Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

From the summary: Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

Lo says: Full disclosure time: Rae Carson is a sister of sorts. She is a member of Team Root (those of us lucky enough to be represented by Agent Superhero Holly Root), and we’ve found this group to be ahhhmazingly supportive (and also a little fabulously crazy you guys I’m not even kidding have you met CJ?). I want to stress, however, that I fell in love with this book for reasons wholly unrelated to the fact that we share an agent. Holly just clearly knows how to pick ’em (heh). You can find some great stuff on Rae here, and here, and here.

Woman, it’s hard to know where to start. We don’t talk about ourselves on this site much, but many of you know that I have a career in a highly competitive and still-male-dominated field in neuroscience. I also have two small kiddos, a kick-ass husband, the occasional role in convention YA book panels, and a love for writing & reading.  Yeahso, I don’t have much free time.

Sometimes I struggle with everything that I’ve taken on but, like many of you, I find a way to balance the role of mommy, wife, career woman, writer, reader, fan. It’s not always easy, and there are days when I melt down from stress. Suffice it to say, a strong female character gets me RIGHT HERE *taps heart*. But stories that truly, TRULY focus on issues of female empowerment are rare in YA. Even Hunger Games – which is easily one of my favorite series – is at the very minimum somewhat about the Peeta vs. Gale romance question.

I was completely surprised by Girl of Fire and Thorns. It really is about Elisa. It isn’t about the swoon or the guy or the relationship. It is about her.

I knew GoF&T was fantasy, and this genre (YA or otherwise) tends to have strong female protagonists. But these protagonists can often go far in the other direction: that is, they frequently reject “traditional” female values (marriage, family) entirely (see beloved Katsa in GRACELING).  While I love this portrayal (and its role in feminism is admittedly critical), in some ways this extremity misses the mark: female power is demonstrated by our ability to balance every role we choose. We can be mothers and leaders. We can be lovers and warriors. We can be insecure and valiant. In GoF&T, Elisa has to find her way in each of these capacities.

Elisa is an overweight, self-loathing, and lazy princess. She is the bearer of the Godstone [literally a stone in her navel placed there by God. It communicates with Elisa with warmth and cold, etc.] Each bearer presumably has a holy purpose, and Elisa is basically waiting for hers to come along and find her, or be explained to her.  Essentially, she’s in denial that she’ll ever truly be called upon for anything important. At the beginning of the book, she is married – at sixteen – to the widowed king of a neighboring region. Elisa cares little for the circumstances underlying the arranged marriage, and worries mostly that she is much fatter than the former queen. All of this happens in the first couple of chapters. I was definitely intrigued by Elisa as a protagonist. She hadn’t done much to impress me, but I wanted her to.

And then, the story really begins, and it is EPIC.

The beauty is that there is no single event that influences Elisa’s character development. There is progress and there are setbacks. Elisa turns to food to deal with stress, doubts herself constantly, and blames others (perhaps justifiably, perhaps not) for her ignorance regarding her Godstone. But over the course of the book, she makes an amazing transformation from underachieving princess to a true leader, and what I appreciate is that it doesn’t happen on one page, and it isn’t necessarily tied to her weight. Elisa struggles, and stumbles, and finds overwhelming responsibility thrust upon her. She falls in love and craves affection, and in the end, her life is so much larger than who she married. Carson challenges our expectation of who should be capable and strong, showing bravery and cowardice in places we least expect it.  When you close the book, Elisa is still far from perfect, but she is learning to balance her role as Queen, step-mother, daughter, and woman in ways that felt very real to me (even for a fantasy novel). I can’t wait for Crown of Embers (Dear Holly, I love you please send me an ARC when you get them).

I had only two minor issues: Sometimes I found Elisa’s voice a bit too mature, but it really didn’t trip me up because it all took place during an undefined time. I also really wish that the cover had featured a gorgeous, curvy gal. (But not in a prom dress.)

Anyway. That said, if you want to get lost in a book with knock-your-socks-off prose and a truly unique character, I can’t recommend this book enough.  I would love to discuss this book with everyone I know! Join in the comments – I have two copies to give away!

About Rae Carson (from Goodreads): I write books about teens who must do brave things. I’m originally from California, but I moved to Ohio to marry my husband, who is the smartest and therefore sexiest man I know. We live in Columbus with my teenaged stepsons, who are awesome. My books tend to contain lots of adventure, a little magic and romance, and smart girls who make (mostly) smart choices. I especially love to write about questions I don’t know the answers to. GoodreadsWebTwitter