Rae Carson

Fire and Thorns, book 1

Gollancz (2011)

ISBN: 9780575099142

Reviewed by Stephanie Gunn

Fire and Thorns (released as The Girl of Fire and Thorns in the United States) is the first book in the YA Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson, and is Carson’s debut novel.

One individual in every century is chosen at their baptism by God, a beam of light descending from above to indicate that a Godstone has been lodged in their navel. The Godstone is a living jewel which remains part of their body, only detaching at the bearer’s death. It indicates that the bearer has been chosen by God for greatness, and is required to perform an act of service during their lifetime. None know what this act is, and most of the bearers die young, many apparently without accomplishing their destiny.

Lucero-Elisa, known as Elisa, is the youngest of the two princesses of Orovalle. Her sister, Juana-Alodia is the pretty one, the thin one, the one destined to sit the throne after her father. But it is Elisa, the fat, lazy sister, who bears the Godstone.

Seeking an alliance, Elisa’s father arranges her marriage. On her sixteenth birthday, Elisa is wed to Alejandro, King of Joya d’Arena. Elisa obeys her father and follows her new husband to begin a life that she feels herself ill-suited for. When Elisa arrives in Joya d’Arena after a violent journey, she discovers that her husband has kept their marriage a secret, and, as events transpire, she finds herself flung into a journey that will test everything that she is.

Elisa is a fascinating character to follow on her journey. At the beginning of the book, she states that she feels like a little girl, despite her accomplishments in language and her deep knowledge of her religion.  She focuses on food again and again, and in the first few pages describes herself as looking like a sausage stuffed into her wedding gown. The first-person narrative gives the reader no choice but to see her as lazy, fat and useless, despite her Godstone, because this is how she sees herself.

As the book progresses, Elisa’s image of herself is challenged over and over again, and she finds within herself a strength that she has never known (or, more pertinently, never been allowed to know). It is fascinating to watch her change, and how her own internal changes are reflected in the way she sees the people around her. It is very difficult, at the beginning of the book, not to feel absolutely revolted by the way several characters react upon discovering that this fat, apparently lazy girl, bears the Godstone.

Some readers will undoubtedly see parallels with Christianity in this book. This is a monotheistic culture, and as far as we’re allowed to see, God actually exists, being able to place the Godstone in the bodies of those chosen. However, there are hints that there is much about magic and religion in this world that is unknown. Elisa has complete faith in her God – how could she not, when her prayers literally warm the stone in her belly? – but her knowledge of the Godstone and her God is clearly incomplete. Further, Elisa’s enemies include magic users, animagi, who use and unknown power to wage war. Hopefully later books in this trilogy will explore both the magic and religion of the world.

Carson has developed an intriguing society in this book. There is gender balance, with women ruling as well as men, and there appears so far that gender isn’t an issue in the choosing of the bearer of the Godstone. In many respects, this world resembles the almost typical high fantasy feudal society, except that females are not limited to traditional roles (though Elisa is still somewhat of a bargaining chip, being married off for an alliance).

Elisa herself is an engaging point-of-view character. In the beginning of the book, she isn’t aware of her own potential, despite being chosen as bearer of the Godstone. However, she knows that she has something great to accomplish, and she never shies away from that, even when she has no idea what it is, or any idea of how she – the fat, lazy, younger sister – will actually accomplish her destiny. As the story progresses, there is the potential for what has become the almost-typical YA love triangle, but it is Elisa herself who stands in the way of this development. She is aware that she is married, and despite her marriage not being what she wanted, she always acts within the moral boundaries of this knowledge.

Overall, this debut novel is well worth the read: Elisa is a strong and interesting character, and the world is fascinating. There is a definite sense that only the surface of both Elisa and her world have been explored in this book, making second two books of the trilogy ones to look out for.