Once per century, someone is chosen by God to serve humanity. Lucero-Elisa is The Chosen One, marked at her christening by a blinding flash of heavenly light which left her with a Godstone in her navel…and no idea of what this required of her. Unlike the stereotypical fairy tale princesses destined for Great Things, however, she is not only the younger sibling but awkward, bookish, shy…and overweight. Really overweight. And out of shape. I can sympathize already.
The book begins on Lucero-Elisa’s sixteenth birthday, as she is being prepared for her betrothal to the king of a nearby country; he is widowed with a young son, and much older than she. This is very much a political alliance; the setting for this book is a divided world with the civilized kingdoms, faced with besetting barbarian mountain tribes, forced into political negotiations in order to survive. Lucero-Elisa is put through the engagement ceremony with Alejandro, only to find upon her arrival in his kingdom that he does not wish their liaison to become common knowledge yet. Shortly after her arrival, she’s captured by emissaries from one of the “barbarian” nations who have infiltrated Alejandro’s household and whisked off to the mountains…which is when things begin getting interesting.
I appreciate this book for a number of reasons. The heroine is not blonde and slender and pretty, for starters. Elisa is presented in such a way that the readers’ hearts bleed for her every time someone mentions her weight; there’s a heartbreaking scene when she’s presented at her fiance’s court and the fiance’s young son blurts out in front of the entire court gathered there “You’re fat.” (The potential stepson and our protagonist do end up befriending one another in a twist on all the stepmother tropes in fairy tales.) Lucero-Elisa begins the story a naive coward, protected to the point of being unprepared for what life will bring her, but in the course of the novel’s horrific things that happen to her, she learns to overcome that fear to become a genuine queen, capable of ruling her new country. I also appreciate the fact that Carson kills off sympathetic central characters–not that I like death, but rather that the author has the nerve to off a range of her characters, because, well, gee: that’s what happens in real life: being nice doesn’t protect you from your fate, and being dear to someone else (and holding them dear to yourself) tends to make you more vulnerable to doing heroic things to protect them, not to mention being put into dangerous predicaments by the opposition as a lever.
There are a few things I’m not sure about quite yet, or which some readers may find objectionable.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns is one of the few fantasies I remember in which religion is central to the plot–it strikes me as a variant on Catholicism–and this may bother some readers. Admittedly, it’s a form of “Christianity” which involves magic use and mystical gems, but still recognizable as something in the Judeo-Christian spectrum, and this combination may bother more conservative members of the real world Judeo-Christian-Islamic spectrum. Just warning you.
It’s the first of a proposed trilogy; admittedly, Carson does end this book at a plausible stopping point, with Luceo-Elisa becoming regent on behalf of Alejandro’s son, but I’ll reserve judgment on the author’s work until I read the subsequent books. Overall, the book has a Mediterranean flavor; many of the names and terms seem to be Portuguese or Spanish, and the book’s climate is clearly an arid one: think Northern Africa.
What to read next? One possibility is (or rather, are) a couple of Robin McKinley’s earlier books, The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown: the heroines in those two are both awkward misfits who find their niche through dint of warfare. The setting for those two is similar to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, as most of the action takes place in a semi-arid mountainous region, though in The Blue Sword, the heroine’s home country seems closer to that of real-world England.