The Girl of Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson
2011 • 423 pages • Greenwillow Books
Previously, on the Literary Omnivore, I asked where God and organized religion was in speculative fiction. (Okay, I asked “Where is the God in fantasy”, but tomato, tohmato.) When speculative fiction deals with gods and goddesses, it often does so in objective terms—one cannot dispute the existence of the Valar, for instance, in Middle-Earth. But Throne of the Crescent Moon shows characters actively struggling with and practicing their faith in a world where the divine is not objective, and it gave me a taste for more. But where to start?
Book blogger Samantha of A Musical Feast came to my rescue with a recommendation of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I’ve known of Rae Carson’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy for a while, in that I used to spend many a shift at the bookstore in the young adult nook and they were in there. They looked like young adult fantasy (which is no slam, but just rarely distinctive enough to grab me), which is why it took Samantha mentioning that it’s actively based on medieval Spain and Spanish Catholicism for me to put it on hold at the library.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns is the story of Elisa de Riqueza, princess of Orovalle. As an infant, Elisa became the bearer of the Godstone—a spiritually sensitive gem embedded in her navel that marks her for great deeds. But Elisa feels like she’s never done anything of value and never will, with everyone at court judging her for her size and her failure to compare to her glamorous, politically adept older sister. No wonder when the King of neighboring Joya D’Arena asks her father for her hand in marriage, she’s married off immediately. But when Elisa arrives in Joya D’Arena, her status as queen is not advertised. Instead, her husband wants her help with the coming war as the bearer of the Godstone. But the coming war isn’t as simple as Elisa initially thinks it is, and she soon finds herself on the other side…
The best way to describe The Girl of Fire and Thorns is that it’s a great stepping stone between Kristin Cashore and Guy Gavriel Kay—plenty of swashbuckling adventure, lots of court intrigue, and great, historically-rooted worldbuilding. I loved the setting and I loved the atmosphere. Carson particularly hones in on food and some of the more unsavory aspects of medieval life in a really engaging and grounding way.
And Samantha wasn’t underselling the religious angle. While Elisa has, in some way, a direct line to God—the Godstone communicates to her through sensory details—she’s not always sure what God wants from her. She regularly prays for spiritual guidance and for comfort. She attends church regularly. She and several other characters consult Scripture and disagree on what it means. And there are priests! And churches! And abbeys! I never realized how much I love abbeys and religious communities in medieval contexts until I read this, which seems odd, since I just read The Book of Margery Kempe. Elisa’s faith is tested constantly, especially when she faces death for the first time early in the novel and realizes that she’s never really considered her ladies in waiting as people with whole, entire lives before.
I don’t want to get too much further into the novel, because I was completely unspoiled for the latter two-thirds of the novel, and I found it very effective. But I will say that I appreciated Elisa’s friendship with Cosmé, which evolves from something petty to true friendship over the course of the novel.
Lastly, I want to talk about Elisa’s size, because I’m torn about it. On the one hand, kudos to Carson for portraying a female protagonist struggling with body issues and compulsive eating (it’s Elisa’s main coping mechanism) in a way that’s part of the story but not the only story to tell about Elisa. On the other hand… Elisa goes through so much physical toil during the story that she loses a significant amount of weight. There’s a scene where Elisa takes a bath and glories in her body that does highlight how much joy she finds in her body now, but the emphasis is on the weight she’s lost, rather than how strong, capable, and comfortable she feels in her body now. It just felt, if you will forgive the crassness of the metaphor, like having your cake and eating it too. Elisa’s eating is obviously unhealthy—she starts off the story addicted to sugar—but… like… big bodies can be strong and fit, too. Bodies aren’t binaries. I would have loved to see Elisa come to love her body for what it can do, not its size. I appreciate what Carson is trying to do here, but I feel that it misses the mark.
I rented this book from the public library.