Themes Explored: religion, destiny, prophecy, magic, self-acceptance, learning to love oneself, politics, court intrigue, romance, sibling bonding, theology, philosophy
Synopsis: Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness. Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young. Most of the chosen do. (Synopsis from Rae Carson’s website)
Review: I have read more than my fair share of Young Adult fantasy, both the good and bad. Regardless of the setting, almost all YA novels have one thing in common: extremely unbelievably attractive characters. Usually only the conflicted villains or the deranged characters are described as being less than perfect. I find this rather frustrating for two reasons: 1) not every hero or heroine possesses the body of supermodels or athletes. Indeed most historic heroes/heroines would not fit the idealized descriptions in books. Beautiful people are not the only ones who can achieve heroic goals. Not that I mind, most of the time I really do not care. Sometimes I just get tired of reading about “perfect” people. 2) I do not like that some books cast the “unattractive” people as the villain, “perfect ideal looking” people also possess the capability to be evil. I guess I am just tired of YA authors’ overemphasis on looks, there should be more depth to a character besides appearance. So I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon The Fire & Thrones Trilogy by Rae Carson.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns introduces the two main characters: Princess Lucero-Elisa and Hector. Princess Elisa is the prophesized “savior”, she is also insecure, overweight, and overshadowed by her older sister. For protective reasons, Elisa is married off to King Alejandro. Elisa is terrified of being thrust into the politics of a new kingdom where her position is uncertain and undefined. Everyone wants Elisa because she was given a Godstone at her christening. There is a small problem though, Elisa has been purposefully left in the dark about her ordained path and she has no idea how to start unraveling the mystery. Over the course of the book, Elisa faces deception and hardship as she embarks on a trying path of self-discovery. The book does not begin with an action packed start, most of the early chapters are about Elisa feeling sorry for herself. Most of the time she despairs about her “dumpy” figure, eats a lot of food, and worries about not fitting in with the other court ladies. I felt like yelling at Elisa a couple of times, just grow up and change your habits. Easy enough fix and most of your cosmetic problems would be solved. Thankfully, Elisa evolves past her self-misery and discovers her potential. Ximena Elisa’s guardian/nanny, got on my nerves with her holier-than-thou attitude. The book deals with religion, political machinations, kidnapping, betrayal, and self-discovery. Carson’s writing is a little weak in some areas and the world-building is rather thin. I wish she had fleshed out the landscape a little more rather than just hinting at environments. However, Elisa is a well-developed heroine who moves past her self-recriminations and rises to the occasion. Overall, this was a promising start to an interesting trilogy.
The second book, Crown of Embers, picks up where the first book ended. Now that Elisa has defeated the Animagus, she finds herself facing a politically tumultuously kingdom and a traumatized populace. Elisa must prove herself worthy of ruling a kingdom while being undermined by conniving councilors. Also, she has to fulfill her destiny as one of “God’s Chosen”. Working against her is that she is a foreigner and inexperienced at ruling a country. And now her advisors want her to marry a noble to strengthen the kingdom, reading between the lines: the councilors want a strong nobleman to step in and rule in Elisa’s place. Embers contains a lot of solid character development, Elisa progresses from scared Princess to confidant Queen. Carson strikes a good balance with showing Elisa’s strength and reminding the audience that she is still only seventeen. Hector is a little one-dimensional, but his interactions with Elisa are great. Storm is probably my favorite supporting character: he is enigmatic, complicated, and says what he means. I would have loved more scenes with him. Carson, thankfully, does not have a ridiculous romantic love tringle. I doubt I would have finished the book if she had included this plot device. Parts of the narrative went by too quickly and some scenes were poorly executed. Once again the world building is incredibly thin and I found myself craving more detailed descriptions. Carson excels at characterization but struggles with world-building. There is also a magical showdown of types between Storm and Elisa that forms a mini-climax towards the end of the book. I loved the concept of this fight, the tension certainly needed to be diffused. However, the scene was too short and lacked a strong emotional punch. This sequence would have been more dramatic if it had been longer and slightly more complicated. Instead it fell into the whole hero/heroine is stronger than they thought cliché. Crown of Embers is a solid second installment and ends with a nail-biting cliffhanger.
The Bitter Kingdom returns to the world of Elisa and her desperate attempt to rescue Hector. The main motivation comes from Elisa’s desire to find Hector and meet the needs of her nation. While Elisa’s confidence and poise develops over the three books, she still struggles to determine her own worth. In her quest to save her kingdom and Hector, Elisa alienates her family and learns that magic cannot heal every problem. Kingdom takes Elisa and her crew to the wintry and otherworldly nation of Invierne, Storm’s home land. Carson does a pretty good job describing Invierne, but it does not feel quite as alien as intended. Which is disappointing because Invierne was built next to volcanoes. The most disconcerting part of his book is that Carson kept switching point-of-views between Elisa and Hector. While this adds some drama to the story, the back-and-forth was choppy and changing views did not add much to the narrative. The plot takes a while to gain momentum and reach the main climax. There are also some common fantasy clichés, but are not overly distracting. The character development is great and all the main characters jump off the page. Elisa and her companions have fantastic chemistry and support each other when needed. The best part of this book is that Elisa realizes that her intelligence and courage comes from herself and is not a by-product of her Godstone. However, I still wanted more complex world building and a greater exploration of the dominant theology. The Bitter Kingdom is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy and ties up all the loose ends. I was quite happy with the ending.
Overall, the Fire & Thorns Trilogy is an interesting trilogy. Elisa is a great heroine and I was intrigued by her story. Carson excelled at bringing her characters to life and I was sorry when the trilogy ended. Though there are some excellent novellas that explore the backstory of some of the more interesting secondary characters. While this is not the greatest YA fantasy I have read, it was a fast-moving and interesting story. The books never drag and each installment does a great job progressing the narrative.