A funny thing happened to me the other day at the bookstore: I picked up a book called The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, and after reading the summary, I decided I was in for a comfortable and familiar fantasy adventure. I took it home, and quickly discovered the summary lied to me. Or at least, I discovered my perceptions of what this book would be were entirely wrong.
Princess Elisa is the bearer of the almighty Godstone, chosen by God himself to hold incredible power. Except no one would expect plain, mousy, fat Elisa to hold such an amazing honor. War is brewing throughout the land, and Elisa is arranged to be married to a war-weary king in exchange for more troops. Soon after, Elisa is stolen away to a faraway desert kingdom, where the people desperately need her God-given powers to save them. But Elisa has no idea how to use her power, and the enemy marches nearer every day…
From the summary alone, I expected another run-of-the-mill medieval fantasy—which I was perfectly fine with. However, the book takes a pleasantly surprising turn. The world of The Girl of Fire and Thorns has a strong flavor of Latin American and Arabic culture. It’s still a generally medieval world, but now in a desert rather than a temperate forest or mountain area. It’s all very exotic, while also very cruel. Elisa endures a dangerous jungle, and a sandstorm or two, as she is taken from her new home.
Speaking of Elisa, I really liked her. And honestly, reading about her really made me think about my assumptions of young adult heroines. Most of the time, they are these tall, skinny, girls who try to pass off as plain or ordinary, but suddenly turn into coveted beauties when the plot calls for it. Elisa breaks the mold in many ways. She is a princess and a powerful chosen one, but she is not skinny, and not necessarily beautiful. In fact, she struggles with body image.
Elisa knows she’s supposed to be this great, powerful bearer, but she always feels unworthy of the Godstone. Of course, Elisa could have been a whiny brat who constantly questions her worth, but I think she is a badass. For one thing, she knows several cultural documents very well, and is a great war strategist as a result. While generally wary of the world around her, she still holds well against her detractors.
In short, Elisa was a pleasant surprise as a heroine, and I would like to see more like her.
The other characters were well done too, but Elisa took the cake, just because she was so engaging and easy to root for.
This book was easy to engage with, thanks to the good worldbuilding and the profound sense of danger surrounding Elisa. Elisa is either always learning more about her place as a Godstone bearer, or in the midst of danger. Either way, you’re always learning something more about this world, and it never feels like an exposition slog.
You would expect for a book about a girl chosen to bear a great power to be as cliché as it comes, but oddly enough, that is not quite the case. There are so many layers to what people believe the Godstone does, and what Elisa is supposed to do, that you can’t really guess where things will go. Sure, you might have some familiar story beats, like a tense climax and a cute romance, but on the whole, this world is so well realized that you just get pulled along.
I might have come into this book expecting another comfortable medieval fantasy, but it was a pleasant surprise in almost every way. Although there are apparently three more books (why am I not surprised that this is a series…?), I liked the journey this book provided, and we’ll see if I’ll be able to return soon.