Monday, July 18, 2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns

I want to say I was not impressed by the cover of this book, but I was. The title was interesting on its own: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but oddly, by the time I finished the book, I really had to think about where they got those images, Fire and Thorns, and I didn't find them very apropos to the heroine. The book itself had the most non-telling picture of a beautiful girl on the front (so many young adult books do these days), and the back cover copy contained the most vague description that I've read in a long time. When I started, I had no idea what sort of book I was about to read, other than that the heroine was a princess on the path to fulfill her destiny. The cover copy gushed about the contents with unrevealing keywords specifically used to draw an audience in, and it compared the book to Kristin Cashore's Graceling, which I enjoyed awhile back. The letter from the editor, accompanying this advance reader's copy, was just as vague and gushed just as much as the book cover. I can't say I think it's a good cover, but it worked on me. And...I'm glad it did. Fortunately, the cover I have does not match the one pictured here. It looks like someone else knew the cover needed a make-over, too.

This book is Rae Carson's debut novel and the first in a trilogy that, I will tell you right now, I plan to buy if the other books don't show up in the advance reader's copies. I will be a better promoter of this book, however, than the cover I have was for me and tell you exactly what it's about (without giving away any spoilers, of course).

Right away within the first few pages, you discover that Elisa is a 16-year-old princess from a religious, almost Hispanic (if it weren't fantasy) kingdom, who eats too much; bears a unique, God-given jewel in her navel as a symbol that she's been chosen for an important destiny; and is about to marry the desert king of a similar culture on the verge of war. Her only appeal, besides the stone in her belly, is her quick,  learned mind. She knows all about war, in her head at least, which is good because she is quickly tested.

The story really picks up from the beginning and moves. I would compare Rae Carson to Maria V. Snyder in that Carson is always moving the story somewhere across the desert, keeping the pace strong and the plot exciting. (I happen to love Snyder's Poison Study and Glass series for their intense action and plot movement.) Carson perhaps doesn't take her story quite as far, or push the plot quite as quickly with as many competing elements, as Snyder might, but it was one of those books that I hardly wanted to put down. When I found Snyder, I was hooked, and Carson has the potential to do that to me, too.

In addition to its forward momentum, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is lovely to read, no awkward sentences, just enough elegant description. It has a very Hispanic flair, though it takes place in a fantasy world of magic. The fantasy element is very light and appears mostly in discussions of plants and in the powers the evil animagi use in battle. It's implied that the Godstone, as Elisa's jewel is called, is magical, but that doesn't come into play for most of the book.

It should be noted that this is not Christian fiction. I have no idea what the author's religious beliefs are. The religion is only partly similar to Christianity and Catholicism. There is a ceremony not entirely unlike Communion, where participants are pricked by the thorns of a rose (hence, the title, I guess), and the perfect number is five, instead of seven.

I enjoyed Elisa. She's not very attractive a character at first, eating just to console herself sometimes. She's certainly an unlikely heroine for a young adult novel, an overweight teenager who feels herself unworthy of everything. But because of the time lapse of the book, she undergoes realistic change and growth. I loved her by the end.

Another intriguing facet of the book is that Elisa ends up getting married at its beginning. She's not just promised. The author actually goes through with it, which I think most authors wouldn't do. I like it. It adds another layer of complexity, marriage to a stranger at a young age. I don't want to spoil too much here, but let me just say they don't consummate the marriage then and there, and I'll leave it at that. There is a bit of romance later in the novel, but I'm being vague on purpose here. Don't assume anything. The book is not crafted to be a romance, and if you hang your hopes on romance, they will be dashed. Still, the romance that is there is beautiful and, for the most part, satisfying. There is something I can't reveal about the end here that may make readers feel like they were cheated a bit. But that would definitely be a spoiler, and I hate to give spoilers on books I think people might actually read.

I found this novel to be completely appropriate for its target age group, with some war-related violence, but the themes are not too adult. The heroine grows past her age group, perhaps, out of necessity, but I don't think that's bad for a young adult novel.

I wasn't sure, at first, how I would feel about the Hispanic aspect of this book. I'm not trying to be racist, but typically, young adult heroines, especially in fantasy, are white and might as well have British accents. Okay, now I am stereotyping. But the borderline Hispanic language (readable if you know Spanish) and the coloring of the people offered a unique touch to the atmosphere of this book, I thought. It made me wonder if Rae Carson is Hispanic, which, again, is stereotyping. It's just so unusual of a setting twist, particularly for fantasy. (Maybe I just don't read the right books.) In fact, one evil animagus encountered in the book has white hair and blue eyes that make Elisa question how he can even see, which I found humorous.

Aside from the cover, which simply did the book no justice (but the picture of which has been changed, at least), The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a rare find, and I'm sad only that I'll have to wait so long to read the next two books of the trilogy.

This book is available in September.

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