Thoughts on The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson

Author: Rae Carson
Series: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Format/Source: eBook/library 
Published: 2011 – 2013
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Length: 1,266 pages
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Why I Read: Won in a giveaway, in the mood
Read If You’re: Not necessarily a fan of YA fantasy but willing to try something with a little different (of course, YA fantasy fans should definitely try this)

Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Please note: These thoughts touch upon aspects of all three books. Spoilers abound!

I didn’t read these books with the intention to review. I read them for some light-hearted escapism to ease my mind during my first Christmas away from home.  Reasons I didn’t want to post:

  • So much has been written online about these books, with opinions greatly divided, and I didn’t feel like contending with that
  • These books aren’t the sort I usually read
  • There’s too many little things to discuss, things with complex implications

But of course, those are also reasons why I should note my thoughts. This is my book blog; I’ll throw in my two cents even if my thoughts on this type of story are better suited to back and forth discussion rather than typing everything out. So that being said, these thoughts could benefit from mutual discussion. If you’ve read these books, please leave a comment (especially if you disagree with anything I say here)!

Elisa – Elisa is a great character to star in a YA fantasy. Her personality is balanced; she’s not too anything. She’s a believable young woman. She’s not extraordinarily beautiful or blindingly white or perfectly slim. She knows about war from her studying, but she’s not a warrior or even athletic as so many contemporary heroines are. She does learn to fight, a bit, and improve somewhat in her physicality, but she’s still holding back her friends because she can’t run like they do. Her weight journey is perhaps a more complex issue than I initially thought. To me the weight she loses comes as a natural part of the story and it’s not connected to her sense of self-worth or ability. As she finds purpose and confidence, she no longer needs to eat as much to comfort herself. It just happens at the same time as other things (and, she still isn’t thin). But maybe it’s more controversial, maybe my way of seeing it is my way of excusing it. As someone who hasn’t struggled with weight, I don’t think I’m able to comment accurately on how Elisa’s struggle is portrayed. I wonder how an emotional over eater (as Elisa is in the beginning) would feel about the story? Finally, Elisa really is a ‘noble’ character – this isn’t a story where the regents are totally evil or the peasants are totally wonderful. She strives to love her husband and recognizes why she’s being committed to a political marriage. She’s not so modern in that she thinks “I don’t want to marry him, I want to hunt bears” or something, and yet her husband isn’t a perfect romantic king who will sweep her off her feet. I like how she takes responsibility for Rosario. The political nature of their relationship and how it affects them felt very believable to me. She fights to do the best for her kingdom and for herself. She becomes an independent (well…I mean, she doesn’t have her father or her husband or someone telling her what to do) queen. Yet through all this she is still a realistic young woman. I could imagine chatting with her as a friend.

Social/political components – I enjoyed the palace politics and intrigues, which weren’t dull or tiring. I like how Elisa has to deal with different types of fallout from her actions and consider how doing something to satisfy one part of her kingdom will upset another.

Religious components – Despite my interest in religious studies, I never see connections in fantasy religions to real world religions. I like to consider them on their own. I wouldn’t have thought of Catholicism if it weren’t for the reviews that mentioned the ‘glaring’ similarities (maybe that’s also because I’m not so familiar with Catholicism?). At first I wanted more back story to the religion, but I came to realize that wasn’t really what the story was about. It wasn’t about getting answers to the truth of the religion – the religion is just there, as it is in reality. I like that Elisa is devout but it doesn’t hamper her actions. I like how her relationship with her religion evolves as the story goes on, but I also like how it doesn’t end with the religion being totally discredited. I think it’s interesting to note that Carson grew up in a very religious household but is no longer religious (see interview linked below) – but she’s not using her stories to promote her beliefs, because then Elisa would have disavowed her own religion. I think this is a great portrayal of religion. There aren’t any clear answers given, it’s just a part of the story. It’s not totally wonderful or totally awful. It just is, for the most part. Of course, Godstones are a major part of the story. We learn a bit about them, but not all is revealed. Sometimes that frustrates me (I want to know EVERYTHING) but I liked how it’s dealt with in this story.

Inviernos – I have some qualms about the portrayal of the Inviernos. In the first book, I wondered if the relationship between Joyans and Inviernos would get better, if we would get to see the Invierno’s side of the story. Well, we sort of do. Though Elisa wants them to be allies, she still has a bad attitude towards them. The Inviernos are still portrayed as ‘lesser’ than the Joyans despite the conclusion that integrates their two societies. Once I learnt their backstory, I did feel more sympathetic towards them, but the attitude of Elisa and her friends doesn’t change much. They seem to view an alliance with the Inviernos as just a means to end the war and their own suffering. There’s a comment about how the Inviernos should ‘get over’ something that happened a thousand years ago – the Joyans arrival and the destruction of the Inviernos’ way of life. Ouch, yeah, like Indigenous people should just ‘get over’ colonization. I guess this is a very realistic portrayal, mirroring the relationship between colonizers and Indigenous people today. However, because the story is told from Elisa’s point of view, though, the reader doesn’t hear any criticism of her attitude. You get the sense that Elisa’s attitude is supposed to be correct and acceptable. Nope, not cool. This is the main aspect of the story I have trouble with.

Romance  – I loved the romantic aspects of these novels, which is not something I thought I would ever say about a YA fantasy! I thought they were portrayed in a very reasonable and believable manner (I guess that’s the keyword for this story – ‘believable’). I like that Carson includes the idea of different types of love (as Elisa learns through her relationships with Humbert, Alejandro and Hector). I liked the inclusion of taking a form of birth control ‘just in case’ – it’s not condescending, not awkward, and I think it’s a good message to have in books like this (wow, now I’m talking about ‘good messages for teens’, that’s also not something I thought I would ever discuss…). There isn’t too much romance or any mushy scenes. The romance isn’t the main plot.

Other criticisms – Regarding many of the criticisms I read in other popular Goodreads reviews (of the first book at least): I found many of the critiques over blown, magnifying small aspects of the story out of proportion and ignoring how they factor into the story’s context. Maybe those reviewers jumped on and magnified those aspects because that’s what you usually find in YA fantasy? Or maybe I just missed the boat and the criticisms are valid (see my earlier comments on Elisa’s weight). Oh well. I’m not concerned by her maturity, but I can see how that would bother some readers. Some commented that this trilogy is a Divergent wannabe?? I never read Divergent but it must be very different than what I thought it was about if it’s similar to these books. Also, I think it makes a difference to look at the trilogy as a whole instead of just the first book, as the story improves and things that happen in the first book are better explained as it goes on. Elisa pursues many of her good deeds because she knows she destined to do something great because of the Godstone, but in the end she finds her great act was unrelated to everything she did – she was strong on her own, not because God was guiding her.

Conclusion – Most of my dislikes are outweighed by the fact that I just wanted a decent teen fantasy, and it turned it out better than I expected. This is a great example of an ‘enjoyable’ read.

The Bottom Line: Though not without problematic aspects (particularly the portrayal of the Inviernos), I enjoyed the trilogy and thought it was a fun read, especially because of its grounded and believable characters. If you’re wary of YA fantasy, I recommend starting here.

Further Reading: 

*I actually started a fantasy story once about a girl and her family who are believed to be divine rulers but she knows they’re just ordinary people who use magic and prevent the common folk from discovering it. I don’t mean I funnel my personal beliefs about religion into the story, I just thought it was an interesting way to explore how people engage with religion and how it factors into daily lives. I wrote another story that was pretty much the opposite – some fairies think they’re regular fairies, but learn they’re actually gods and when they try to take up their roles their people all have different reactions to that.

    • Haha, I got all excited about seeing your opinion of this series because no one I know IRL has read it, and what a fun surprise… there's my review in your link list! *warm fuzzy feelings*

      I like what you said about the religious components. You're right, Carson did a wonderful job of making religion a part to the story — it's not really the focus, but it does affect the characters' lives in the same way that religion affects real people's lives.

      Not really sure how this series is a Divergent wannabe… I read Divergent and I don't really see the connection. Maybe because it is about a teen girl who is "different" and has to deal with war? But, y'know, that applies to A LOT of YA SFF books. Also relevant: the 1st book of this series was only published a few months after Divergent in 2011.

    • Aw yay, I'm glad I instilled fuzzy feelings ^-^ Thanks for your response! Do you know of any other YA fantasy that incorporate religion like Carson does? I think it might be a tricky thing to do…