The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson’s first novel, made its debut this time last year. Immensely readable, and original in its execution, it’s no surprise that it immediately began to garner plaudits and acclaim.
Here be spoilers for The Girl of Fire and Thorns, and mild spoilerishness for its sequel, The Crown of Embers.
Elisa is an unusual heroine: she bears a Godstone in her navel, a sign that she’s marked out by divinity for a special destiny—or perhaps a special sacrifice. But she’s also the younger, fatter, plainer of two princesses, married off to the weak king of a desert nation, a king who has chosen to keep their marriage secret. Elisa’s new kingdom is in turmoil, threatened by Invierne invaders who have powerful magic. Kidnapped from her husband’s palace by revolutionaries from the north, Elisa has to grow into her destiny. When the novel ends, she’s a ruling queen, having defeated her enemies and lost her husband - not to mention the man who could have been her lover.
Carson’s approach to her epic fantasy—marketed as Young Adult, but dear epic fantasy readers, do not dare overlook it on those grounds—is marked by solid, interesting worldbuilding, with an intriguing strain of piety. A deity active in the world yet inexplicable and rather hands-off when it comes to useful interventions: that brings back memories of my long-gone childhood Catholicism (which always has the chance of being really irritating). But Carson integrates her theology well into her world and the life of her protagonist, avoiding any number of potential pitfalls with the same deftness that she employs as she sets up and then proceeds to subvert the by-now all-too-typical romantic love triangle.
It’s this mindful, playful subversion of several common tropes that elevates The Girl of Fire and Thorns from a well-executed fantasy with a vivid and immediate voice* into something delightful** and refreshing.
*First-person, present-tense, from Elisa’s point of view.
**Delightful in the sense that certain developments delighted me on the grounds that Carson was doing something interesting. The novel doesn’t necessarily have a delightful mood, being in parts rather on the grim and tense side.
And it’s the element of subversion that The Crown of Embers lacks, making Carson’s second novel less successful, on the whole, than her first.
This is far less severe a criticism than it would be for a novel whose author hadn’t made her debut with one of the most successful*** self-contained epic fantasies I’d read in years. The Crown of Embers is immensely readable: I inhaled it in one sitting, racing to the finish in less than three hours. There is intrigue and death and travel, assassins and assassination attempts and a royal council largely determined to either marry their interloping reigning queen off or otherwise cripple her influence... and the Invierne are back. They want Elisa, and the Godstone she bears. Alive, if possible - but dead will do.
***In the technical sense, although I understand it was also well-received in the marketplace.
Elisa sets out on a quest to outwit her enemies, both foreign and domestic, and find the “gate of life” named in the scriptures, in the hopes that its power will be sufficient to bolster her authority vis-à-vis her scheming royal councillors and to defend her kingdom from the sorcerers of the Invierne, whose armies devastated the outskirts of her capital during the events of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. The traditional arc of the fantasy quest-plot here is well-executed, with driving tension and sympathetic characterisation of all Elisa’s traveling companions - and an excellent twist in the tail, when it comes to climax and denouement.
But alongside the quest, The Crown of Embers is invested in developing the romantic tension between Elisa and the commander of her personal guard, Hector. While Carson does a solid job working through the complications that could inhibit the growth of an egalitarian partnership between a monarch and her liegeman, Elisa’s unwillingness to speak her feelings aloud—and the resulting will-she won’t-she no she still won’t UST—acts as a dragging sea anchor on more realised and interesting character development. The fact that neither party actually used their words (or even, it seemed, seriously considered using them) to have a serious discussion of what they mean to each other and how the exigencies of their respective positions do or should affect their conduct... proved, in my view, something of an annoying flaw.
Particularly as Carson had previously established her credentials when it came to subverting standard tropes.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a self-contained volume. The Crown of Embers concludes with a cliffhanger. They’re both immensely entertaining and very readable. My minor irritations with Embers’ romance plot aside, this is good fantasy - and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Find Liz Bourke as @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.