The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

>> Monday, October 21, 2013

TITLE: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
AUTHOR: Rae Carson

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Greenwillow

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 1st in a trilogy

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, and 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 her to be 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, as most of the chosen do.

First off, apologies if I get names wrong here, as I listened to the audiobook and there were some issues with the pronounciation of Spanish words. I checked a few things against summaries and reviews, but I might have missed some.

Princess Lucero Elisa of Orovalle is the bearer of a Godstone. The Godstone is a real, physical stone lodged in her belly button (which, writing it now, I realise sounds slightly ridiculous. Don't worry, it isn't), and is a mark from God that she's been chosen to do something great. What exactly that might be is a bit hazy to Elisa. Previous bearers she knows of have done all manner of heroic, great and more pedestrian good deeds. Many have lost their own lives in the process.

We meet Elisa when she's about to marry Alejandro, the king of the neighbouring country of Joya d’Arena. Elisa is 16, and although her Godstone marks her as very special (Bearers come along maybe once a century), she doesn't feel she is, especially next to her beautiful, clever sister, the heiress to the throne. Elisa is shy, overweight and awkward, more comfortable studying religious texts than dealing with the issues of government. When she hears she's about to get married to Alejandro, she wishes with all her heart for an ugly husband. Maybe that way she'll have a chance of a good marriage. No such luck, Alejandro is gorgeous.

We follow Elisa as she travels to her new home and faces many challenges. There's the fact that Alejandro decides to keep their marriage a secret "for now", and courtiers aren't kind to an unattractive, scared girl of apparently little importance. But there's also danger to Elissa's very life, and the harrowing challenges she ends up having to face also give her the chance to come into her own.

I have to thank Jane from Dear Author from making me aware of this series. I'm not a huge YA reader, so I might easily have overlooked this hugely enjoyable book without her review. It was a really satisfying read, one with a character who undergoes a big change which is also believable. I particularly liked what Carson did with the issue of Elisa's weight and her relationship with food. She does lose weight, but it's not about being prettier, but about being fitter. The emphasis is on the change in her character. She becomes tougher and firmer in character as her body does the same (and the difficult conditions and exhausting adventures that she has to go through cause both). Neither the weight nor her fear melt away easily, it's tough, and she earns both every single pound that goes off and every bit of leadership skills.

I also liked how Carson used Elisa's perception of food to show she's still the same character, one who really appreciates good food. There's one particular scene that was very telling. Elisa is in an incredible dangerous situation, captive and about to be tortured, when her captor offers her some food. And Elisa can't help but take the time to notice that the meatball she's being offered is not just "a meatball", but venison flavoured with garlic and herbs. That was so Elisa!

Additionally, the perception of her physical changes by other characters were a really good way of emphasising which of them were worthy, especially the male characters. Having the ones who are worth Elisa's time being able to see beyond her looks is a bit of an obvious thing to do, but I've read so many "makeover"-type books where the heroine's change causes the hero to look at her differently that I particularly appreciated this.

I liked pretty much everything about this. Elisa was great, but so were the myriad secondary characters, all of whom were well-drawn and felt like individuals, with their own concerns outside of our protagonists. The romance element was surprising and served the story, and I thought turned out exactly as it should have (don't go into this book expecting a romance novel, though; that's not what this is about). I also mostly liked the Medieval Spain-inspired setting. It didn't feel particularly fresh (all of it felt very based on existing things: places and religions, for instance), but it was detailed and made sense. The only thing there that didn't quite convince me was the language, which was a sort of bastardised Spanish, but bastardised in a way that didn't completely make sense. I could put up with it ok, althought things like having female names being given to prominent male characters (Belén and, FFS, Rosario) tried my patience.

Still, minor annoyances didn't detract from this at all. I can't wait to read the rest of the trilogy. There is good closure here (no cliff-hanger endings, don't worry), but at the same time, plenty of territory that could be explored, and I shall join Carson when she does that.


AUDIOBOOK NOTE: The narration was fine, with the voice and tone sounding exactly how I'd expect Elisa to sound. My only complaint is that the narrator, Jennifer Ikeda, kind of butchered some of the Spanish pronounciation. For instance, for quite a long time, I assumed Joya d'Arena was actually Joya de Reina, because that's what it sounded like when she read it. It was annoying, but only mildly so.


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