Once every century, a child is chosen to bear the Godstone, a sign that they are chosen for a great and holy service. For Elisa, second-born princess of Orovalle, it also represents a bewildering burden. A cloistered comfort-eater who’s never been part of the ruling routine, she can’t even imagine what that service will be. Then comes Joya d’Arena and all the court intrigue she’s always been sheltered from, with war looming on the horizon of a desperate people. Joya d’Arena needs a Godstone.
Elisa’s just not sure she can be worthy of it.
From the very beginning, we know Elisa’s view is rather different from what we’re used to with our heroines. “I have been praying- no, begging- that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.” For another thing, she’s fat. Not curvy, not plump, actually breaking buttons on the clothes and eating herself to stomach pain for comfort fat. Not typical for main characters in books, especially not teen books. She’s naive and anxious, scared, with a deep and abiding belief in her own basic uselessness. It isn’t that she hates herself- she’s not a prime candidate for cutting, or whatever it might be called in her world- but that she has such a dismal opinion of herself because it’s been reinforced by a more general belief of her.
And this is our chosen one.
What makes Elisa so compelling as a character and narrator is that she’s aware of many of her flaws. Not all of them, and she doesn’t overcome all of them, but despite her low opinion she’s remarkably self-aware. What she learns to do, slowly, painfully, and at great cost, is to also acknowledge her strengths. Step by step (sometimes literally) she comes to the awareness that she does have gifts, she does have talents, and she does have strengths. Most of the circumstances in which these discoveries take place are hardly ideal, but what else could force us to rely on strength we didn’t even know we had?
In the manner of those who are always standing on the edge of whatever group they’re in, Elisa notices people, observes them, notes the patterns in their behavior. Physically, she isn’t a soldier. Mentally, she’s probably the best strategist Joya d’Arena could ever hope to gain, a talent she has, again, never before had to use because she wasn’t part of her father and sister’s court. She knows to look for allies in unlikely places, but also knows how to name her enemies. How she comes by her maid is both priceless and brilliant.
One of the two biggest things I love about this book is how beautifully real the characters are. They’re complicated and layered, a profound mixture of virtue and vice, and because they resonate so strongly into real life, we feel as if we’re part of their story. There are no caricatures here. Even fleeting characters get a roundness that’s frankly astonishing. Sometimes attempts to flesh out characters in such a way ends up feeling inconsistent, like the author just doesn’t know the characters at all and so they teeter back and forth between different personalities, but here, all the disaparate pieces of personality come together- the ability to adapt under changing circumstances, the different faces we show to accomplish our tasks or aims, the vulnerability of being startled or hurt- into vibrant, real, captivating people.
The other biggest piece? Worldbuilding. Oh my God, the wordlbuilding. It echoes of Moorish Spain but comes alive into something all its own, a world where scent and taste envelops you every bit as much as geography and architecture and language. The food alone…*drools* This book will make you as hungry as Elisa when she’s upset. Just as the characters step off the page, so does the world. Heat sears your skin across the dry city, chills you over the desert at night. The fabric rubs against you and your nose fills with the scents- sometimes appealing, sometimes not- of life and activity. Even battles and wounds are given this vibrancy, so the weak of stomach? Be careful. When you open this book, it’s easy to forget that you’re reading; it’s like you’re there, watching it unfold right in front of you, a ghost that no one sees.
One thing kept worrying me as I read, though, and it dances a little around some spoilery stuff. As soon as I knew Elisa was fat- so, the top of page two- I knew that was going to change. I wasn’t sure when or how or under what circumstances, but I knew it was going to change. Pretty much had to, because at the end of things, a fat heroine isn’t who we generally want to be. As that expectation bobbled in the back of my head, always there, slightly intruding, I worried about what would happen once it did change. It’s easy, I think, to fall into the trap of “oh, now that I’m not fat anymore I’m quite pretty and everyone loves me and won’t life just be grand?!”. Rae Carson avoided that trap with skill and finesse, and I love her for it. Does Elisa lose the weight? Yes, and under completely believable circumstances, but because of those circumstances, she doesn’t really have the time to dwell on it for a while. There are things to do. By the time it could have broader impact, she’s already learned to value those who didn’t see anything wrong with her before. When it does have that broader impact? She learns that being thinner and admired- not skinny, and the skin is still slack where the flesh used to be, another brilliant detail- can actually be just as painful as being fat and overlooked. In the beginning of the book, her weight is very much a part of who she is, but over the course of the pages, she’s learned to step back from that kind of physical definition and look at all the rest she has to offer. For all my worry, there was nothing to worry about. What readers take away isn’t “oh, lose the weight and everything will be dandy”; it’s “learn who you are and believe in that”.
Read this book and you will fall into the world of Orovalle and Joya d’Arena and Basajaun. You will fall in love not just with Elisa but with Ximena, Hector, Rosario, and even those you don’t really expect to love but do anyway, despite, or perhaps because of, their flaws. You’ll travel through rich detail and driving action, to a conflict where everything is at stake and all the best efforts might not be good enough.
In short? Read. This. Book.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson, out in hardcover and e-book now.
Until next time~