The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
September 20, 2011; Greenwillow Books
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.(courtesy of Goodreads)
The Girl of Fire and Thorns is an unusual book. A book where the main character does a complete 180 throughout the course of the plot, in looks and personality. A book that emphasizes the characters' faith in a way that fits seemlessly with the plot and is never preachy. A book that starts out weak and grows stronger and stronger. A book that incorporates Spanish language, culture, food, architecture, and more. A book where romance is present but not nearly as important as the protagonist. A book with major plot twists.
Elisa is one of the best fantasy characters I've read in a long time. She starts out this novel at a low place. She's fat, lonely, and undervalued. At least she thinks she's these things. Elisa was born with a great gift: the godstone - a stone embedded in her navel - only one person receives this gift each century and each is endowed with some great, unknown duty. For a girl who holds a position even higher than the princess she was born as, she sure is underappreciated. No one thinks anything of Elisa. Even her beloved nanny coddles and overprotects her. Her family is tough on her. Her new husband is embarrassed by her. Elisa's only friend is food. While it's difficult to see a nice, smart girl constantly berate herself and use food as a form of comfort, the author did a fabulous job of making Elisa relatable. I cared about her and understood why she felt so horribly about herself.
All this changes when Elisa is kidnapped. In fact, the entire book changes. It goes from being a slow, somewhat depressing novel, to being a action-packed, girl-power thriller. Elisa undergoes tremendous physical and mental change as she walks through the desert for days with her captors. And as she learns more about the world around her - the world that was hidden from her during her sheltered childhood - her idea of who's right and who's wrong begins to change. Elisa is ready to fight and to assume her birthright of the godstone bearer. And fight she does. Don't underestimate Elisa.
There's a great cast of side characters. I loved Elisa's nanny Ximena. One of the few people from Elisa's childhood who truly cares for her. And she's no Mary Poppins. I loved the complexity of Ximena's fighting skills as well as what Ximena hid from Elisa. Elisa's kidnappers are also an interesting lot. They start out as enemies and slowly turn into friends. Each had their own personality and relationship to Elisa. I especially loved Humberto. Sweetest guy and so perfect for Elisa! It added a nice element of romance to this story. Even Elisa's sister, who spends much of her time degrading Elisa, serves a valuable role for Elisa as she grows stronger.
The culture and world-building of the godstone was well done. My main problem with this book was the idea of the "chosen one" having a gemstone in her belly button. *Snicker snicker* I am apparently not mature enough to get entirely beyond that. But otherwise, I loved how the author took the framework of a familiar religion and imbued it with an entirely different mythology. By the end of the book, I felt familiar with the various kingdoms, politics, and long-standing wars. The reader is in the dark for the first third of the novel about most of the book's religion, culture, and history - but so is Elisa. We learn alongside her.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns ends on a strong note. I will say that there is a shocking *shocking* twist near the end. I admire the author for taking that route. The story has a logical conclusion - no big cliff-hanger - but leaves plenty of plot options open for future novels. Elisa finishes the book at the top. She is confident, brave, and ready for more. I can't wait to see where she goes next.