It’s really pretty marvelous. It’s full on fantasy—no urban or paranormal modifiers needed, no fairy tale retellings or alternate history to be seen. In fact, examined closely, there are tiny hints that this is a Pern sort of fantasy with a science fiction underpinning (this is a new world, one not meant for humans).
So, it’s straight up fantasy (aside from that tantalizing hint about the unknown backstory), but it avoids almost all the tropes: Elisa is not a spunky girl or a badass princess or a typical damsel in distress; she’s smart but lazy; destined for greatness but full of doubts—although also with enough backbone to push through them. She’s lousy at being a princess but she might just be an amazing queen, and the journey she takes from one pole to the other makes for some great reading. It’s also, from the characterization angle, difficult writing: a first person narrator, who needs to tell us all the ways she’s kind of a mess and all the ways she’s becoming fierce and fearsome, without become so telly that it becomes plodding and didactic is no small task to write.
Occasionally Elisa’s voice falters, but in minor ways.
Other characters are nuanced and interesting; we see only through Elisa’s eyes, so we don’t really know them, but Elisa’s voice is again well balanced, so that the reader can see Cosme as a rhymes-with-witch and then grow to respect her with Elisa.
World building: oh wow. Except when it isn’t.
In various committees over the years, I’ve been the one who pulls worlds apart. I read a LOT of fantasy. I know the genre tropes, and I am sensitive to stupid world building, or careless, medieval-lite, throw in a castle and you’re done worlds. I find myself wondering where all the ingredients for the fantasy feasts come from, if there are no farms, just castles and forests. I wonder about plump peasants, given descriptions of their privations.
And too many fantasies take the easy way and go for the Middle Earth/idealized England setting. This setting is instead fresh and unique. It’s Spanish-influenced (and indeed, the Lengua Classica is Spanish), with magic and—this was the shocker—religion. Who does that? And Carson does it well: yes, there is religion, and yes, there are some parallels to elements of Catholicism, but this feels parallel in truth rather than derivative or a stand in for religion from our world. I’ve read fantasies that are actually thinly disguised discussions of Christianity, and this is not that.
Moreover, despite the incontrovertible fact of God—there is a gem in Elisa’s navel, and it reacts to prayer and indicates danger—this is a world where doubt also exists. And schisms within the church. And evidence that if there really is a God, he or she might not be all that powerful: the wild, savage Inviernos (who, incidentally, have caucasian features and coloring, unlike Elisa’s people) seem to have more control over and understanding of the power that Elisa calls God than Elisa or her church do, raising the question of what exactly is the sentience and purpose of the godstone. Whatever this power is, it can be used in many ways, and it draws strength from blood. Elisa can see the questions raised by these facts despite her deep faith, which makes the subtext not about blind faith but about questioning and choosing and an altogether more intellectual relationship with spirituality.
So much good stuff.
Of course, there are also missteps. The succulent feasts Mara prepares in the mountain village where Elisa ends up? How exactly did all that food get there? Not the raw ingredients, but the spices and such, in what is essentially a refugee village full of children? It’s a small thing, but it was a crack in the windshield. Elisa’s weight loss is similarly a bit too easy—yes, it’s a month-long forced march across the desert, but shouldn’t that have been debilitating, not a successful physical training regime? (On the other hand, the scene where she enjoys her much reduced but still not skinny naked body for the first time is beautiful, and any female reader who has ever had any discomfort in her own body—which is probably all of them—will rejoice with Elisa in this testament to coming to terms with oneself.)
Despite the flaws, this is a rich read and it’s no more flawed than a few of the other frontrunners. Does it stand a chance? It’s genuine fantasy, which almost never gets a nod (there was that one honor, back in 2002, for The Ropemaker, and then… well, that’s it for fantasy that is straight-up alternate world, epic battles, royalty, magic and all). But this is also a book that poses some interesting questions about faith and war and leadership, and it certainly stood up to a second read, although it’s also on a second read that those minor flaws—the occasional crack in voice and world, the question of whether the physicality of Elisa’s transformation makes sense—stuck out.
I’d be surprised if this gets a Printz nod, thrilled if it snags the Morris. Regardless, I’ll be grabbing the second volume the moment it comes out.
Pub details: Greenwillow Books, September 2011; reviewed from ARC.