Book Review: Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Publisher: Gollancz

First Published: 29th September 2011

Format: Paperback

Pages: 432

Genre: Fantasy, YA

Recommended Reading Age: 16+

Rating: 6/10

Amazon/Goodreads

‘Princess Elisa is a disappointment to her people. Although she bears the Godstone in her navel, a sign that she has been chosen for an act of heroism, they see her as lazy and useless and fat.

On her sixteenth birthday, she is bartered off in royal marriage and shipped away to a kingdom in turmoil, where her much-older and extremely beautiful husband refuses to acknowledge her as his wife. Devastated, Elisa decides to take charge of her fate and learn what it means to bear the Godstone. As an invading army threatens to destroy her new home, and everyone at court maneuvers to take advantage of the young princess, Elisa becomes convinced that, not only is her own life in danger, the whole world needs saving. But how can a young girl who has never ridden horseback, never played the game of politics, and never attained the love of a man save the world? Elisa can’t be sure, but she must try to uncover the Godstone’s secret history before the enemy steals the destiny nestled in her core.’

Fire and Thorns turned out to be an awkward book to review. I started of loving it and quickly got sucked into the story, but by the end of the book I had lost interest. I’m aware my lower rating of Fire and Thorns is in the minority, but I was disappointed by how little I was actually invested in the story. 

Elisa, our protagonist, is a princess and bearer of the Godstone. Which means she not only has she got a jewel in her bellybutton that runs hot and cold (the thought of which freaked me out), but she has also been chosen by God for some special purpose, or possibly, sacrifice, for her people. On top of which, a lot of people either want her dead because of it, want to use her for their own means, or just want to pluck said gem from her body.

Kind of a sucky deal to get when you’re only a few weeks old.

Elisa is a very devout character and also, sadly, a very passive, bland one. To begin with I fully expected to like her. She is overweight (she tends to eat when things get stressful), lacks confidence in herself, is shy – all things I, and no doubt many young readers, could identify with and that endeared me to her. Unfortunately, that seemed to be about the sum of her character. Other than gaining some confidence after loosing a lot of weight, I didn’t really see any growth in her character and I really struggled to find her interesting. I like my heroines to have a bit of fire in them and personally, Elisa just came across as incredibly naive and rather useless.

I do have to praise Carson for choosing to write an overweight heroine and when it is discovered early on that Elisa had knowledge of war strategy, I was excited to read a YA leading female whose worth wasn’t measured by her attractiveness. I hoped she would become a rather fearsome, intelligent leader and though she does take some steps in this direction, it sadly, never really transpires. It’s hard to warm to a character who sits there and stuffs her face with food whenever anything important is taking place, and even when thin, Elisa is often thinking about her next meal. I would have liked to have seen her gain confidence in herself and her body, as she was, rather than as a result of drastically loosing weight and feeling desirable for the first time.

Overall I guess I just wasn’t captivated by the story. I found the whole Godstone concept… strange, and felt its harnessed power, once revealed, was a letdown, and wasn’t well explained. There are several invading forces/armies in Fire and Thorns but other than being (presumably) power-hungry, and religious fanatics, their reasons and motivations aren’t explored other than superficially. Elisa muses on more than one occasion how she herself can believe without a doubt that she is doing God’s will, when everyone is just as convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Carson never takes this any further, which I found a shame, given how faith and religion form an integral part of the story. I also found the history of the bearers patchy and difficult to follow. Fire and Thorns does suffer from too much telling and not enough showing. That Alejandro is neglectful when it comes to his son, indecisive and has poor leadership skills is made clear to the reader because Elisa tells us all this, time and time again, rather than letting us come to this conclusion ourselves.

There are several positive aspects to Fire and Thorns as well. I felt the romance was well-handled, unpredictable and not at all cliché and I liked that Elisa comes to care for several characters in slightly different ways, it felt refreshing and realistic and I’d like to see how they all play out. The story is well-paced and suspenseful, especially the beginning and no character is safe. Carson doesn’t hold back from taking the story where she wants it to at the risk of upsetting some readers (if you’ve already read Fire and Thorns, you’ll know which scene I mean).

Underneath it all, I think there was a pretty solid fantasy adventure. What stopped Fire and Thorns from being an enjoyable read, for me personally, was the amount of religion. Faith, God and prayer were a significant part of the story, understandably, but it got to the point where I personally found it overbearing. Elisa was constantly praying and talking to God.  She was a very devout character, which is fine, but didn’t work for me and I found I couldn’t connect with the any of the characters or their cause which ultimately meant I didn’t really care what happened either way.

However, religion in books is a very subjective and personal thing and I think many people will love Fire and Thorns. If you love fantasy/adventure books with a slightly different leading female, I’d urge you to give this a try. While this one won’t be going on my favourite’s shelf, I enjoyed it well enough and I expect I’ll read the next book in the series. I’ll just be borrowing it instead.

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