Review: The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson (@raecarson @harperteen)

[WARNING: Spoilers for The Girl of Fire and Thorns ahead]

I was fortunate enough to receive an ARC for The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson shortly after finishing The Girl of Fire and Thorns. And while I really liked Girl of Fire and Thorns, I didn’t LOVE it. It wasn’t one of my favorite books ever. It was simply “really good.”

However after reading Crown of Embers, I would now recommend Girl of Fire and Thorns JUST so that you could read its sequel. Even if Girl of Fire and Thorns wasn’t good. Because Crown of Embers is THAT good.

The Plot

Crown of Embers picks up shortly after the conclusion of Girl of Fire and Thorns. After months of leading a desert resistance,  and after defeating the overwhelming army that threatened to destroy her husband’s kingdom, Godstone-bearer Elisa now finds herself a widowed queen, in charge of a nation still threatened by dark and mysterious forces.

As Elisa tries to determine how to govern her kingdom and keep her people safe, she finds there’s few she can trust: only her personal maids, Ximena and Mara, and her personal guard, Lord Hector, seem to be fully on her side.

Elisa’s advisers believe that she should form a strategic alliance with one of the northern nobility through marriage, a possibility that Elisa reluctantly agrees to consider. But as she entertains various suitors, she must also worry about several recent attempts on her life. And through it all, the Godstone that she bears still gives her the feeling that she has not yet fulfilled her act of service.

My Thoughts

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it. The reason I didn’t like Girl of Fire and Thorns as much as I wanted to was because Lord Hector quickly became my favorite character, and then he was absent for most of the book. It’s hard to LOVE a book when your favorite character isn’t there for most of it.

However, in Crown of Embers, Hector is front and center from beginning to end, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s now sitting comfortably near the top of my mental list of favorite male book characters, and I don’t see him getting displaced any time soon. He’s everything I love in a male fantasy character — noble, brave, honorable, kind. If Rae Carson ever decides to give Hector his own spin-off series, I wouldn’t argue with that.

But never fear, Hector is certainly not the only thing that Crown of Embers has going for it. I thought the plot for this book was a lot tighter and more cohesive than Girl of Fire and Thorns. It’s not that the first book didn’t make sense — it did — it’s that this one just seemed to flow more naturally, and the details threaded together more easily in my brain.

I was still left with a few questions at the end, but nothing huge. More along the lines of, “Why didn’t it ever occur to this character to do that?” And the answer may simply be that sometimes ideas don’t occur to people, even if they should be obvious. There were no questions that hurt the plot or the believability of the story.

The religious aspect that was so dominant in Girl of Fire and Thorns is still present, but not quite as front-and-center this time. There’s still talk of religious texts and doctrine, but it’s not as prevalent. I thought that in this book, Elisa seemed to mature in her faith and find a better balance between her duties as queen and her religion. She wasn’t as hesitant, although she was still questioning. I liked the growth of her character, and thought the tone of the book really reflected how she had changed.

As far as flaws with the book, there’s a very large trial that the characters go through, with very little payoff. I think it worked for the story and for Elisa’s character, but sometimes it’s disappointing in books when there’s a ton of buildup and then not a lot happens.

Also, the ending made me want to punch someone, just a little bit. It manages to have some good resolution, while still ending on a huge cliffhanger. It’s weird to simultaneously feel so satisfied and so unsatisfied. So be warned, people. When the ending comes, you may want to have a pillow or a stress ball handy. Just sayin’.

Overall, I loved this book. The pacing was excellent, the characters were amazingly well-developed, and the world building was, again, exquisite. If you’re looking for a YA fantasy series that you can really sink your teeth into, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

Content Guide: Contains violence, sexual situations

Top Ten Tuesday (July 24) – Top Ten Most Vivid Worlds/Settings In Books

It’s Top Ten Tuesday again, hosted by the fabulous folks over at The Broke and the Bookish! And the topic this week is one of those things that I think helps set “great” books apart from “good” books.

Top Ten Most Vivid Worlds/Settings In Books

World building! That feeling that you’re actually in the setting of the story instead of simply reading about it. Sometimes a book has a really interesting plot that engages me, but I have a hard time picturing the world, making the book simply “good.” Other times, I feel transported to a different time or place, and those are the books that really stand out to me.

So here are my Top 10 books that have the best world building, in alphabetical order:

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Defiance by C.J. Redwine

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Harry Potter (entire series) by J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb (Yes, this is technically the same world as Assassin’s Apprentice, but the two series focus on totally different aspects of that world, so I think it’s valid to include both)

Top Ten Tuesday (July 17) – Top Ten Books For People Who Like The Hunger Games

Welcome to another Top Ten Tuesday, brought to you by the masterminds over at The Broke and the Bookish!

This week, we’re picking book recommendations for people who liked a certain book, and while I’m sure my choice is going to be popular, I’m doing it anyway because when I finished this book, I could have used a list like this. Don’t get me wrong — this list exists, all over the Internet, and I’m sure many more versions are going to pop up today. But the ones I found led me wrong. They suggested books I didn’t like. So I’m making my own.

Warning: I’m going to genre-hop a bit.

Top Ten Books for People Who Like The Hunger Games Series…

…for the Action

The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

…for the Dystopian Setting

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

…for the Action AND the Dystopian Setting

Divergent by Veronica Roth

The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa

…for the Strong Heroine

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Defiance by C.J. Redwine

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

…for the Plot

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

[Disclaimer: I have not read this book, but I hear the plot is very similar to Hunger Games. I’ve also read interviews with Suzanne Collins where she said she didn’t know this book existed prior to her writing HG, and I believe her. Sometimes people just have similar ideas. It’s happened to me. It could happen to you. But I also think this list would be incomplete if it didn’t include the book that Hunger Games is most often compared to.]

Happy reading everyone!

Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson (@raecarson @harperteen)

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 Plot

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.

My Thoughts

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