Science fiction and fantasy
Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson
Elisa starts off as quite a sobby character, but it's not long before the story explodes into action. A neighbouring country is on the brink of war, and this lends urgency to all the palace intrigues. There are fights and journeys, and secrets waiting to be uncovered about the purpose of her godstone. Elisa has the feeling that everyone else knows more about this than she does. She knows she's been chosen by God to perform some act of service to keep sorcery at bay, but the details are being kept from her for religious reasons. There's also an undisciplined little prince running around the palace, doing almost as he pleases. He's neglected by his father, who is too preoccupied with matters of state to deal with a child.
The first person present tense narration is very immediate, although I'm not a big fan of present tense storytelling because it can be a bit jarring. But it's not as grating as the desert fat camp section. Because we can't possibly have an obese heroine who is happy in her own skin, Elisa has to go on a crash diet and exercise regime, and this is achieved by force-marching her through the desert for about a month. After this she emerges toned, beautiful and much thinner. Usually it takes at least a year to lose an appreciable amount of body weight, which suggests to me she wasn't very fat to start with, and she's a bit of a whiner. Also, there's no mention of the way pre-industrial societies tended to favour larger women because being well-covered was a sign of status, in that it was mainly the rich who had access to much more food than they needed. No, Fire and Thorns tells us that to win the day Elisa must lose weight. She is also portrayed as almost single-handedly inventing guerilla warfare, thanks to her knowledge of battle tactics gleaned from books, as if no-one else would think of fighting that way.
I found the villains suspect as well. They're bland, evil, pale murderers into human sacrifice and sorcery. But we aren't told why they're so cruel. It's as if they're only there to provide a backdrop for Elisa's Moment of Destiny, when she finally becomes the kind of confident person she wants to be.
However this isn't a predictable novel. The author isn't afraid to deal sucker-punches of plot development by getting rid of likeable characters. Often when it looks like a romance or a betrayal is being set up something entirely different is in store. So in spite of the problems I've outlined this was a story I enjoyed for its richly described world and the slow-growing spirit of its main character.
10th September 2012
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Review © Ros Jackson
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