Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review: Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Also known as 'The Girl of Fire and Thorns'
A massive thank you to Jon at Orion Books for sending this book to me. However the review is entirely my own thoughts and opinions.

Princess Elisa is a disappointment to her people. Although she bears the Godstone in her navel, a sign that she has been chosen for an act of heroism, they see her as lazy and useless and fat. 
On her sixteenth birthday, she is bartered off in royal marriage and shipped away to a kingdom in turmoil, where her much-older and extremely beautiful husband refuses to acknowledge her as his wife. Devastated, Elisa decides to take charge of her fate and learn what it means to bear the Godstone. As an invading army threatens to destroy her new home, and everyone at court manoeuvres to take advantage of the young princess, Elisa becomes convinced that, not only is her own life in danger, the whole world needs saving. But how can a young girl who has never ridden horseback, never played the game of politics, and never attained the love of a man save the world? Elisa can't be sure, but she must try to uncover the Godstone's secret history before the enemy steals the destiny nestled in her core.

Anyone who is a fan of Tamora Pierce will adore this debut novel by the exceptionally talented Rae Carson. As a child I couldn’t get enough of Tamora Pierce, and I’ve spent my life looking for other authors who can do to me what she does – Maria V Snyder comes exceptionally close, but Rae Carson has just run way into the lead. We’ve got an incredible fantasy world that is close enough to our own that it doesn’t require too much explanation, a strong and incredibly loveable female lead, yummy men galore, and a quest that would be enough to make the strongest man faint, but merely makes Elisa roll up her sleeves and get on with it.

Carson doesn’t spoon feed, she gives you enough information to set you up, and then a gentle shove into the plot with instructions to get going, and it works beautifully. Not once did I feel bogged down in exposition, the plot swept me up, kept me interested, and provided information where I needed.

Every character is flawed – some fatally so – but it feels like such an honest portrayal of the human spectrum, that the characters felt more real than they often can in fantasy. At moments it is achingly beautiful – full of raw human emotion, stripped back and desperate. Elisa is so full of love, and so blinded by her own insecurities and demons that she cannot see her own self-worth – but she’s filled with such loyalty and compassion that I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Elisa is, as I’ve said, a fascinating character. She isn’t so much spoiled at the start of the novel, as unaware of much outside her own sphere of pre-conceptions and self-pity. However, she grows up fast following her marriage and her humility solidifies her as a strong female character. She may not realize it for a while, but as her perception changes, she matures. She’s so capable, so strong, so determined that the world must be set to rights. And so sure of the way forward – even if she isn’t always sure of herself. She was incredible to watch as her transformation took place – from self centred princess, who was convinced everyone thought her a disappointment, to strong, capable and independent woman who will do anything to protect her country and her people, even if inside she is crippled with fear.

The plot is incredibly intricate – faith guides everyone, it sets in motion this phenomenal chain of events. The religion is absolutely vital to the story – it is what guides it and binds this mix of characters together. Everyone has some basis of religion that defines them and their actions, and the novel wouldn’t succeed without it. The idea of God is never questioned; what is examined is the idea of faith and belief, what they do to people and how people respond to them.
If you loved Tamora Pierce’s books you won’t have a problem with the religion in this book – that’s been one thing people have commented on in other reviews I’ve seen. The religious aspects are not forced on you as a reader or rammed down your throat, they’re merely accepted as a part of life – similarly to Alanna and her conversations with the Gods. It’s an integral part of the story and as such doesn’t single the book out as being particularly religious.

And one of the things that really scored points for Carson in my book, is the way she is totally not afraid to go there – no matter where there is. Ripping your heart out? Got it. Horrifically real ideas of war, wounds, and infection? We’ve got plenty. The little moments where things just don’t go right and you want to hug Elisa for still trying? Got those too. It dares to go that step further than Tamora Pierce’s books, and takes you from safe fantasy to harder more adult moments.

The only thing I wasn’t entirely sold on was the idea of body image that runs throughout. Elisa is described as fat – she comfort eats whenever she is upset or depressed – and she feels no burning desire to do anything about her image, she just remains incredibly upset by it. So when her image does begin to change through circumstance, she’s thrilled. I wasn’t convinced it was an entirely healthy idea of body image to promote. I could understand completely her sentiment and feelings, but I remained slightly wary of the idea throughout. I’ll be curious to hear what other people made of it.

I’m not going to lie, if I had seen this cover on Amazon or a book store, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. (The other covers for this book, totally different story, I love them!) Which is why I am so glad that this was sent to me. This world, the characters, the plot, they pulled me in within the first few pages. I could not stop reading. And by the time I’d finished I just felt so incredibly lucky that I’d read this book – that I’d had the chance to step inside Elisa’s world and live her story with her for a while.

The ending leaves room for a sequel (oh please god let there be a sequel!) and I really hope that Carson continues to tell Elisa’s tale.  I adored this book, and I’m impatiently getting through the other books I need to read so that I can go back and re-read it, and absorb it again.

A breath taking debut with one of the strongest heroines I’ve seen in fantasy in a very long time.

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