Chosen ones, princesses, sorcery, military rivalries, and even religious conflicts are well-worn fantasy elements, often mixed and matched with archetypal characters to create all-too-familiar, all-too-bland high fantasy trilogies. (It must always – or nearly always – be a trilogy.) This makes it all the more wonderful that Rae Carson’s debut young-adult novel, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, takes these familiar elements and combines them in a way that is utterly fresh and compelling.
On her 16th birthday, plump, pastry-loving Elisa – more properly Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, a princess of Orovalle – is being married off to a widowed foreign leader she’s never met, but she knows is many years her senior. The marriage will tighten her country’s political alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Joya d’Arena, important as Invierne and its army threatens war. The novel opens with Elisa praying that ‘‘King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.’’ Elisa’s prayer is noteworthy, for she bears the Godstone, a living jewel in her navel that connects her to a higher power. The Godstone’s importance is detailed in a religious text, the Scriptura Sancta; so the teaching goes, God selects one child each century – the bearer – for an act of service. Elisa has grown up smothered by the expectation of greatness she feels she hasn’t lived up to. But it is Elisa’s own expectations – of herself and of the world she inhabits – that will be challenged over the course of the book.
With only her two ladies maids accompanying her from home, Elisa sets off with Joya d’Arena’s traveling party through the jungle mountains between the two kingdoms. The party is soon set upon by a murderous band of warriors. In addition to being an expert on the Scriptura Sancta, Elisa is an avid student of military strategy. Here, we learn – as does Elisa – that she is more than a student, and able to act. She immediately applies her knowledge to the situation, and in so doing saves lives. She earns the respect of King Alejandro’s chief of security, Lord Hector. Even as she learns that living a fuller life must also bring the threat of greater loss, she begins to see her own usefulness. But her arrival in the King’s city of Brisadulce is met with more complications. Alejandro – who turns out to be gorgeous, and while likable is undeniably flawed – asks her to keep their marriage a secret.
As the story develops, Elisa learns more not just about the bearer’s place in spiritual teachings, but about the volatile political climate and about Invierne, with its troops frequently led by an amulet-bearing animagus. Her character is truly tested when she is presented with the reality that the war has already begun, and that the people of the poor, ill-equipped desert villages are Joya d’Arena’s first line of defense. Elisa comes into her own, becoming not just a princess but a leader, showing again and again that she is willing to risk both her life and her heart. Elisa’s strong and well-developed character – her insightful and generous nature (whether it’s with a revolutionary or a child), her love of food (the pastry descriptions will make you hungry), and her humor (a serious story, but not without light) place the reader firmly on her side for the entire journey. Though this is the first of a planned trilogy, Carson deserves accolades for not committing that most common of sins: the one where there’s no ending until the third book. While there are plenty of possibilities in the air at the novel’s end, Carson is not afraid to give the reader some resolution now.
Given Elisa’s love of pastries, it’s tempting to say that this novel is a confection. But while it is one of the most enjoyable reads of the year, it’s also one of the most satisfying. This is no dessert, and not merely an amuse bouche for the books to follow either. With The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Carson joins the ranks of writers like Kristin Cashore, Megan Whalen Turner, and Tamora Pierce as one of YA’s best writers of high fantasy.