The first two books in this series were easy to describe. In a Spain-esque fantasy land, a baby princess, Elisa, has a magical rock materialize in her belly-button. This marks her as chosen by God to fulfill some special but unknown mission. She grows up feeling unworthy, but is plunged into adventure and political machinations and grows up a lot, eventually coming to master her magical powers, learn to be a competent ruler, and come to a greater understanding of the world.

By the end of the second book, a number of intriguing revelations and plot twists alter the premises set up above, making a detailed description of book three highly spoilery. Specific notes go beneath the cut; spoilers will appear in comments.

Overall, I enjoyed this trilogy a lot. The world is vivid and intriguing, despite some jarring errors. (It was the one with the jerboa filets and the vomiting horses. On that note, warning for animal harm (poisoning horses for strategic purposes) and Scorpions of Unusual Size.) Actually, the fact that Carson did any worldbuilding at all unfortunately made the errors and blank spaces stand out more.

It has interesting characters and excellent narrative drive, and uses God or something which the characters believe is God in a non-obnoxious manner – that is, no “Come to Jesus,” no “religious people are morons,” and no “Surprise twist - God is a computer!”

The three books feel very different from each other, even though they end up telling a single complete story. The first book is primarily about character growth via a fish out of water narrative, the second book is about learning to rule and expanding the world, and the third book is a classic quest narrative and also about the costs and moral compromises involved in being a ruler. As a whole, the trilogy touches on all those aspects, but character growth most of all. The Elisa of the first book is a completely different person by the end of the trilogy.

My biggest problem with the final novel is that by the end of the second book, I was primarily interested in the world and how it had come to be. By the end of the third book, a few questions were answered and more were implied, but a whole bunch of the most intriguing questions were never addressed.

As if Carson knew exactly what I was thinking, on literally the last page Elisa rattles off a list of questions which she says are still unknown. I guess I’m glad that Carson noticed that she’d raised a lot of intriguing issues that were never addressed, but I would have liked to have her actually address them. Especially since I was more interested in the worldbuilding than in the political maneuvering which took up the final third of the book.

The Bitter Kingdom (Girl of Fire and Thorns)

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Excellent sequel to an excellent first novel. The series is high fantasy set in a Spain-esque land. Carson takes a number of old elements— the princess, the destined savior, the magic rock, the arranged marriage— and puts new or at least interesting spins on them. Her worldbuilding is quite good, with lots of realistic detail, and she’s good at unexpected plot twists. Her books remind me of Tamora Pierce’s: interesting women, adventure, magic, politics, romance, and likable characters. I like the character relationships a lot, including the many non-romantic ones.

In The Crown of Embers, Elisa is now a ruler and hero. But ruling a kingdom comes with tons of complications. The first half has Elisa trying to learn how to rule while dodging repeated assassination attempts; in the second half, she goes on a quest to learn how to use her magic. There are startling revelations about the world. And that’s about all I can say about the plot without spoilers.

Caveats: I regret that there is much less luscious food description in this book. And also much more vomiting. There was very little emphasis on Elisa’s body image, which was such a huge part of the first book. I’m not sure I buy that she got over her issues quite that fast or completely. Finally, the frequency and near-success of the assassination attempts made her guards start seeming incompetent, and there was one where I’m still not sure how an entire squad of assassins-- not magical ninja assassins, just regular assassins-- got into the palace unnoticed. But those are minor quibbles in an overall very good book.

The first book stands on its own. The second book has a sort-of cliffhanger: the main story in that volume comes to a satisfying conclusion, but someone suddenly falls into jeopardy at the end. But it's more of a complete story with a giant dangling plot thread than half a book.

The Crown of Embers

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This gave me hope that YA novels with actual worldbuilding, rather than idiotic high-concept premises, have not yet been banned, but might make a resurgence.

Girl of Fire and Thorns is set in a very nicely worked out high fantasy world with a Spanish-based culture and tons of atmospheric details. The food is particularly believable and mouthwatering, and even plays into the plot: the heroine is both a foodie and a compulsive eater. The novel plays with a number of standard fantasy and YA tropes - the Chosen One, the love triangle, the makeover, the well-meaning kidnapper, the faithful old nanny - and subverts all of them to at least some degree, though some more than others.

Princess Elisa was chosen by God and has a magic gem embedded in her navel. This means that she is destined to perform some act of great service. Unfortunately, no one knows what it's supposed to be. Apart from that, she lives in the shadow of her apparently perfect older sister, eats compulsively to feel better, and is depressed because she's fat. In chapter one, she's perfunctorily married off to a handsome young king... who is a widower with a young son. Elisa obediently goes off to his kingdom, where she promptly gets embroiled in the ongoing war.

That covers the first few chapters. I'll give my general reaction here, because a lot of what I have to say is spoilery. Though I had some reservations, this was overall good-to-excellent. The worldbuilding was excellent. The food porn was excellent. I liked Elisa and several of the supporting characters. I liked that Elisa had relationships with other women (that didn't involve fighting over guys), and that she had relationships that were more about character than about hitting plot points. Some of the subversive elements were spectacularly subversive. Generally, highly enjoyable.

Minor and thematic spoilers: Read more... )

Major spoilers: Read more... )

The Girl of Fire and Thorns


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