The Plot: Elisa, Princess of Orovalle, weds Alejandro de Vega, King of Joya d’Arena on her sixteenth birthday. Elisa is not just a princess; she is also the bearer of the blue Godstone, lodged in her belly button, a sign from God that she is destined for service.
Before Elisa leaves Orovalle for Joya, her older sister Alodia whispers to her, “trust no one.”
Elisa leaves Orovalle a child, protected, spoiled, indulged, soft. Her marriage to Alejandro and journey to Joya begin an adventure that will change her from a child waiting for her destiny to a woman who makes her own destiny.
The Good: What a beginning! “I have been praying — no, begging — that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.” Elisa, Princess of Orovalle, marries the King of Joya d’Arena on her sixteenth birthday, leaving her home and country for a strange land. Why does she make this prayer? “He will know that I am easily bored, that my dresses grow larger with every fitting, that I sweat like a beast during the desert summer. I pray we can be a match in some way. Maybe he had the pox when he was young. Maybe he can barely walk. I want a reason not to care when he turns away in disgust.”
As an infant, Elisa was chosen, literally, by God; the proof is the blue Godstone she bears. With her dual status of both princess and bearer, she has had a life of privilege and indulgence. For sixteen years, Elisa has done what she wants: she has studied, both religious texts like Scriptura Sancta and books about war like the Belleza Guerra. She has ignored politics and state functions, leaving that to her father and sister, the heir. She eats what she wants when she wants; she has never known what it is not to get what she wants. Despite this, she is not spoiled — she is simply young, sheltered, untested. Elisa’s first test is when the wedding party is attacked on its way to Joya. Elisa is the first to recognize the danger and to react; she gives sound advice based on her knowledge of military history; she saves herself and the two women who wait on her by thinking quickly and escaping a burning carriage through a trap door, and when Elisa sees someone else being attacked and about to die she grabs a knife and stabs.
Elisa’s adventure is about to begin, and part of the joy of The Girl of Fire and Thorns is how she triumphs, despite the hardships and challenges she faces: everything from kidnapping to sand storms. I loved Elisa; loved how a person can be a hero who spent their life in books and comfort. Elisa had no reason to learn sword fighting, to ride a horse, to be athletic, so she wasn’t. She doesn’t become some slim fighting machine; but she does transform herself into a person of action. At its heart, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is about a girl becoming a woman because she realizes her actions have consequences, that life is more than sitting back waiting for things to happen, and that she has choices.
The origin myth of this world is that “the First World died and God brought us here with his righteous first hand . . . [M]agic crawls beneath the skin of this world, desperate to squirm free. To combat it, God selects a champion every century, someone who can fight magic with magic.” A myth, except that Elisa is her generation’s champion and the physical proof of the truth of this story is the blue Godstone that appeared in her belly button while she was an infant; a stone that burns hot or cold depending on the danger she is in. Different legends and religious beliefs have arisen, to try to understand and interpret just what it means to be a bearer. Elisa thinks that all believe as those do in Orovalle, and she is devout (and who wouldn’t be, with a stone in their belly?); but she learns that other people have very different beliefs than the ones she was raised in. The Girl of Fire and Thorns is not so much a look at religion, as a look at how people believe in God and the structures and belief systems that arise to answer their questions.
Carson has created a wonderful, deep fantasy world, with names, food, architecture, language and peoples based on Spanish, Italian, Mediterranean and North African culture. The evil, cruel invaders are identified by their pale skin and unnatural blue eyes. And the world building! The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a triumph in how to show, not tell, backstory, in how to bring a reader into a strange, new world without any info dumping. By the time I finished this book, I knew there was so much more to this world that I look forward to revisiting it, in part to see what Elisa does next (note how I do not say what happens to Elisa next — she is now a doer), in part to find out more about Orovalle, Joya d’Arena, and Invierne, the land of the enemy. Invierne is clearly the enemy, and has done some horrific things, but Carson gives a whisper, a hint, a possibility that the Invierne are more than just barbarians.
What else do you need to know?
Elisa is fat. This is not a book about Elisa being fat; and there are a couple of characters I simply adore because it becomes clear that when they look at Elisa, they see her as beautiful and capable; they don’t see her as defined by whether or not she’s as slim as the fancy ladies at court.
Carson pulls no punches. Invierne is at war with Orovalle and Joya; war is not pretty. War is death and starvation; war is injury and mutilation. War is tough choices and living with the consequences of both choices and not making choices.
This is an epic, sweeping adventure; and yes, there is some romance and to say too much would, well, give too much away. But I will say I love, love, love the romantic elements in this book.
Because Elisa is such a wonderful, smart, unique main character; because The Girl of Fire and Thorns is about taking responsibility for one’s life and actions; because belief and God and religion is treated with respect; because the food made me drool; because for a few minutes I actually wondered how I could travel to Joya and see what Elisa sees and eats what she eats; for all this, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.