Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Okay, so I'm going to start a little different. I have no idea if this author is religious or not, but I'm guessing she is, and I'm guessing she's some sort of orthodox--either Eastern or Roman--and religion is totally a focal point in this book. If you thought CS Lewis's allegory was a little obvious, you will think Carson downright heavy-handed. However, I have said before and I will say again that books with actual religious views and backgrounds are totally awesome to me, and I love how authors can incorporate and think of ways for their characters to be superstitious.

Okay, onto the book.

The main character is Lucero-Elisa, who was chosen shortly after her birth to be some sort of great person, as God marks her with a Godstone; a jewel in her bellybutton that countless others througout the ages, every hundred years, have also carried. The problem is that no one actually tries to help Elisa become great. They just leave her to her own devices, and her only companions are older maids who are sweet and everything, but a young girl needs more than that. Elisa turns to food for companionship, and as a result is very heavy and getting heavier every year. Elisa also has a favorite book, The Belleza Guerra, which seems to be an Art of War-meets-Machiavelli sort of book. She quotes it constantly, and every time she does, I'm reminded of Lilo and her assertions about Elvis being a model Hawaiian citizen. I mean, that's how sweet and innocent this character is.

Naturally, she can't stay that way. Princesses have to marry princes or kings, and Elisa is no different. Her father and older sister arrange a marriage on her sixteenth birthday to a king of a neighboring land, and Elisa suddenly finds herself in a different country with all new foods.

Now, Elisa is much different than me. I'm heavy, but Elisa seems to be morbidly obese. She's totally got Such A Pretty Face syndrome, and while I'm on the subject, thank you Rae Carson for a character who is dark haired, dark eyed and dark skinned! And even thank you for making her fat. I just...I'm not like that. I'm heavy, but I don't eat in front of people, and Elisa seems to have no problem with that. She eats, and then she goes back for more, and then she visits the kitchen in the middle of the day and night and afternoon and elevenses. I squirrel away food, particularly sweets, and eat it when no one can see. I know that everyone is different, but most of the fat people I know don't like opening themselves to ridicule by eating out loud like that. Elisa is really pathetic where food is concerned, and while I loved her descriptions of honeyed melons and sugared date balls and scones of all sorts, I started thinking that food is less of a comfort to her and more of an addiction. And that's okay, I just wish there had been more of her eating normally in public and then sneaking off to somewhere else to really dig in and get her "fix".

Now, Elisa's Godstone is sort of in the background in the beginning, but such a thing can't stay hidden. In her new country, King Alejandro decides to keep his marriage to Elisa hidden, and tells her not to reveal her Godstone to anyone. Elisa sort of flounders at this and actually gets proactive and writes her sister a note, and her sister answers and says basically, that if Elisa wants to be queen, she has to make herself queen.

So Elisa hides in her bedroom and eats herself silly.

And I walk into the book and smack her upside the head and shout, "Wake up you idiot!"

The good news is that Elisa begins to proactively attempt to learn more about her Godstone and learns that her sect believes that a Bearer can know nothing about it beforehand, otherwise their service will be tainted, while the sect she is currently in believes in training people. However, Ximena, Elisa's nurse, turns out to be a guardian in Elisa's sect, so Elisa can only do so much while she's around. The father of the temple gives Elisa three Godstones that fell out of their Bearers after they died, and Elisa is left to ponder them...but not for too long because of course she's kidnapped.

Now, I've read books where the heroine starts out heavy and then loses weight for whatever reason, but I've also only read one (1) book where the heroine started out heavy and remained heavy (Hi, Jenny Crusie!). I don't know why an author can't just be okay with the fact that her character is heavy. Now, in this case, Elisa is morbidly obese. She can't walk up a flight of steps without getting tired, and she can't go for an hour without eating. She has a pavlovian response to food and absolutely zero coping mechanisms, so I'm okay with her transformation. Particularly since the transformation, while physical, is mostly mental. Elise enters the desert a squishy creature with no discernable skeletal structure and emerges with a backbone firmly in place. It takes months and it's heartbreaking for her. But finally, finally, she sheds her skin and is transformed. Her obsession with food is still firmly in place, but it starts taking a backseat to her obsession with learning about people. Not from a book or from a place of superiority over them, but as an equal to them. She starts learning how to make friends by being a friend and how to get respect by giving it. She also learns what it means to be a part of a community, and that being a ruler means knowing your people. Lastly, she learns what love really is, and that she can't live without it.

In fairy tales, transformation happens usually in a forest, but for Elisa, she must enter the desert. She even starts learning more about the Godstone (oh yeah, that) and how to use it to save her people.

In all, I was very happy with this story, though it is more "young" than "adult". There are going to be two more books, but I'm not sure if I'll read them. Not that this book wasn't enjoyable, but I'm not sure I can handle Elisa again. I'm glad she transformed, but she started out the book a virgin bride, and she ended a virgin bride. Sure, I get that her husband wasn't all that, and that she fell in love with someone else, she's been through a huge transformation both physical and mental, and I don't think she should have just hopped into bed with Alejandro at the first chance she got, would have given her that last edge. That last facet. She ends being just a virgin who can't drive. And just because I railed against this in Branded by Taylor Keary, I want to say that I don't think people should just go and have sex. I'm in the third Green Rider book, ad Karigan still hasn't lost her virginity, but since there is no emphasis for her on sexual relations, and because she's disinterested in being with anyone other than the guy she is not currently romantically involved in, it doesn't bother me. In both Branded and this book, there is an undercurrent of the heroine just allowing stuff to happen to her rather than her happening to stuff, and sexuality is one of those things that both heroines turn off. Karigan by contrast is very capable of reaching out and taking what she wants, but she stops herself not because she is embarrassed by sex, or because she's not ready, but because she doesn't want to. Both Elisa and Jessica seem to want to have sex, but are embarrassed by it, or shamed by it, or ashamed of their bodies, or whatever is stopping them. In fact, Elisa gets a little mean with Alejandro, and yes, he's not really a likable character, I just wish she had taken more control of the situation in a firmer way. She's a strong heroine in many ways, but in some important ways, she flounders and...again, I'm not sure I care to read more.

Overall, I'll give it a B.

Edit: I almost forgot. In regards to Elisa and her Godstone, there are all sorts of people after her. One of the sects of the church feels that Elisa is not important, but her Godstone is. Alejandro clearly thinks she can use it to help him lead the war that is coming. The people who kidnap Elisa believe that the Godstone will help them win the war that they are already in the thick of, and the people who are bringing the war think that Elisa will help them prevail. Everyone says that it's the will of God. This, that, the other thing, is the will of God. Except Elisa. She is the only person who shows doubt, and she discusses her doubt both internally and with a Father that she has befriended. She doesn't know the will of God, and at times even doubts His existence. This is pretty awesome coming from someone with a supernatural stone stuck in her bellybutton. I loved her doubts because it made her a real character, and it also held up a mirror, so to speak, for my own beliefs to challenge me on them. (Again, there is religion in this book, so you're either okay with that or you're not.)

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