Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Fire and Thorns

by Rae Carson


Do all teenage girls hate themselves? I ask this because Rae Carson's princess Elisa is another self-loathing female protagonist to follow in the wake of Twilight's Bella Swan. If the author is reflecting a cultural trend it's a sign something is very wrong. Elisa hates herself because she's fat and different, and she's convinced herself that others feel the same way, including her politically astute older sister. She's different because she was born with a godstone, a unique magical jewel that might as well have Chosen One engraved on it. This stone doesn't do an awful lot most of the time, but it makes the princess a target because of its value and religious significance.

The young princess is about to get married to a man she's never met, Alejandro de Vega, and she initially hopes he's not very attractive so she doesn't have the embarrassment of falling in love with him. She's about to leave to be the queen of a large desert country. Her main consolations are her two trusted servants, Aneaxi and Ximena, and the joy of stuffing her face. Elisa is very young for the responsibility of a kingdom, she has no self-esteem and she's even somewhat paranoid. And food is a big issue: although she indulges in a lot of comfort eating she hates its effects on herself, and the way she can't fasten her clothes. The mixture of full-on food shame and detailed descriptions of sumptuous dishes made me want to raid the fridge and then slink off into a corner to throw up guiltily.

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

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

    Female Protagonist  

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