I was so pleasantly surprised by this YA trilogy, an example of a series that, in my opinion, actually gets better as it progresses rather than buckling under its own weight. This is partly achieved by Rae Carson’s sound vision, giving each book its own arc (which is no less important for being contained within the scope of one installment) within the larger narrative, but also by having that larger narrative be the product of genuine character and plot development rather than a series of coincidences and deus ex machinas. Having reached peak YA fantasy some time ago and being hesitant to pick up these books, I felt doubly rewarded by their quality.
There is a a lot of plot and detail in the books, so I just want to do a really broad summary of each of them, try not to give away too much, and then talk about the major themes across all three.
The series starts with The Girl of Fire and Thorns (#1, 4 stars), where Princess Elisa of Orovalle is betrothed to King Alejandro of neighboring country Joya d’Arena. She’s sixteen and pampered, suffers from significant feelings of inadequacy in comparison to her older sister Alodia, and, on top of that, is the bearer of this mystical gem called the Godstone. It’s lodged where her belly button should be, and though she has been taught growing up that bearing it means she is destined to complete some task designated by God, all she really has experienced with it so far is that it sometimes seems to coordinate physical responses of temperature variances or other tactile sensations with her emotions. Shortly after her wedding to Alejandro, which is kept secret for, she is told, political reasons, she is kidnapped by a group of desert rebels who have learned of her Godstone (which is also kept secret, or at least was supposed to be) and think she can help them against the threat of invading Invierno, another nearby country with war constantly on the brain. So, basically, Elisa is put in a position where she needs to come into her own as a political leader, as a religious/mythical symbol, and as an individual who believes in her own ability to do what needs to be done and inspire others at the same time.
By the time we roll into The Crown of Embers (#2, 4 stars) Elisa is Queen in her own right of Joya d’Arena, and while she’s gained a significant amount of respect from her people, the country is still in turmoil. She has a great measure of natural common sense, in addition to being a learned scholar both of the religion that guides the country and of advanced warfare tactics. For all that, though, she still lacks actual experience as a monarch, and it doesn’t help that while she’s certain that her Quorum members are maneuvering behind her back for their own gain, she doesn’t know the extent of their machinations or how much support from within the populace each of them may have. Still, there is just enough stability, Elisa believes, to undertake a journey meant to locate what may be the source of her Godstone’s earthly power. She knows a lot more now about the Godstone and her role as its bearer than she did at the beginning of the first book, but she still doesn’t understand the depth of her power or why her enemies, the Invierno people, seem to be much more connected to it than her countrymen. So, with the assistance of her Invierno ambassador, she hopes that locating this power source will answer remaining questions and, hopefully, give her a greater understanding about how to access and harness the power of her Godstone so that she can better defend her country.
Finally, in The Bitter Kingdom (#3, 5 stars) Elisa journeys to the heart of Invierne, to rescue the commander of her Royal Guard and to attempt to bargain for peace. However, owing to the fact that the Inviernos have been trying to capture her for some time, this mission is much more complicated than simply describing it sounds. Additionally, Joya d’Arena is well and truly experiencing an uprising, as some of her Quorum members are actively trying to turn the public against her and seize power for themselves. Elisa must therefore prove herself as a capable Queen by leveraging any kind of fragile arrangement she can find with Invierne, negotiations with the Queens of other non-hostile countries (among them, her sister Alodia), and any divine insight she can harness, all to gain back control of her country and establish a lasting, peaceful equilibrium among all of the regional nations.
The series touches on a lot of relatable themes but uses the trappings of a fantasy world and the introduction of magical elements to keep certain messages from being too literal; namely, while the people of every country are religious and/or spiritual, and Elisa herself particularly so, I wouldn’t say the book actually advocates for any kind of faith or belief system at all. The only true similarity between the religion of the book and any of our dominant faiths today is that it’s monotheistic (and the diety is called “God”), but otherwise it’s so imbued with magic that it’s clearly not meant to emulate anything of ours.
A controversial point I’ve seen discussed in reviews of A Girl of Fire and Thorns is that Elisa starts out, by her own description, severely overweight, and it’s a significant part of her insecurity over the respect she commands and how she compares to her thin, beautiful sister. When she is kidnapped, by necessity her food intake is rationed and she has to do a lot of walking over harsh terrain, and she ends up losing weight. Now, by my reading, she still does not at this point, nor at any point following in the rest of the book or the next two, consider herself skinny; she still reads as pleasantly plump, if streamlined to have “all the right curves in all the right places,” as Meghan Trainor might say. BUT: I’ll concede to the reviewers whose main point, choice of particular diction aside, is that there does seem to be a conflation between Elisa’s weight loss and her personal growth, at least in the first book. This isn’t a subject I feel extremely comfortable discussing as I’d be considered by most to be coming from a privileged position (i.e. I’m mostly thin, if not “toned” or “in shape” or whatever.) But since I’ve brought it up, I’ll say that I did take note of Carson’s repeated descriptions of Elisa’s favorite foods and how she liked to eat — “fat” signifiers — and I was struck by the possibility that those inclusions AND that her weight loss-cum-self respect might offend readers. My feeling is not that this particular instance of weight loss, in this story, was necessarily handled disrespectfully; Elisa never shamed her prior self or became any kind of reformed fat girl, shaming other fat girls, and furthermore, she continues to like food — the detailed descriptions of her meals never cease. Her acknowledgement of and pleasure in her more fit body are very much in line with what you hear from people who have lost significant amounts of weight say: they’re pleased with their appearances, yes, but they’re also in love with what they can do, physically, that they couldn’t before. However, I can certainly understand that taken together with all of the other stories that feature primarily thin protagonists, it may do something of a disservice in representation to introduce one who is purposefully fat, but who then loses weight concurrently — if coincidentally — with building her inner strength. And that’s what I’ll say about that!
If you forget, a moment, the minefield that’s Elisa’s body type, the thing that can’t be denied is her character growth. I alluded to it before, but I think Carson made a very smart choice in not only making Elisa clever, but also a literal scholar. Before she ever goes away to marry anyone, she had spent a lot of time studying the religion that drives the allied nations of her home territory, and she had also taken a particular interest in battle tactics and political theory. The result of this is that, unlike with other YA protagonists, you don’t get that voice in your head wondering how this kid is just so much naturally smarter than all the adults around her. Instead, you know that she’s prepared and studied her whole life for this position, AND she’s smart, AND Carson also includes descriptions of how people underestimate her and don’t take her seriously, so she’s able to accomplish a lot by playing against the perceptions of her adversaries.
I also love something I mentioned in passing, which is that we get to a point in the books where there are three competent, undeniably logical female monarchs AND other prominent female characters, and this is seen as so normal that it isn’t even remarked upon. It’s a very cool thing, and, I think another smart choice for a YA fantasy series, to have women rulers, and spies, and outdoor hunter-gatherers, and warriors, all be so commonplace that they don’t warrant a specific call-out. As much as I love books that explicitly remark on gender roles, going this direction is a very non-antagonistic way to challenge the gender paradigm in high fantasy, and I can only hope that young men would be willing to pick up books like these, because the themes in them (down to body insecurity, because no one can honestly tell me that overweight boys couldn’t have similar confidence issues) are universal and could go a long way to instilling empathy in male readers for female characters, all in an exciting adventure-fantasy setting.
I could have a lot else to say, but this review is already long enough, and the only other points I would add, I think, are more in the books’ favor. And you get the idea — I really enjoyed this series and highly recommend it.