Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: Rae Carson, The Girl of Fire and Thorns

This is the second book I've read in the last week that was published in fall 2011 and is about a 17ish year old girl in a richly imagined fantasy alter-universe with the title "PERSON of NOUN and NOUN." (The other book was Daughter of Smoke and Bones. Hopefully I will get around to reviewing it one of these days. It wasn't bad.)

This is the story of Elisa--a deeply insecure, overweight princess, who happens to be the bearer of a thing called the "godstone" which is a giant jewel type thing somehow attached to her bellybutton. Godstone bearers come around once in 100 years and they are expected to perform some heroic act of service for their people. No one understands why fat, boring, depressed Elisa of all people would be chosen to bear the godstone, but alas. She has an arranged marriage to a powerful king in a neighboring country and pretty early on things get intense; there are attempts on her life (because people want that godstone!), a kidnapping, guerrilla warfare, a typical underdeveloped YA-style romance, a transformation from fat/ugly to thin/super hot (because obviously a fat girl couldn't be the heroine of an entire book, who would want to read about a fatty for hundreds of pages on end? Gross much?), and an epic battle at the end.

Certain things about the book were really great. It's a page turner; I read it in two nights for hours at a time. The world Carson has created, while similar to our own, is fascinating in the ways that it differs. There is no modern technology (no electricity, no cars, etc.), yet the gender distinctions that exist even to this day in the real world between men and women are virtually nonexistent. Elisa masterminds battle strategies, directing warriors and statesmen alike in the art of war, and no one bats an eyelash that a woman would have this role. I also like that we're given no explanation what exactly this world is. The "Lengua Classica" that the noble people speak is basically Spanish, the religion people follow seems like a Jesus-less brand of Catholicism, rich with bizarre ritual and history, and the terrain is similar to that of our own world (deserts, jungles, etc.). It could be a postapocalyptic world, or it could be a fantasy universe altogether--I like that the author doesn't spell it out and leaves it up to our imagination.

The animagi were very well done. I could really picture them with their terrifying glowing blue eyes and their white hair and their evil creepiness, standing in a row with glowing amulets getting ready to burn people alive. Very scary bad guys----very effective. I wish we could learn a little more about their history though; were they former bearers themselves or did they snatch the godstones in their amulets off of others? Did they start as normal people who just got caught up in the lust for power? Maybe Carson will give us more info later in the trilogy.

I liked Elisa as a main character, though I agree with some other reviewers' complaints that it's disappointing that she only comes into herself after she has a dramatic weight loss and transforms into an attractive person. While on the one hand I commend Carson for what no other author in this genre I'm aware of has ever done---having a fat female protagonist---it's unfortunate and not sending a great message that she had to lose all the weight and become physically attractive before she began demonstrating admirable character traits and acting like a real leader. Oh well.

I thought the romance was bland and lacking depth. Like so many of these books, it happened way too fast and was all telling, no showing. I felt that I had a pretty good idea of who Elisa was as a character, but her love interest was completely undeveloped, and the few scenes they shared together before the romance flared up were pretty passionless and dull. I could see no reason why the love interest (forgetting his name at the moment, sorry) was attracted to her because all the author did was tell us he was attracted to her; there was no showing. Elisa's attraction was easier to buy--as a fat chick obviously she is starved for love and would be into anyone who showed an interest. Humph.

That said, I appreciate that the romance was by no means a central component of the book. This is a story about a warrior princess who goes from being pampered, insecure, and basically useless, to becoming a brilliant political leader and military strategist, and that is the main point, not her romantic interludes. This is a nice change from a lot of other YA books (not that I don't love a good set of star crossed lovers, don't get me wrong).

The ending seemed very lame and contrived to me. It was also extremely confusing. I'm still not sure what happened, so forgive me if I'm getting it wrong. One minute, all hell is breaking lose--the animagi have broken into the castle and have Elisa & her family surrounded. The next, Elisa has a revelation about godstones and realizes if she grabs five of them and like, attaches them to the flowery bath tiles in her bathroom--tiles that were designed by a former bearer and conveniently are mere feet away from the room where everyone happens to be gathered when the animagi attack--then a very magical thing will happen and wonderful white power will shoot forth and cripple her attackers.

In truth, this felt like a sort of lame, fanfictiony imitation of the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when the Ring is destroyed and there's that massive power wave that ripples through Sauron's army and incapacitates the enemy. The difference is, we knew all along what needed to be done with the Ring, because Tolkien sets the whole thing up brilliantly, whereas in this book, this magical bath tile + godstone idea turns up out of the blue and just seems a little too convenient. Like the author got herself into a deep pickle and knew she wanted the good guys to win but couldn't figure out how, so she just made some random stuff up at the end. Felt lazy.

Over all though, an enjoyable read. The fact that I read this straight through cannot be overlooked. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, even if I complain now. Still, don't think I'll be bothered to read the sequel. 3 stars.