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[Book review]: The Fire and Thorns Trilogy by Rae Carson

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Book 1: Fire and Thorns


The enigmatic nation of Invierne is menacing the borders of both its neighbours, vast Joya d'Arena and its former vassal state of Orovalle. The two kingdoms have allied together against this threat through a marriage pact, with King Alejandor wedding Princess Elisa of Orovalle. This simple alliance is strengthened by the fact that Elisa is the bearer, the wielder of the Godstone. For two thousand years the bearers have performed great acts of bravery and heroism against the forces of evil.


However, Elisa is no hero. Pampered and overweight, she doubts her holy mission. But the boiling deserts of Joya d'Arena will prove her testing ground as she struggle to unlock the secrets of the Godstone, and those of the bearers who came before her.


Fire and Thorns (published as The Girl of Fire and Thorns in the USA) has the whiff of the standard fantasy epic to it. It's the opening volume of a trilogy, it features a callow young protagonist who grows into their destiny as the book unfolds and it's set in a fictional world. That said, it does feature a (relatively) uncommon setting, influenced heavily by Moorish Spain, and there is no map (somewhat irritatingly, as the book does feature some fairly intricate geography which the vague descriptions in the book don't really help establish).


The book is told in the first person by Elisa, who makes for an engaging protagonist. Much has been made by readers about the fact that Elisa is overweight when the book begins and that the author raises the issues of body image and confidence issues and explores them in an interesting manner. This much is true, although there has also been criticism of the fact that as Elisa transforms from callow youth to badass warrior queen she also drops the weight, which seems to be suggesting that overweight people can't be confident and strong rulers in their own right. This is a slightly problematic issue, although I think it's more a reflection of the fact that the story takes our heroine across burning deserts and through thick jungles on months-long journeys where it is implausible she wouldn't get fitter (unlike a certain other author's character called Samwell Tarly, cough). Still, the author does manage to raise and explore the issue without overburdening the book with it.


Fire and Thorns is in YA territory. There is no overt sex or swearing, and the violence is somewhat mild, although several major characters are killed in a rather offhand manner. There is the threat of gushing romance, but it never really materialises (somewhat thankfully) as the war and action storylines take prominence. More disappointingly, there is some very solid set-up done for some promising political intrigue which never really materialises. The resolution of the political plot is in fact rather disappointingly pat and convenient. However, there are some solid twists in the magical storyline, as Elisa uncovers the history of the Godstones and discovers their true purpose.


Caron writes engagingly, making Fire and Thorns (***½) a fast, easy and, despite the aforementioned issues, enjoyable read. Those looking for something dark and gritty best look elsewhere, but for a lightweight, easy-to-read fantasy this is more entertaining than most. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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Book 2: The Crown of Embers


Elisa, Queen Regnant of Joya d'Arena, has defeated the invading armies of Invierne. However, she finds ruling her new nation difficult. An outsider from another land, her commands are not respected and she faces challenges from both the nobility and the masses, whose taxes must pay for the rebuilding of the country. Elisa must also face down a renewed threat from Invierne. Defeated on the battlefield, they now play a game of misinformation and intrigue, with assassins stalking the rooftops of Elisa's capital. In the midst of this Elisa discovers a vital clue to the origins of the magic of her Godstone, but dare she leave the capital in the hands of her rivals to pursue this quest?


The Crown of Embers is the sequel to Fire and Thorns and is the middle volume of a trilogy. Like its predecessor, the book is an easy, light read but is unfortunately rather less successful. Whilst the first book featured a solid, eventful plot which unfolded with focused conciseness (a relief from the too-many flabby epic fantasies around), this second book is comparatively uneventful and repetitive. There are several assassination attempts, which are foiled. Elisa angsts over how to rule her kingdom more effectively, to no conclusion. She angsts who whom she should marry for the good of the kingdom, to no conclusion. She moons over a potential love interest, even in the middle of a dire assassination attempt. Rinse and repeat.


These problems are confounded by regressive characterisation of the lead: Elisa evolved, in a standard but nevertheless reasonably-well-handled way, from coddled princess to warrior leader in the first book. In this second volume she seems to lose all of the confidence and skills gained in the first book and becomes a lame duck ruler, unable to assert her authority. This would be more convincing had we not seen Elisa already weld a band of desert villagers into a fearsome guerrilla army. No real explanation is given for Elisa's fall from competence in this volume save it was necessary for plot purposes. Some of the secondary cast get some decent character development (such as Tristan, one of Elisa's potential suitors), but overall the characters are less interesting than in the first book.


Where the novel does spring to live is in its depiction of the unusual magic system and the revelation that a lot of what is assumed about the world's backstory may be untrue. But these moments where character (and reader) assumptions are overturned are fleetingly brief. Otherwise for the bulk of the novel we are subjected to pretty standard YA fantasy fare, with the added irritation of an undercooked love story that utterly fails to convince.


The Crown of Embers (**) is a serious letdown after the first novel in the sequence. There are flashes of inspiration and interest, but overall this is a book that is content to rest on its laurels rather than build on the successes of its predecessor. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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