A review of The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Published 2011, Green Willow Books
Because it is International Women’s Day, I have decided to write about the best YA fantasy author I have discovered in recent years and also probably now one of my top chosen-one characters of all time—both of whom just happen to be female.
In the series that begins with The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson gives us Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, Princess of Orovalle, and chosen by God to bear a Godstone in her navel and to fulfill a destined task. Like many chosen ones, Elisa grapples with being special—she doesn’t think she is and she is not even sure that she wants to be. After all, the Godstone would do better being in someone like her sister Alodia, who she says is “athletic and sensible, elegant and strong.” And when we first encounter Elisa, she is definitely none of those things. In fact, she seems to be the reverse, being overweight, emotional, awkward, and weak. It is no wonder that one Amazon user considers her too “unendearing” to be an author’s choice for a protagonist.
Very soon, however, and also very skillfully, author Rae Carson shows that this—she—Elisa—is the right choice. An early encounter with danger presents Elisa as someone who is able to put learned theories into practice, but also someone who is, probably owing to her insecurities, able to adapt even to the most difficult of situations. It is these two qualities that push Elisa’s character growth forward, that by the end of the book, the reader, along with a few other characters, will be all for Elisa because she has been forged by circumstance and by her own choosing to be responsible—as in able to make and carry out decisions, and also accountable for what she does—for herself and those under her charge.
And in the Godstone, placed in Elisa’s physical core, Carson in turn places the core of the narrative. As an incredible source of wealth and also of supernatural power, it easily gives cause to the life-threatening situations that lead Elisa to the considerable strength she finds in herself at the end of the first book. Much of the author’s world-building is also centered on the Godstone, understandably the main subject of scholarly and religious study in this universe. Among other things, it provided a comfortable frame for Elisa’s internal conflict, giving contrast and context to the way Elisa sees/values herself.
Several times, Carson impressed me with the deliberateness of her language and of her narrative. When it is obvious that a writer has taken the time to consider the significance of even the smallest details, a reader can’t help but feel valued and respected. And in this book, it is undeniable that the small thrilling details all add up to an enjoyable and organic whole. Think about this: as Elisa’s concerns move away from herself, mentions of food become sparser, along with the use of food in her metaphors. I don’t expect it to have been a conscious or an intentional decision, but if—no, when I plotted out significant events and/or revelations, they were all roughly spaced about 25% of the book away from each other. If that doesn’t speak of someone’s narrative handling skills, I don’t know what will.
One a skillful storyteller, the other a wise and strong leader—both women worthy of discussion for today’s celebration. Unfortunately, two women who have also been let down by how publishing industry has become used to choosing profit over proper representation. Take a look at the different covers for this book—most of them feature photos or illustrations of girls who are probably closer in description to Alodia. (True, Elisa would eventually shed some of her weight in the book, but even in the latter books of the series, even she knows that she just isn’t built the way Alodia is.) So—why, publishers, why? If you think that even with Carson’s brilliance, a book with a fat girl on the cover would never sell, why not just do what the German publisher did—focusing on the Godstone—and for once, pass on the chance to misrepresent a character?
If this book sets out to do anything, it is to say that when a person is formidable, no one cares what he/she looks like. Carson and Elisa’s publisher owe it to them to stay away from the popular version of beauty, especially with only profit as reason. This is a betrayal to them, and to the readers, and it will do nothing but perpetuate prejudices that shouldn’t even hold any sort of power in this day and age.