Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

The Girl of Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson
September 20, 2011
Bought in Hardcover
Amazon Page
Goodreads Page
Grade: B+

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 needs 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.

This is one of those books where there are problems and frustrations you note as you read it, but then when you close the book after the last page, sigh happily, and say ‘that was a good story.’  Carson wrote a very satisfying type of traditional fantasy that I, an inveterate fantasy reader, couldn’t help but gobble up in one sitting.  And yet there are many of the flaws of a traditional high fantasy book as well.

Elisa is an interesting heroine who makes me oh-so-conflicted.  She hates herself so very much at the beginning of the book that it’s difficult to get much of a read on her personality.  Always shadowed by talented older sister, Elisa’s never had much asked of her, and even if she’s the bearer of the Godstone, she’s pretty certain that standing up for herself is something she’ll never be able to do.  Yet when she’s married off to a neighboring monarch, she manages incredible bravery under very difficult circumstances. That contradiction between her bravery and sense of duty and self-loathing provides much of the internal conflict throughout the book.

My problem here is one that has been mentioned many times, and that’s the issue of Elisa’s weight.  I absolutely love seeing a heroine who’s both a POC and not perfectly fit, but so much of her self-hatred is based in her weight, and much of it - both self-hatred and weight - disappears once she experiences near literal starvation in the desert.  I always enjoy seeing a character come into her own, but I would have loved it so much more if Elisa came to love herself and respect herself as she was at the beginning of the story.  She’s brave before she loses weight, but she becomes a respected leader afterwards.  I think the entire character journey could have been so much more powerful done differently.

But for the parts of Elisa that I loved, I loved her booksmarts and ability to think completely tactically when needed.  There are several times where very difficult decisions had to be made, and I admire the character for being able to make those unflinchingly.  I loved watching her attempt to adapt to different cultures.  I really liked how she apologises when she’s in the wrong, and how she’s determined to fulfill her duty as the bearer of the Godstone.  The character rarely felt sixteen to me.  Often she seemed much older, but I can find that believable as a simple function of having been raised a princess.

Carson’s world-building is consistently well done from the Spanish influence of Elisa’s home kingdom of Orovalle to the hill people to the mix of cultures in Brisadulce.  And the fact that the desert wasn’t immediately home to a fantasy version of Bedouins was fantastic.  As much as I like gorgeous horses, that particular stereotype is overdone, and it’s neat to see the idea of a nearly unlivable desert play out.  The city of Brisadulce confused me a little bit in that it seemed a desert city but then at one point was mentioned to be on the ocean.  For this reasons and others, I’d have loved if the author had included a map of her world.  Some of the routes traveled from city to city got confusing especially towards the end of the book when the speed required didn’t seem to match with earlier information, and it would have been really nice to be able to look at a map and trace the journeys!

Throughout the book, there seemed to be some pacing issues.  I completely am fine with the slow set up as Carson built her world and provided the reader with enough information to understand the plot, but after that, the pace seemed to be a little bit jerky.  One hopes to have a plot build, reach a minor conflict, build some more, reach another conflict, build again to the climax, but The Girl of Fire and Thorns never really settled into a rhythm for me.

I hope in the final two books of this trilogy, we get to see more of the Perditos and Inviernos, and hopefully see both cultures as more than the godless savages of this first book.  I appreciate the book for embracing religion as a major part of the characters’ lives - it’s high medieval fantasy, some type of religion is definitely appropriate, but I’ll be less comfortable if the cultures apart from the religion continue to be portrayed as little more than animals.

In a lot of ways, I’m hard on high fantasy because I’ve read so much of it over the years making me less of tolerant of some of the tropes of the genre.  I truly don’t mean to pick The Girl of Fire and Thorns to pieces because it was a satisfying and enjoyable read, and I do look forward to next two books in the trilogy.  (And I very much appreciated that this book had a definite ending instead of a cliffhanger.)  But there were issues that niggle and that are possibly a function of this being the author’s debut novel. 

If Carson continues writing in this tradition of Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore with strong female heroines and well developed worlds, I think she’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the young adult arena.  I’d recommend The Girl of Fire and Thorns to anyone looking for an enjoyable high fantasy read featuring a strong heroine - and strong supporting female characters, and I very much look forward to what Carson comes up with next.


  1. " I always enjoy seeing a character come into her own, but I would have loved it so much more if Elisa came to love herself and respect herself as she was at the beginning of the story. "

    THIS. This was my issue too.

    I was also a little confused by the geography.

    I also *spoilers* hated what happened to Humberto. I don't know that that was bad writing, but I lost significant interest once that happened.

    That said, overall, I enjoyed the book.

    Glad you had the chance to read it!

  2. It was an odd book! On one hand, I really liked it and on the other, there was so much I wanted to be different. But the liking won out.

    I know what you mean about Humberto. It was ...daaaaaaaamn. Intellectually, I like seeing authors going "there" but there was so much build up to something different. On the other side, I liked the other major death a lot.

    Also the starvation aspect of Elisa's weight loss bothered me a lot. If she'd maybe...idk, been so busy and caught up in stuff that she didn't have time to eat as much, it could have worked better maybe? It's a weird point, and I like what the author TRIED to do, I just don't think it was altogether successful.

    But I definitely don't regret buying it, and I'm looking forward to the sequel! I can see why Tamora Pierce gave it such a great blurb.

  3. Yes, I agree overall about liking winning out.

    As for Humburto, I think I agree with your point that she spent an awful lot of time building up for it for THAT to happen. So it felt like a disappointment or betrayal, because I wanted to explore that relationship further. I mean, it had lots of problems inherent to it. Their rank, goals, marriage status (!) etc. So doing *that* was kind of an easy way out. And it gave her more motive for what she was doing, I guess. But I don't know that she needed it. And I was curious what his solution to their little problem of her being married was. The other major death, at the end? That one I was fine with. But Humberto? That was a Joss move.

    And yes, I think thin always being equated with healthy is all wrong. Especially in the case of starvation. I think the author tried to play it like Elisa was still brave when she was fat - because Humburto and the little prince both saw who she really was. But it wasn't quite enough.

    But it was a good read and I will definitely read the sequel!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! I read and adore each one.