As you probably know, because I’ve been complaining about it, I’ve been stuck in somewhat of a reading rut lately. I’m not sure why. It just happens sometimes. Reading was not as appealing as, say, television. Or Twitter. Or staring at a blank wall.
I had these lofty expectations of blazing grandly through my long list of NetGalley review titles, but then I wound up watching YouTube videos of Avengers featurettes instead.
Don’t judge. These things happen.
Anyway, I got sick of my complete apathy towards reading (which, in all fairness, had only been going on for about a week and a half), so I decided to get back in the game with some pleasure reading. Some just-for-me books that I expected to be awesome. And the first one I picked up was The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.
The story follows Elisa, the younger of two princesses, whose father has agreed to marry her off to the king of a neighboring country. A man she has never met. On her wedding day, Elisa prays for King Alejandro to be old and fat, because then maybe he won’t be disappointed in her, as she considers herself overweight and unremarkable in every way save one. Elisa bears the Godstone, a multi-faceted gemstone mystically attached to her stomach that shows she is destined to perform an act of great service to God.
However, Elisa constantly wonders whether God made a mistake, as she doesn’t think she will ever have the opportunity or capability to perform this service.
But soon after accompanying Alejandro to his kingdom, she begins to learn how powerful, and dangerous, the Godstone can be, both to the bearer and to those who would use it against her. She discovers a history of bearers whose acts of service are unclear, and she struggles to figure out how she fits into the centuries-long story.
Meanwhile, a vast and terrifying army approaches, and the lives of thousands may rest in Elisa’s hands.
This book was totally unlike any other fantasy I’ve ever read, both in characters and in plot. I’ll talk about characters first.
First, Elisa was not beautiful (and not in that “she doesn’t think she’s beautiful but guys keep falling all over themselves when she appears” kind of way). Second, she was not highly skilled. She bore the Godstone, but she had absolutely no idea why or what to do with it. And third, she had a steep learning curve. She didn’t find herself to have a mysteriously strong aptitude for any sort of noticeable skill. Basically, what she had was a connection to God that she didn’t understand, decent intelligence, and a desire to do the right thing so she could fulfill her service. That was pretty much it. It was refreshing to see a fantasy protagonist with no major advantages over the other characters (save the Godstone, but again, she spent most of the book being utterly flummoxed by it).
Then there was the plot. It had a decidedly religious and philosophical slant, which I wasn’t really expecting going into this book. It didn’t preach any specific religion (that I am aware of anyway), but the overall themes of God and prayer and faith in an overarching purpose that is bigger than any of us can understand were huge. I found this totally different than other fantasy I’ve read, and although this wasn’t by any means a preachy or religious book, I liked the way it tackled the complex issues of religion and faith and trying to understand the will of God. It did it within the world of fantasy and magic, so I don’t think it would turn off non-religious readers, but for me, I enjoyed a fantasy book that both fulfilled my need for magic and adventure, in addition to making me really think and question.
Of course, this book is not all religion and philosophy, not by a long shot. Elisa goes through a HUGE transformation, both physically and mentally, throughout the course of the book. The adventure is sweeping, the world-building highly unique and interesting, and the danger is palpable. Rae Carson was not afraid to put her characters in tough and terrible situations, and that gave the book a gravity that kept me fully engaged.
There were a couple downsides to the book. A couple of the characters I was never able to fully warm to, and it seemed like I was supposed to. I thought Elisa’s development was one of the most realistic hero journeys I’ve ever read, but it almost came at the expense of the other characters’ development. There’s one exception to that, and it was actually a pretty secondary character, but I loved him in the brief time I got to know him. However, he disappeared for the entire middle of the book, and doesn’t reappear until the final act. So that was somewhat disappointing. I hope we see a lot more of him in the sequel, Crown of Embers (which releases September 18, 2012).
I did find the climax a tiny bit hard to swallow. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let’s just say that I was expecting it to be…more difficult. After the way everything is set up, it feels like it should have been more difficult. But one big thing happens, and then everything else is just…over. Seems like it should have been messier than that.
But, as I said, that was just a tiny complaint.
Overall, Girl of Fire and Thorns (which, if made into an acronym, is “GOFAT,” which seems like kind of a subliminal encouragement Elisa, who is rather portly at the start of the book) was a refreshing and highly engaging fantasy, with a unique and interesting world, a complex plot, and a fantastic main character.
Content Guide: Contains large amounts of violence