Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Yet another of Krispy's library books that I absconded with in the hopes of a fun lark. It was a lark, but it was rather less than fun.  I know I promised good reviews, and they are in the works! Just, well, I read this over the past couple of days and needed to expel it from my system.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Pros: Refreshing Spanish-influenced jungle/desert fantasy setting; interesting premise and ideas about being the Chosen One; protagonist is a fat girl with an eating problem and self-esteem issues.

Cons: Protagonist's fat problems are resolved through outside interference; nobody has any idea what's involved in a war campaign and their strategic and military incompetence and the utter implausibility of many military events still makes me want to repeatedly punch their lights out with brass knuckles; WOOHOO PLOT DEVICE ENDING.

Intellectual Rating: 3 out of 10 stars
Emotional Grade: D

Book Blurb: (from Goodreads) 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

Alz's Take: This book has some good points, including an interesting non-traditional fantasy setting, by which I mean the main culture appears to be Spanish-based, and it's not all forests and castles because it's set in jungles and deserts. The writing style is nice enough, and once in a while quite pretty. The protagonist is a fat useless princess.
Before you get any ideas about this being a cutesy story, it is not.

There's political intrigue everywhere and war on the horizon.

The princess also has self-esteem issues that go hand-in-hand with her weight problems, but the book manages to deal with it without becoming preachy. (Though there was an awful lot of her binge-eating and calling herself a fat pig in the beginning, and also every time I thought she was really fat, she'd describe herself in a way that made her seem even fatter. When it finally said at one point that her breasts and her belly bounce when she runs, and she gets rashes on her thighs just from walking, I was like, OMG how obese is this girl???)

The whole Godstone and Chosen of God thing works out well too—I feared at the outset that the story would devolve into maunderings on faith and morality, but it didn't. The religious aspect of the book was treated more as background and a mainstay of the world than as a focus; the real focus is on characters and plot. I've read some comparisons and criticisms to Christian lit but I've read some Christian lit and The Girl of Fire and Thorns does not fall under that category anymore than Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Chime does.

Where this book is a failboat is the aforementioned war on the horizon and political intrigue. Because the political intrigue is not very intriguing and Princess Elisa for some unexplained reason lives her life by the Art of War, thinly veiled as a book by name of the Belleza Guerra. Why exactly a princess has memorized this book (or even exactly what the book is about, as all we ever know of it is the title and Elisa's occasional references to it) is never explained.

The narrative styles Elisa as a brilliant strategist but all of her strategies are stupid. Pardon me, I meant to say that all of her strategies sound good in theory, but how to actually implement them is either never explained or she comes up with incredibly lame ideas that would never work, and long faces are pulled at how long a shot this is, and then all her ideas miraculously go off without a hitch.

Without spoilers, I'll give you an example of this kind of problem, drawing from an example given in Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. You want to solve world hunger. What do you do?

Elisa's brilliant strategy would be: Feed the hungry!
Very good, Elisa! But where did you get that food?
That's where her brilliance ends. She wouldn't bother to think in terms of crops, perishable vs non-perishable food supplies, storage, transportation, distribution, workforce, etc. Yet somehow, because the story demands it, she'd manage to feed everyone in the world. Hooray.

Now imagine a girl like this wrapped up in court intrigue, political maneuverings, rebellions that aren't even real rebellions, and who is also the center of a never-explained war. Imagine this girl being put into a position of military authority.  Imagine her sheer incompetence that everyone else hails as brilliant strategy. Imagine her succeeding despite overwhelming odds, never-explained apparently-inexhaustible resources, and battle plans that I wouldn't respect by using for toilet paper.

Everyone else in this book suffers from a similar inability to rationally and realistically make wartime plans. The utter incompetence of everyone in this book is astonishing, from enemies to allies to the entire world. I'm sure using the word incompetent a lot but that's just what everyone is. Quite frankly I'm surprised that they even have a coherent government and have apparently won wars in the past. I wonder what happened in the span of a generation that caused the IQ of the populace to drop down into the range of your average potato.

I also didn't much appreciate how the enemy consisted of barefooted fur-wearing savages with painted skins on an apparently religious* crusade led by evil magicians. Oh, but since they're pale-skinned and some of them are blond it's okay and not a stereotype.

*This is sort of left open to interpretation since, again, we never find out what these filthy clump-haired barbarians are after.

Now let's talk about obesity. The main thing that kept me reading in through the early stages of this book was Elisa's presumable future transformation: I hoped that she'd slowly gain confidence throughout the book, wrestling with her eating problem and working hard to lose weight, and that these emotional and mental struggles would tie into and reflect her external ones. I looked forward to seeing how she'd find the inner strength to overcome these problems of her own volition.

I was disappointed.

She does lose the weight, but it's through external extenuating circumstances forced upon her. It's not her own choice, she didn't work for it because she was aiming toward this goal, it wasn't even something of which she was aware. It was entirely out of her control so there was no self-actualization or determination to assert control over her body. Nope. She has almost nothing to do with her own transformation, and afterward she just reaps the benefits without the mental struggle.

Nor does start to have confidence or be "strong" until after she loses her excess pounds. And I say "strong" in quotation marks because I don't ever really see it. I'm just told it by other people. Really? You can't develop strength and confidence before you dump that junk in your trunk?

This has nothing to do with the story.
Not to mention that the love stories were weaksauce. The one with the king she marries had the potential to be interesting and it was at first, but it never developed and we barely get to know the king. I liked the dichotomy they had going between them and what ultimately happened, but I wish there had been more. Plus we're pretty much told everything about King Alejandro by other characters. You're told he's etc. and etc. he is. Tell, do not show.

As for the second love interest, he is unmemorable, flavorless, and characterless. He doesn't even rank tofu; this guy is watery plain oatmeal. While I appreciate that Elisa didn't have a case of serious raging heartfelt lust/love for either of the two love interests, I didn't for a moment believe she was ever truly in love with either of them.

Whenever anything dramatic happened, or someone tragically, tragically died, I felt nothing. I hardly knew anyone. In one scene, something horrific and traumatizing happened, and yet I would have felt more emotional watching a piece of paper go through a paper shredder.

And you know what? Half the time it felt like Elisa didn't really care either, except out of obligation. Certain events seemed to have only a glancing effect upon her when I thought she ought to be distraught or enraged; most often she'd have a page of description or one act to demonstrate how she was upset, and then it was back to business as usual except for a halfhearted token line here and there.

The only supporting character of real interest was Cosm√©, a girl who is antagonistic from the start to Elisa for no reason that I can pinpoint, and even then I felt like the story was trying very hard to make her ambiguous—which worked at first but there was no reward for all the waiting I went through. What were her motivations? Cheap stock reasons bought in bulk from Drama Llama Inc.

This same supplier also provided a reason why Elisa had to leave her home kingdom (besides the whole marriage thing) that I thought was going to play an important role later on, but nope. It's a Big Dramatic Reveal and that's it. No further import or impact.

Also, I'm not entirely sure if I might have missed or misinterpreted something, but there appears to be at least one large plot hole. Basically, I was pretty sure at one point that there were two armies (not sayin' whose), but by the end of the book the second army appeared to have vanished. What???
Random dancing fat princess!

The ending is one big huge plot device hurriedly introduced in the last quarter of the book and all the buildup is done almost after the fact. I went back to check on a certain detail and there was one mention of something, but it was so vague that you couldn't have possibly figured anything out. In a non-spoiler example, it's like if a random detail were described as a ball and then 300 pages later it's described as an orange. Could you have guessed it was an orange from the original description? No.

The actual climactic scene had me ROFLMAO because of exactly how it was written. Page 414, to be precise. It's hilarious. And it's not supposed to be. Not only is the entire scene badly-plotted and -explicated thanks to the kingdom of Joya d'Arena's utter military incompetence, but the description of—of—of course I can't say it because it would be spoilerific. Although it's not worth it to read the entire book just to get to one incredibly laughable description in an overall lackluster scene, it's something to look forward to. Or dread, depending on if you want the finale to actually be dramatic. I still can't get the image out of my head.

The book is fairly standalone although it’s the first of a trilogy. I'm almost curious as to what the sequels will entail, but I think that reading the book blurbs will be enough for me since I don't want to devote another 400+ pages to reading about implausible unrealistic battle strategies, political intrigue that's rarely explained and generally makes little sense, and characters who I couldn't care less about if I had my emotions surgically removed.

Alz's Conclusion: The setting and premise are interesting enough that this book will appeal to fantasy-readers looking for something new. The plot and many character actions fail to hold up to scrutiny and half of the romance is more boring than reading a dictionary aloud in monotone, but if you can manage to engross yourself in the story, you might enjoy it.


Angela Brown said...

I haven't read this book so page 400 something doesn't mean much. However, I appreciate your honest review. You vented about the CONTENT, which makes it a good review...not a high score for the novel, but a good review.

And the doodles made it pleasant. Okay, actually...the doodles made it hilarious.

Shallee said...

I haven't read this one, but I've heard of it. Thanks for an honest review.

Tere Kirkland said...

I was wondering how the mc's weight was going to be treated in this (because OMG, she can't STAY fat, because that would just be silly. :P), so thanks for addressing that.

And as always, your doodles help me visualize the Alz-Reading-Experience, especially the one that has nothing to do with the story. That's my favorite. ;)

Connie Keller said...

I haven't read this or seen it. But if you're looking for a wonderful read (if you haven't already read it), try Divergent. I just finished it--it was great! Oops, just remembered you've read it. Try The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. Not quite as good as Divergent, but good.

Golden Eagle said...

I recently read this book and I have to say, I agree with much of your review. I never felt a whole lot of emotional connection with Elisa or the other characters, and the weight thing bothered me. It's interesting that the author took that route since a lot of MCs are skinny, but it wasn't handled very well overall.

Lydia Kang said...

One of the best things about your reviews is getting inside your head and finding out that words such as "weaksauce" exist. Also, the doodles. The doodles are doodleriffic, but you already knew that.

You need to illustrate a PB for grown ups. Seriously. It would be killer.

Emy Shin said...

I had to re-read page 414 to follow what you were talking about -- and yes, I do agree. I actually enjoyed the novel up until the climax. Then, everything just got very weird and hazy.

Regarding the arts of war in the novel: If I don't think too hard about it and just speed through the book, I appreciate the existence of a heroine who has a tactical mind. But I agree that the military strategies present in the novel are shaky at best.

Sophia Chang said...

Of course I turned to the page immediately as well. I'm more forgiving of those kinds of conclusions - par for the course for fantasy, it seems.

In Carson's defense, she did address the weight loss and external approbation on her website with a feminist critique on how heroines are viewed. Worth the read and I appreciated what she had to say about how women are judged by appearance, good or bad - including her protagonist. She's aware of the issues surrounding weight and how women are perceived, and also about how women are perpetrators of this very critical eye more than men at times.

Last note - the WIP I had you rip to shreds actually had a bit of a similar plotline with GoFaT (don't you love that that's the acronym??) so I ended up having to change the whole thing. You'll be glad, I'm sure lol.

Penelope Sanchez said...

I love this book so so sooo much. I bought the other three books right away and cannot wait to dive into the magical world of Thorn and Fire again.

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