Monday, 29 October 2012

Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

The enigmatic nation of Invierne is menacing the borders of both its neighbours, vast Joya d'Arena and its former vassal state of Orovalle. The two kingdoms have allied together against this threat through a marriage pact, with King Alejandor wedding Princess Elisa of Orovalle. This simple alliance is strengthened by the fact that Elisa is the bearer, the wielder of the Godstone. For two thousand years the bearers have performed great acts of bravery and heroism against the forces of evil.

However, Elisa is no hero. Pampered and overweight, she doubts her holy mission. But the boiling deserts of Joya d'Arena will prove her testing ground as she struggle to unlock the secrets of the Godstone, and those of the bearers who came before her.

Fire and Thorns (published as The Girl of Fire and Thorns in the USA) has the whiff of the standard fantasy epic to it. It's the opening volume of a trilogy, it features a callow young protagonist who grows into their destiny as the book unfolds and it's set in a fictional world. That said, it does feature a (relatively) uncommon setting, influenced heavily by Moorish Spain, and there is no map (somewhat irritatingly, as the book does feature some fairly intricate geography which the vague descriptions in the book don't really help establish).

The book is told in the first person by Elisa, who makes for an engaging protagonist. Much has been made by readers about the fact that Elisa is overweight when the book begins and that the author raises the issues of body image and confidence issues and explores them in an interesting manner. This much is true, although there has also been criticism of the fact that as Elisa transforms from callow youth to badass warrior queen she also drops the weight, which seems to be suggesting that overweight people can't be confident and strong rulers in their own right. This is a slightly problematic issue, although I think it's more a reflection of the fact that the story takes our heroine across burning deserts and through thick jungles on months-long journeys where it is implausible she wouldn't get fitter (unlike a certain other author's character called Samwell Tarly, cough). Still, the author does manage to raise and explore the issue without overburdening the book with it.

Fire and Thorns is in YA territory. There is no overt sex or swearing, and the violence is somewhat mild, although several major characters are killed in a rather offhand manner. There is the threat of gushing romance, but it never really materialises (somewhat thankfully) as the war and action storylines take prominence. More disappointingly, there is some very solid set-up done for some promising political intrigue which never really materialises. The resolution of the political plot is in fact rather disappointingly pat and convenient. However, there are some solid twists in the magical storyline, as Elisa uncovers the history of the Godstones and discovers their true purpose.

Caron writes engagingly, making Fire and Thorns (***½) a fast, easy and, despite the aforementioned issues, enjoyable read. Those looking for something dark and gritty best look elsewhere, but for a lightweight, easy-to-read fantasy this is more entertaining than most. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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