole. You’re going to love Crown of Embers even more because, believe me, it is SO much more of EVERYTHING. I loved it and it surprised me so much how much more Elisa had to grow. Also, I am immensely jealous HC approved you for The Bitter Kingdom! Edelweiss just hates me. :( I can’t wait to see what you think, though! 😀

    • Heidi says:

      The last couple pages were just all “God picked me because I was unworthy” and “God had a plan all along”, it just made me gag a bit with the cheese. I can’t wait for Crown of Embers, I’ve forcibly restrained myself from putting in a request for it at the library until I finish reading Boundless. 😛

      If I had gotten a physical Bitter Kingdom, I’d send it to you! The only publisher that approves me on Edelweiss is HarperCollins, and I’m very grateful for it.

  4. Brandy says:

    Lovely review. I’m so glad you ended up liking it. I agree the ending is a little much. That kept it from being a five star read for me. But The Crown of Embers-gah! I was approved for The Bitter Kingdom too and just want to drop everything and read it, but I need to start it when I think I will have the time to finish it…

    • Heidi says:

      Brandy, I’m getting so pumped for Crown of Embers! I really liked this one, and from what everyone says I just imagine myself LOVING it. I totally know what you mean about needing to wait till you can do Bitter Kingdom in a sitting. I hope you get to it soon!

  5. Honestly, the cover is why this has never been on my to-read list. I don’t think I even bothered to read any reviews. HOWEVER, color me intrigued. A non-willowy princess? Interesting… I think I’ll wait to see what you think of the rest of the series but I’ve got my eye on you, book.

    • Heidi says:

      Yeah, the covers are terrible, but the story is much better! At least I enjoyed it, most of the other YAckers did not, so I’m not 100% on recommending this one to people. I liked Elisa and thought the weight issue was handled well, but so many others thing it’s just done to death. Hopefully I’ll be reading the rest of the series soon though, and I’ll let you know!

  6. I wish I had your patience. If I were smart and had will power, then I would read series as they finished too, but they’re there and shiny and I wants them, which is why I’m in the middle of eight billion series.*

    I’m glad this one worked for you so well. Sadly, I totally don’t get TGoFaT. *snorts at acronym like I do every time* I’ve actually read this one twice, the ARC and then the audio, and didn’t quite like it either time. However, I did really enjoy Crown of Embers and I’m looking forward to The Bitter Kingdom.

    My issues are basically the ones you’ve listed here, though they didn’t bother you. Elisa was just hugely frustrating to me. Her personality just grated, but she has a really nice character arc, such that I almost liked her by the end of book two.

    My issues with the religion were solely because of the fact that it was so obviously Christianity. That made it feel preachy to me. There’s a little of that in book two, but it was less heavy.

    Despite everything, I’m still really looking forward to listening to The Bitter Kingdom!

    *That may be a SLIGHT exaggeration.

    • Heidi says:

      I’m glad to hear that even though you had issues with this one you decided to continue with the series and liked it more! The religion didn’t seem to have a preachy agenda to me, but that was just my reading of it, so of course others could see that in it.

      And omg GO FAT. I laughed and laughed when I first saw that acronym a few days ago. Lawl.

      I really wish I could have gotten a hold of this series on audio! I couldn’t afford to buy it though, and my library didn’t have it. :(

  7. I’m so glad that you enjoyed this one, Heidi. It took me a while to get to it, but I was so glad when I did. Like you, I was really impressed with the way that Rae Carson built the religious aspects into the world here without making it overwhelming or message-y. I normally don’t enjoy having religion thrown in my face while I’m reading, but it was so natural here, and I admired Elisa’s faith.
    I was kind of blown away by the character deaths. I’m curious about where things will go now that…those things happened.
    I’m very much looking forward to the next books! Definitely lots of promise.
    (Thanks so mich for the shout out, my dear <3)

    • Heidi says:

      I find religion/mythologies endlessly fascinating in fantasy, but the way this one was done was so much heavier than usual, and still really well handled–loved it! Alas, I knew exactly where things were going from hearing people say things about Bitter Kingdom, so the deaths didn’t really blow me away (though I didn’t know they were coming). I hope you read the second one soon, I certainly plan to!

  8. Okay, I loved Elisa from the beginning as well! I found her to be easy to connect to and relatable. I didn’t realize so many people did not. Glad I didn’t read those reviews. Also, I agree that the depiction of faith was beautifully written in this book. I had never really thought of “The Chosen One” as a trope, but now that you bring it up, YES it does get annoying. But I agree, that it is well done in Elisa’s story. One of those deaths was HEARTBREAKING :(.

    Oh and I detest those covers. They are painful to look at! Great review, and I am really really happy that you connected to this book!!

    • Heidi says:

      Maybe because I KNEW where things were going in book 2, I didn’t find the death heartbreaking at all. In fact, I fistpumped, death was better than setting up for dynamics that would have annoyed me in the future. I’m glad you liked Elisa from the beginning as well! And yes, Carson manages to do an often-done trope and handle it quite well because of who Elisa is as a person.

      It’s really nice to hear I’m not the only one who can’t stand these covers. 😛

  9. I’m glad you liked this, Heidi! Like you I didn’t expect to love this, having heard complaints about Elisa’s sudden weight loss and other issues, that made me a bit wary. Overall, though I found that the story was engaging and Elisa herself (in spite of her Chosen One-ness) was a well-written character. I did have issues with the religion, but that was less because there was too much of it and more because, in my opinion, it was lazy and smelled of plagiarism/uncredited borrowing.

    I hope you get a chance to read book 2 soon! It was much better than this, I found. (Saying something, since I rated this 4/5.)

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, I’m so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Elisa despite her falling into some tropes–I feel like her breaking others really helped in that regard. I don’t think that it’s plagiarism to be influenced by a major religion in our own world, she has stated that it’s largely based on Catholicism and that she was influenced by her Spanish co-workers at the time.

  10. I still haven’t read this one, but I’ve heard quite positive reviews of it. High fantasy isn’t a genre that I am always drawn too. I like it, but I have to be in just the right mood, and sometimes I’m even a bit intimidated by it. But I should really give this book (and the series) a shot. I’m thinking maybe the audiobook.

    Thanks for the review, and I’m glad you ended up enjoying it for the most part.

    • Heidi says:

      Quinn, this is really easy high fantasy to absorb, so don’t let it intimidate you (I’m a high fantasy fangirl, and I totally understand that feeling). I hear that the audiobooks for this one are spectacular, I’m bummed I didn’t have access to them.

  11. VeganYANerds says:

    I read another positive review of this recently and it made me add it to my to-read list, I might even borrow it tomorrow.

    I really like the non-standard female MC and I don’t mind a bit of religion thrown in as long as I don’t feel like the author is telling me what to think/believe.

    And the covers are a bit unfortunate, although they definitely scream fantasy.

    • Heidi says:

      I really thought that Carson did a good job of incorporating religion without having an agenda (though others have disagreed). The covers are, lol, yes, a bit unfortunate, but I really enjoyed it over all! I hope that you do pick this one up, I’d love to hear what you think.

  12. LPalmer says:

    I’ve been looking at this book for a while. I think it may be time to go ahead and read it.

  13. I’m glad you enjoyed this, Heidi! This book definitely relies on the “chosen one” trope, but I have a great fondness for books about that. Something about the protagonist being the only one who has the ability to save the world (usually accompanied with a bit of resistance and denial on the protagonist’s part) never fails to keep me intrigued. I also love a good religious system in fantasy worlds. It makes them seem more real and fuller to me. I found myself agreeing with all of your points on potential pitfalls other reviewers have had that didn’t end up affecting you negatively. I think this definitely is a great start to a YA fantasy series – now I just need to pick up my copy of the second book, and then the final book once it is released!

    • Heidi says:

      I do get sick of the chosen one trope, but it also marks some of my absolute favorite books (like Harry Potter). I agree that creating a religion that’s so detailed really puts a mark on the world building and makes it more full. I’m excited to see what you think of book two! I have it on hold at the library atm, so hopefully I’ll be reading it soon.

  14. Jasmine Rose says:

    I’ve been going back and forth on this one for ages. I really don’t read much fantasy, so there’s the fear I won’t like it because of that, but I have been trying to give the genre a chance and I’ve heard SO many great things about this series. I think I’ll have to put it on hold at the library and actually try it for myself.
    Great review :]

    • Heidi says:

      Jasmine, I have NO IDEA how you’ll feel about this one, but I’d love to hear you try! I know you don’t do much fantasy, but it’s really worth a shot, it’s very readable and not overly heavy at all.

  15. Alexa Y. says:

    I have been decidedly curious about this one since I’ve heard people either really loving it, or not loving it so much. I always enjoy a strong fantasy novel, and this one certainly sounds like a good contender. Based on your review, I truly think I’m going to enjoy it! It’s a good thing I already have it out from the library – and will be reading it starting this weekend :)

    • Heidi says:

      Oh I’m so glad you already have this one in your possession, Alexa! I hope you are on the side of those who love it (I personally think you will be), I’ll be waiting to see your reaction.

  16. I’m presently GEEKING THE EFF OUT because you read this book, my fellow book loving compadre. Gahhhh I’m just so happy that you read and dug this book like I secretly hoped you would so that I could take pleasure in your fangirling it, ya know? SO HAPPY. This series is so amazebeans and I’m happy you saw the religious/weight issue aspects of it as a beautiful part of the whole. *dances*

    *stops* BUT HOW COULD YOU NOT LOVE THE COVERS?! lololol

    • Heidi says:

      YAY!! Hopefully you can take equal pleasure in my GEEKING OUT over Crown of Embers soon. I’ve been watching your Bitter Kingdom updates on Goodreads and they have me salivating.

  17. Okay, I am back for the longer comment!

    So one of my absolutely favorite things about Elisa is how level headed she is. I love that she’s one of those princesses who is kickass not because she can wield a katana or a gun or whatever, but because she has a brilliant mind. I’d like to play chess with her, you know.

    Also. What you said about weight, I can’t pretend to understand what it is like to be someone who is overweight, as the closest I have ever come to being overweight was 135 in high school. I have no idea if Elisa’s inner-thoughts and struggles are authentic, but to me, they felt real, ya know?

    Also also, I agree so much about Carson’s writing being fluid. Sure, this book is over 400 pages but I devoured it in pretty much 3 sittings which is amazing for me.

    As for religion, I am one of those people who hates when books get all religious on me, unless it’s a fictional religion, and so, I actually liked how complex religion was in this book. I also have a soft spot for Catholicism, so there is that.

    And yeah, I do not love the covers either. Actually, my favorite cover is the UK version, the girl on it is definitely not white and it’s gorgeous and I want it in my collection right this second.

    • Heidi says:

      I’m so glad you made it back!

      I AGREE, I love that Elisa is a thinker and that she doesn’t freak out in situations, and can rely on her keen mind to solve problems when others are panicking or she doesn’t have the physical strength to fight her way out. I agree, I felt Elisa’s internal struggles with her weight were really authentic. And yes, this was beautifully religious without having an agenda, which I totally appreciated. I prefer the UK covers as well! SO much more fitting.

  18. I missed this review last month, sorry Heidi! You are such an eloquent writer, really. I love this review. I felt exactly the same way as you in regards to Elisa’s inner strength. And like you, I didn’t have issues with either her weight and weight obsession OR her faith and the role of religion in this book. But you echoed all my thoughts here in your review so beautifully:) I can’t wait to hear your take on book #2 and the “new guy”. And I am happy you got an early copy of The Bitter Kingdom, I did too and was SO STOKED. I’m planning on reading it next month!

    Oh and the covers, yeah, I find them lacking as well. And that chick reminds me SO much of Alannis Morisette that I end up singing “Ironic” ALL day whenever I see it! (Which is why I’m glad I have bk #2 and 3 on my Kindle;))

    WONDERFUL review!

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