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