The Girl of Fire and Thorns is about Elisa, who was chosen at birth by God for some undisclosed divine purpose. In the beginning of the book, she’s hastily married off the king of a neighboring kingdom, but their marriage is kept a secret. Elisa’s husband, Alejandro, is kind but distant, obviously very much in love with his current mistress. Just as Elisa is starting to come to terms with her new life, she’s kidnapped by her maid (who’s actually a spy), and whisked away across the desert to the eastern regions of her husband’s kingdom. There she learns that war isn’t only imminent—it’s already happening. Elisa forges a bond with the scrappy rebel group who kidnapped her, falls sort-of in love with a boy named Humberto, and battles the forces of evil at God’s behest.
There were, generally, a few things of note about Elisa as a protagonist. The first was that she was fat (as her stepson so bluntly put it). So she wasn’t considered to be beautiful (because obviously curvy women are always ugly), but otherwise, I think Elisa came about as close to being a Mary Sue as possible. Chosen by God, skilled in diplomacy and military strategy, good with children, etc., etc. Off the top of my head I can’t actually think of any flaws that Elisa had besides being overweight, which isn’t a flaw at all—and in any case, her weight issue was soon resolved, since her trek across the desert “melted away” her excess body fat. Or something. But I’m really digressing right now, because I think Elisa actually works as a main character, “perfectness” aside. Because on top of her Mary Sue-like qualities, she was also intelligent, brave, and self-sacrificing. All things that tend to work well in a high fantasy situation.
Rae Carson’s world-building in this novel is fairly decent, obviously influenced by Spanish language, if not Spanish culture. I wasn’t wowed, though. What I did enjoy, however, was that Carson never once verged into info-dumping territory. She plunked the reader down in a pre-existing world, gave them some textual clues to make sense of what was happening, and ran with it. Some other readers might have preferred more detail, but I was really happy with how the setting was handled in The Girl of Fire and Thorns. I don’t like hand-holding or anything that even remotely seems like hand-holding, so I appreciated that.
Where this book made me uncomfortable, however, was with Carson’s treatment of religion. Essentially, the faith of Elisa and her countrymen is Christianity. A weird, bastardized version of Christianity, but definitely Christianity. Normally, I’d be fine with this, except Rae Carson did some weird things to “scripture” and basically made up her own supplemental mythology. Okay. So if she wanted to do her own thing, religion-wise, why did she even bother stealing the Christian elements in the first place? This smacks of lazy world-building and half-baked research to me. I mean, the author straight-up plagiarized the Magnificat (renaming it “the Glorifica”). I don’t understand what purpose the Judeo-Christian elements serve in this context. All at once, Carson managed to heavy-handedly sermonize on Christian themes while simultaneously undermining their integrity. Color me confused.
But despite my somewhat vocal opinion on the manifold issues with Carson’s religious themes, I was still very impressed with The Girl of Fire and Thorns as a whole. The author’s pace is quick-moving and engaging, Elisa is a worthy protagonist, and the story itself is interesting and unique enough to have captured my attention. I’m still nervous about the presence of God in this series, but I’ll withhold final judgment until the end.