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Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns

I'm always telling myself I won't review any more books, but then I read something that feels a bit special or makes me think days after I've turned the last page and I want to talk about it. This is what happened when I finished Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Generally, when I've mentioned reading this book, I've gotten very positive feedback. Everything from "I'm dying to read that!" to "I like that book so much!" I agree that there's a lot to like in this well-written novel.

From the beginning, this book made me hungry. Literal, stomach-growling hunger. I loved the descriptions of meats served with rich sauces, pastries and baked goods iced and studded with fruits, the fresh produce abounding. The food in this novel is just one part of a world that Carson beautifully builds. I loved the landscapes, the Spanish influence, the cultural extremes from one region to the next.

Perhaps the most striking part of the worldbuilding, however, is the religion. Carson develops and presents a religion that is absolutely central to the story, and yet doesn't feel in-your-face. She shows how dogma can be interpreted differently across regions and how those interpretations can lead to simple misunderstandings - or to war. How very realistic, for a fantasy novel. Elisa, the main character, struggles mightily with her faith, with her (Christ-like) role in her religion, and her questionings and uncertainties feel genuine. Although the novel's religion is fictional, the journey may feel familiar to some readers.

As much as I love the worldbuilding, I do feel there were storylines that could have been strengthened. The more simplistic of those concerns wonders why, since Elisa is lauded as an exceptional strategist, are her political and battle strategies so terribly simplistic? I expected sophisticated and multi-layered strategies but got guerrilla warfare with little thought behind it and poison.

My deeper concern centers on Elisa's weight. The character lets you know right off that bat that she's fat. Quite obese, judging by the descriptions. She's an emotional overeater who uses food to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. From the beginning, we know Elisa is bothered by her weight, doesn't like public functions because of her shyness and doesn't think her new husband will have any interest in her when he has a thin mistress by his side. And he doesn't. No interest in her body, at least. Since it's a political pairing, I can understand that reasoning. My concern, however, is that Elisa's growth into a strong woman, capable of leadership, is directly paralleled by her weight loss. A weight loss that is caused by a kidnapping, a desert trek and starvation. As she's rapidly/unhealthily dropping pounds, she's becoming more confident, more athletic and, finally, finding romance. I worry the story reinforces the idea that thinness, beauty, romance and intelligence are irrevocably intertwined. Why wasn't this character, who we are told possesses an amazing intellect, stronger from the get-go? Of course character growth is essential to a novel's progression, but I felt the way her weight was tied to her self-worth and the way others (especially romantic interests) viewed her was not as explored as it needed to be to be satisfying. To be sure, one blog review can't possibly address the complexity of this issue, but I will say I expected it to be more and better addressed in the novel.

Despite these misgivings, I enjoyed this novel for its rich setting and fluid pacing. The Girl of Fire and Thorns hits stores in September, 2011.

Shameless plug: Looking for more great reads? I'm doing a five-book giveaway on my blog. Enter by telling me what pop-culture story you think would make an awesome YA novel. ~Kristin 
Kristin Halbrook

Kristin Halbrook is the author of the critically-acclaimed young adult novels Nobody But Us (HarperTeen, 2013) and Every Last Promise (HarperTeen, 2015). She likes many things.

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6 comments:

  1. interesting insight into the 'ideal weight' and her coming into herself. while i do think that becoming a healthy weight can give confidence, it doesn't mean that the two are mutually exclusive. OR that starvation is the way to get there.

    thanks for sharing that realism within your review.

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  2. I hadn't heard someone comment about the weight loss aspect of the book before and while I've been very much looking forward to starting this one, that sort of sets a different tone for me. It's a shame that there's such a connection of skinny = happy/strong.

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  3. I just had to leave a comment about the gorgeousness of the book's cover. Isn't it stunning, isn't it?
    It certainly sounds interesting, although as soon as you mentioned religion I was a bit put off (until I read the rest of that sentence!) and understood it's not 'in your face' at all. I think I might have to give this a go.
    http://suzyturner.blogspot.com

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  4. @lisa: I absolutely agree that a healthy weight can give confidence. And there is the reality of physical health, which is to be desired. At times, this aspect is suggested at, but not developed enough (IMO) to offset the way her metamorphosis is linked to her weight.

    @kaye: I still think it's a worthy read. Lots to like, and a few things to think about at the end. :)

    @suzy: I love the new cover! It's a nice change from the ARC cover (which I completely hated, lol).

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  5. Though ideally, it shouldn't be so, weight and appearance have a direct link to feelings of confidence and self-concept. They are often inversly proportional, no matter how much one wishes they weren't.

    I find it a bit disturbing that when it comes to "religion" in a story, people appear to approach it with trepidation. I'm not sure "what in your face" means, but I often hear it used in connection with religion. Belief is often an integral part of who a person is and I don't think readers should fear it. You either roll with it or you don't.

    I'd heard of this book, but your review certainly has picqued my interest in the story. I'll be adding it to my TBR pile now. Thanks!

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  6. Wow, even the review has inspired some debate! I need to get my hands on this and have a read for myself!

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Item Reviewed: Book Review: The Girl of Fire and Thorns Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Halbrook