Ah, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With your cliched title (a mix of Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games referencing), your bland fantasy cover and your hyped marketing back when you came out, I was prepared to hate you. In fact, I wasn't even sure what drove me to read you in the first place - it may simply have been the front cover blurb by Tamora Pierce (who rarely blurbs), or perhaps I had seen a positive review recently. I'm not sure what it was. Somehow, I checked you out of the library. I read your first few pages and scoffed. And then I read the rest of you, and my mouth shut tight. Because, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you are one of the most unexpected, subversive and intelligent young adult books I have read in very many years.
The story begins blandly enough, with a generic young adult fantasy description of "dark magic", the "chosen one" and a dull hint of romance. The first chapter echoes this emptiness as well - it begins with Elisa's marriage to the surprisingly young, handsome and friendly King Alejandro. But even in this predictable setup, Rae Carson manages to slip in important details that will shape the remainder of the book. First, we learn that Elisa is dark and fat, and that beyond her weight is an underlying eating disorder - Elisa eats at her unhappiness. These descriptions are perhaps not uncommon in young adult literature, but they are rarely found in stories of the "Chosen one".
As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Elisa's insecurities are not simply a minor matter, but the crux on which her hero's story is built. Elisa's status as Alejandro's wife is kept secret in her new home, and she is uncomfortably aware of her "other" state. Beyond that, her status as the "chosen" (in this case, bearer of the Godstone) complicates her ability to live a normal life. Her nurse is a bodyguard, her status kept secret, and she is ultimately kept in the dark about much of the Godstone's history.
It's from this position that The Girl of Fire and Thorns takes off into wildly unexpected realms. Elisa undergoes the standard heroes journey, but her growth is genuine and believable. The story takes place over many months, during which Elisa forms believable relationships with the people around her. She's a complex character, lacking in certain forms of confidence, yet excelling in others. In one scene, she essentially muses over "fake until you make it", mimicking her more confident older sister to achieve her means. Elisa is also skilled in matters of military strategy, but we see this as a natural offshoot of her curiosity, less as a result of Mary-Sue perfection.
Much of the book focuses on confidence, largely seen through the lens of Elisa's weight. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa is a bit strange in this regard for a young adult heroine - she is not physically fit, particularly tough, or adept at playing the, ahem, game of thrones (sorry, I couldn't resist). She is, however, a sharp military mind, brave in her own way, and trying desperately to forge her own path in life. We see this reflected in the way her weight is viewed by those around her - those who recognize her even after a significant physical change (due, I should emphasize, to a legitimate plot point and not some fluffed up "progression"), those who view her weight as a nonissue (someone who casually references fitting into her old, bigger dresses in the form of a compliment), and Elisa herself, who responds to her weight loss by marveling at her own body without obsessing over it, and recognizing that she may regain some of that weight and it wouldn't be the end of the world.
Another important theme - and more plot relevant - is that of religion and faith. Like many fantasies, there's a level on which faith in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is irrelevant - there is magic, there is a Godstone, and so there clearly is a god. And yet the novel observes faith as sharply as it might be viewed in the real world. Yes, Elisa has a certain level of "proof" that her god exists, yet she doesn't understand god's motives or plans for her. The physical evidence may cheapen the effect somewhat, but religion is tackled here in an honest way that is rarely seen in young adult literature (or adult literature, for that matter). Elisa is not always certain of the religious ceremonies and traditions that rule her life. There is a journey of faith in the book, but Carson makes sure not to alienate readers by keeping the morals somewhat vague. Though the religion is clearly Judeo-Christian in style (monotheistic, with many phrases that echo Judeo-Christian values), the god of The Girl of Fire and Thrones did not feel defined enough to possibly offend readers of other religions and faiths.
These themes - confidence and faith - are only two ways in which The Girl of Fire and Thorns manages to eschew expectations. From a plotting perspective, Carson keeps things tight and believable, with a balanced timeline and good spacing. Almost all of the characters were given more than one dimension, most were even lucky to get to three. Carson, unlike almost every other author ever, also acknowledges when she isn't giving enough attention to a character: Elisa notes at some point how little she knows of one of her traveling companions because he is so quiet. It's a small moment, but it adds tremendous depth to a world that's already surprisingly broad. By acknowledging that Elisa is not aware of everyone - by tossing the notion of the "red-shirt" - Carson subtly builds a world that goes far beyond its tight, core cast.
The book is not flawless. While most of the book is carefully built and well defined, the last few pages felt disappointingly rushed, mostly in that I could not easily visualize the action occurring onscreen (even after rereading it). Small movements seemed to get lost as the story lurches towards its climax, in a scene that also felt a little clumsily written. In general, the writing is that first-person present-tense that is so common in young adult literature today, but is never really to my liking. It's not bad, but it's definitely not my favorite.
All in all, I was incredibly surprised by The Girl of Fire and Thorns and look forward to its sequels most eagerly. In a market that can easily seem saturated with sloppy fantasies and dystopias, this is a novel that deserves its own space. It's not necessarily the most unique premise for a story, but the way it develops its characters and the way it builds its world certainly is something special. Readers - younger and older - may find themselves with a lot to think over and discuss by the end.