Ok, this will be a longer post, but I just have SO MUCH to say about this book. Bear with me.
At first glance, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson appears to be just another trope-filled YA high-fantasy novel. You have a chosen one who is also a princess, forced into an arranged marriage with the king of a neighboring land. Both kingdoms are on the verge of war with a mysterious nearby country that is made up only of evil doers and that employs sorcery in battle, whereas the “good” kingdoms practice a religion that forbids all sorcery apart from the magic of the chosen one.
And yet… I fell in love with this book. Princess Lucero-Elisa is the overweight second daughter of a king who overlooks her because her older sister is so much more beautiful, graceful, a natural leader. But Elisa is the Bearer–she carries a magical stone (the Godstone) in her navel. A bearer is chosen by God once every hundred years, and they are tasked with a great act of service. Elisa doesn’t think she’ll ever discover what she is meant to do with this gift, and it soon becomes obvious that her life is in grave danger from others who would use her or simply kill her to take the stone from her.
The world Carson creates is different from the stereotypical pseudo-European setting for high fantasy, and that’s a huge selling point for me. Distinctly Spanish in influence, this land is filled with dark haired, dark eyed, tan-skinned people. There is a vast desert region as well as sweltering coastal jungles. While the people essentially practice one faith–resembling Christianity in some ways, but still unique to her world, especially since one of the holy books is essentially The Art of War–a huge part of the conflict in the story involves the many different ways people interpret the same holy texts, particularly in regards to the Bearer.
Elisa’s weight is also a key part of the story, in a way that I think could really inspire good discussions about body image. Elisa grows greatly as a person throughout the story, becoming ultimately a strong leader, but many characters cannot see past her physical attributes. She starts the novel as a heavy sixteen-year-old, still growing. Physical hardships and long journeys on foot cause her to lose much weight over the course of the book, and Elisa sees that people who looked down on her before now pay her very close attention. While part of her wants to enjoy that, she is angered that those people only respected her when she became beautiful in their eyes.
The magic system to me is one drawback, but I think that is largely because Elisa herself (due to the beliefs of her people) has been deliberately kept in the dark about the Godstone she bears. It also seems that each of the three main kingdoms has just part of the truth about the magic of their world, so I’m sure much more will be revealed in the later two books of the trilogy. The ending of this one does tie up perhaps a bit too neatly, but it still felt to me like the calm before the storm. The characters are given one moment of peace and happiness, knowing full well that their battles are not over. This is a tactic employed by many series authors–the Harry Potter books come to mind–and at least shows that Carson intends each book to be a distinct story arc.
The copy I own also had additional materials at the back, including an essay by Carson about weight and body image, an interview with the author, and a scone recipe, as well as the typical sneak peek at the next book. I enjoyed the first two items, and may actually try to make the scones. I will definitely be reading the next installment in this series, and hope that it lives up to the wonder and intensity of this first book.