Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carlson is the first in the Fire and Thorns series. First, why does it seem like being a part of a series is a prerequisite for publishing these days? I love series books, but I'd love a really good stand-alone YA novel even more right now.

Elisa, Princess of Orovalle, is, in her own words, fat and unremarkable. Though she has been marked by for greatness, she doesn't have the confidence in herself to really believe she will make an impact on her world as is expected of the bearer of the Godstone. The mystical Godstone is bestowed upon one person a century; this person carries a bright jewel in their navel that becomes a part of them - thrumming when the bearer prays or warning them of danger with ice shooting through their veins. Many bearers of the Godstone never accomplished anything of note before they died, others have been praised in the history books as great heroes completing their "Act of Service".

At 16, Elisa is married off to the beautiful king of Joya D'Arena. She learns early on that her king, while handsome, is not the kind of ruler who could lead his country through the impending war with a neighboring, godless nation. Elisa relies on her faith and wit to see her safely through her first weeks in the unfamiliar court. As Elisa finds her footing, she begins to learn more about her Godstone, things that were kept from her by those she loved most, and discovers more about the role she may play in defeating her nation's enemies and saving its people.

When Elisa is kidnapped by rebel bandits, she's introduced to life on the front lines. Her notions of war in the not-too-distant future become her immediate reality. She also finds herself falling for one of her kidnappers, the charismatic and kind Humberto. Her new life in the remote desert teaches her self-reliance, strengthens her faith, and cements the idea that her life will serve a greater purpose.

Generally, I liked this book. The magic element was different from what I usually find in YA fantasy with its overt religious tones. More than once I found myself asking if this was a Christian fiction novel, but it never bothered me. I enjoyed the transformation of Elisa's character to a strong, independent woman worthy to be a queen to the people she'd grown to love. However, I never understood why she was the self-hating mess we met in the first chapter. I feel that Carlson could have focused more attention on how Elisa had come to be what she was.

When the plot moved to the kidnapping stage, I almost quit. I wasn't invested in Elisa and was irritated that she was moved so quickly from her new life before I had my fill of court intrigue. I'm glad I stuck it out because her story became more interesting with every chapter. The quasi-romance between Elisa and Humberto never felt central to the story. It's not clear whether Carlson did this on purpose to keep us focused on Elisa's journey of faith or because it wasn't well executed. When the dreaded L-word comes up, I better be clamoring for it or else it feels forced. This felt forced.

Despite a number of typical YA plot twists, there were a couple near the end that caught me off guard, which I appreciated. (Sometimes I like to be wrong about where I think a story will go. Keeps me on my toes!)

The second book in the series (sigh) is due out this month. I'll add it to my list, but I'm not in a rush to get my hands on the next installment. Take that for what it's worth.

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