The Girl of Fire and Thorns

I knew The Girl of Fire and Thorns was going to be fantastic the second I saw the Tamora Pierce praise on the cover. (Blurbs work, people, they really do.) I grew up reading and re-reading Tamora Pierce novels to the point where I had to put plastic laminate on my copies so the covers wouldn't fall off. Allow that particular tidbit of information to give proper weight to this statement: while I was reading Carson's novel, I felt a spark of that feeling I had so many years ago of reading Woman Who Rides Like a Man for the very first time. It was this quiet delight mixed with anxious desire that the story keep up with its fascinating arc and not take a turn for the predictable or tame -- and I was never once disappointed. There's an awareness that the culture and mythology presented here is new and not simply a recycled version of another novel; while Carson's writing might reveal echoes of something like Pierce's influence, she has her own brand of magic, religious twists, cultural depth, and intricate detail. All of this combines to make Rae Carson a wildly talented new voice in YA fiction that you should read straight away so you can experience her storytelling prowess for yourself.

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, Princess of Orovalle, is the chosen one. Every century, a person has been called to the service of God -- and when the princess was seven days old, God's light descended upon her during her dedication day ceremony and left the Godstone lodged in her navel. The Godstone is very real sign that she has been chosen for service, and Elisa has grown up with the burden of this knowledge physically lodged in her body. Unfortunately, Elisa also feels grossly incapable of doing anything noteworthy and struggles with the awareness that many also share this opinion, knowledge she gleans when she catches their silent stares of disbelief and disgust. Overweight and only truly committed to studying religious scriptures, Elena is not the usual candidate for service to God, despite her elevated royal status. The Girl of Fire and Thorns opens on Elisa's wedding day. A very rushed decision was made for Elisa to marry King Alejandro de Vega of Joya d'Arena, a northern ally of Orovalle. Deeply aware that she must have been the counteroffer to the idea of marriage to her beautiful and capable elder sister, Juana-Alodia, Elisa hopes that King Alejandro will be old and ugly so she is not such a disappointment to him. When King Alejandro turns out to be a quite handsome and charming widower, Elisa doesn't know what to think, though she's much relieved when he appears kind and doesn't seem put out at her request that they do not immediately become intimate. Instead, they talk and Elisa is uncertain what her feelings are towards her new husband when they set out for Joya d'Arena, leaving behind everyone and everything Elisa knows except for two trusted servants. The journey is dangerous and one of Elisa's servants dies along the way, fatally wounded while escaping a burning carriage that was set ablaze in an attack on their party. During that same attack, Elisa saves Alejandro's life and begins to understand that her Godstone goes ice cold when she is in serious danger. (Having been sheltered in the palace her whole life, Elisa assumes there will be a certain amount that she'll learn about the world, but she really has no idea just how shielded she has been.)

Upon arrival in Joya d'Arena, Elisa realizes that Alejandro is not ready to tell his people about his marriage, and so it is kept secret and she has to navigate the treacherous waters of court life without her secret husband's assistance. She makes an immediate enemy of a woman on the king's council that Elisa believes must be Alejandro's mistress, a woman who sends her personal maid, Cosmé,to assist Elisa (and, presumably, spy on her). Constantly watched and yet quite lonely, Elisa discovers that the only benefit to her arrival in Joya d'Arena is something she had never even suspected she had been without -- a whole world of information about the Chosen ones that Elisa had never known... and, indeed, information that was purposefully kept from her, not just by her father or sister or trusted servant but by her entire kingdom. The reader and Elisa both have even more questions as we go further down the rabbit hole. The Chosen ones might all have a destiny, but what happens if they die before fulfilling it? And how would they even know if their role was fulfilled? Does a great contribution have to be a large gesture or perhaps it's something small? And why do the enemies of her people command a powerful magic that no one else can seem to channel? How is Elisa ever to help her people triumph over such a fearsome foe? This is only the beginning of Elisa's story and the most dramatic action is to come as Elisa is kidnapped from the palace and marched across a vast desert so she, the Chosen one, might help a struggling people. The complications continue as she comes to understand that her kidnappers might not be the true enemy -- for there is one far more fearsome quickly crossing the desert to destroy all who oppose them. They wield dark magic, magic with a deep connection to Elisa and her godstone, and their victory would mean death to Joya d'Arena, Orovalle, and the world as Elisa knows it.

Things do not come easily to Elisa and for that, she's a heroine to be admired. Much of her life is dictated to her and she finds it hard to motivate herself to take action. That's most obvious when it comes to her weight, but is a common thread in her life as she spends more time reacting to events than taking action. When Elisa finally does take charge, the reader wants to cheer, having seen her grow and become more confident in herself, but it's not an easy journey. Be prepared to wade through the self-pity at the beginning of the novel -- I promise it serves a purpose -- so you can watch Elisa blossom in to a young woman who can wield real power. I despise the way so many books assume you'll take up the side of the main character simply because the author tells you to. In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, the reader comes to believe in Elisa... even before Elisa really believes in herself. Additionally, many novels feature a main character who is an outsider and is forced to quickly learn about a new place, but I appreciated the twist in Elisa's case: she's always been in the thick of things and yet was incredibly sheltered from so much knowledge. She and the reader learn about the history of other Bearers and there's no massive infodump. Learning about the world is another matter, though, as the reader gleans bits and pieces as the story progresses. It's not unpleasant and left me hungering for more, asking questions that were only tinged with curiosity and not impatience for deeper understanding. There is such rich material in this world that one feels as though Carson could spend volumes on the culture, religion, and history of Orovalle, Joya d'Arena, and its surrounding area.

For those wondering, while I think this novel is purposely focused on Elisa and her personal development (and I greatly appreciate this), there are romantic elements to this story. Undoubtedly, there will be a romantic story that comes more to the foreground, but I'm glad The Girl of Fire and Thorns keeps its real focus on Elisa as she develops her own self-reliance and determination. She might be aided by others, be they friends or those with the potential to be more, but Elisa is standing on her own two feet as she works through the problems she faces. I'm not dismissing the romantic developments within this novel -- Carson makes some brave moves and her characters are all the stronger for it, but we're still dealing with a teen novel and a teenage heroine, so it's only right that we have some heart-fluttering moments and questions. That said, you'll also note that I'm giving no hints here about any leading fellows. No characters are quite as fully developed as Elisa, who takes center stage throughout the story and I believe this is a deliberate move. The reader might come to identify a few favorites and we certainly come to appreciate other characters and their particular contributions to the story, but one has the constant feeling that we'll get to know the key players better as we continue through the series arc.

A final note to address, if only because it's a somewhat unique element of this story, is the religious storyline that runs throughout the novel. Elisa, given a destiny by God, finds her greatest solace in reading sacred texts and is almost constantly praying. People who have a huge problem with religion might be displeased with this book but despite the emphasis on "God," I think it's important to recognize that this is not Christian lit. (Not everything with one god qualifies as Christian, guys.) Elisa has faith in a God and this God is important and very very real in her life and the lives of the people of this world. (Aside from the whole godstone thing, there are facts hinted to in The Girl of Fire and Thorns and more fully noted in The Crown of Embers, the sequel, which discusses how Elisa's people were actually brought to this world from a dying planet by God.) The presence of this God ensures that we accept there's a higher plan at work here, even if it doesn't (often) lead to deus ex machina styled scenarios. (This is much more of a clockmaker God than one who takes an active role, despite having relocated a whole people to a new planet which is, admitted, very hands-on.) Religion can be a touchy subject, so it's often skirted in fantasy YA that isn't specifically trying to address it. Personally, I had no problem with the addition of a religion to the mythology of this world -- I even welcomed it as an intriguing aspect to the story. There's the possibility for things to stretch too far in to the "God has a plan" direction but I'm willing to see what Carson has in store for us with this. I have faith it will be somewhere fascinating.

So as you can see, I was a huge fan of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I devoured the book and was immediately hungry for more. Carson can't write fast enough for my taste and I can't wait to find out what happens to Elisa and those supporting characters who will come to play larger roles in the series. One can already tell that strong personalities don't always lead to constant harmony and Elisa will have to step on even some familiar toes if she's to assume her destined role and continue to make tough devisions. I don't quite know where Carson will take us with this series, but I'm content to be swept away with the story. She's proven herself worthy of my literary trust and I hope she has the same impression on many, many readers.

Full disclosure: I do not work on this book, but it does factor in to my professional life. However, my review here expresses my own personal opinion.

1 comment:

YA Bibliophile said...

And you've convinced me to move this up on my to be read list. Tamora Pierce fan = win.