The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson is a fantasy full of magic, myth, and intrigue. This is one of my favorite types of book but also the type of book that I have the highest standards for. I am happy to say that this one met them. I liked this book lots. Despite the fact that there are some flaws that I can see bugging some people, for me it worked and worked well. So well that I have lots to say about it. If you are interested in my thoughst read on or you could just stop now and go read the book.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
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.
Elisa is not a typical heroine. She is fat. She is clumsy. She is shy. She is reclusive. She is also highly intelligent and analytical even if she hasn't quite realized it yet at the book's opening. She is practical and quick thinking in a crisis too. When the party carrying her and her new husband to his home are attacked in the jungle she figures out how to rescue her ladies in waiting and herself from a burning carriage and then rescues her husband by jumping into a knife fight. Yet she underestimates and criticizes herself constantly until she is forced to tap into her core of inner strength and use it to survive. Elisa is a born leader and has qualities that many can see and appreciate but until she is forced to see them they do her no good. Elisa does lose a lot of weight over the course of the novel as well but that is not the reason for her new found confidence. The catalyst for the weight loss and the strengthening of her character are the same. It causes both of them, one is not caused by the other. I really like how the author handled that and how the sudden decrease in size didn't make her any less clumsy. Or quick footed. Elisa's attitude toward the whole situation made me smile too. When someone (a completely awesome someone) tells her she is a beautiful queen she responds with, "A month or two of pastries will fix that." I also thought that Elisa's faith in her god and doubts about him and her chosen status was played well. It did not weigh down the story but filled out her character making her more realistic. The way the author played with the whole concept of the prophetic chosen one was interesting too. It is not a one time occurrence. There have been generations of chosen ones, some of them dying ignominious deaths without ever doing anything of seeming importance. Elisa is convinced she will fall into this category, but she rises to the occasion when presented with the opportunity to do more. I love Elisa's feminine strength. (I came across this at the Greenwillow blog written by the author that shows where Elisa's brand of girl power might have come from.)
The cast of supporting characters are not developed quite as well as Elisa is. This is a first person narrative from her point of view which could account for some of that. I also wondered if it wasn't an act of mercy on the part of the author. She is not at all afraid to injure and kill off (abruptly) important characters. The book is full of wonderfully strong female characters whose strengths and talents all manifest differently. I must say I grew quite attached to one of the supporting characters who captured my attention in a big way at the beginning of the book and then, much to my frustration, disappeared for most of it. However, his presence in the end more than makes up for it and I'm eager to see what his character contributes to the second book in the trilogy.
The world building is well done. The setting is interesting going from jungles, to city, to desert, to hill country. Everything is described richly and vividly. There is a lot of food, clothing and furniture descriptions too, which adds to the reality of the setting. The most important aspect of the world building in this case is the religion though. Elisa is very devout, she is the bearer of the godstone so this is not surprising. Religious ceremonies are described, their Scriptura Sancta referred to often, and Elisa spends much time in prayer. I have seen many reviews that mention this and make comparisons to Christianity. I found it interesting myself as many of the passages quoted do sound like passages in Psalms and Isaiah. It is a monotheistic religion and Elisa has a very personal relationship with her god. However, those are really the only similarities. Everything else about it is unique to the world of the book.
There is a bit of romance in the book but it is very low level and not at all a crucial element to the plot. Elisa, off in the world on her own for the first time, experiences lustful infatuation and a sweet tentative romance. Both are part of her character's growth and journey but not the most important part of her story. I appreciated the way this element played out too.
Now that all that is off my chest I will eagerly anticipate the release of book 2 in the trilogy, The Crown of Embers, which is expected in fall of next year.