Though I do love romance in books, it's not often what makes a book for me. Generally, I would say I love the characters first and the romance between them second. In the Fire and Thorns series, the romance comes first. The arc of this relationship gets a full five star fanfare of cellos and unicorn whinnies, okay? (I'm just going to assume that would sound awesome. Roll with it, yo.) Hector and Elisa go from having no real romantic attachment in book one (note that this is the book I didn't like), but with a nice solid foundation of respect and mutual admiration, to love and impending marriage in The Bitter Kingdom. They do so slowly and with quite a bit of swoon.
The ending scenes of this book almost made me happy cry, something I do much more easily than sad cry. Attending weddings of friends, I find a lot of the trappings of them quite sexist and unappealing. Carson's series is, I think, at its most beautiful and woman power-y right there at the end in a traditionally patriarchy-dominated ceremony. Hector loves that Elisa is powerful, and is man enough not to feel challenged by that, and just so much yes to all of that.
One of the key selling points of Fire and Thorns is Elisa's weight. There aren't many novels about non-skinny heroines, and even less so in the fantasy genre. Now, Elisa does lose a good deal of weight over the course of book one while tramping about in the desert. This did concern me a bit, especially since the romantic interest in her really kicks up at that juncture. However, now that it's done, I'm really happy with the portrayal of weight in the series. Elisa never gets thin or reaches her society's standard of beauty, which is slim like our society currently holds up as ideal. Elisa will always be curvy or even overweight. Hector finds her very sexually attractive, and that's fantastic. What really makes the portrayal of Elisa's weight issues so powerful, though, is that Elisa herself comes to love her own body and to stop yearning to be someone else with a different body type. The reason people are beautiful is their uniqueness, and Elisa's road to self-love has been long and bumpy, but she made it and I think I finally like her as well.
The Bitter Kingdom also spends much less time on the religion elements which made me so batty in book one. While I know this worked for some, I found the fact that it was basically relabeled Christianity both lazy and preachy. By The Bitter Kingdom, Elisa has no real idea what the deal is with god. She still prays and believes somewhat, but she's questioning. She no longer has that certainty that her way is right and is really seeking knowledge. Where before the series came off as dealing with religion, The Bitter Kingdom takes a much more theological angle, which I love. Fun fact: I minored in theology.
So far as the cast goes, this is one of those rare books where I feel things but don't really identify with the heroine. Though I do have some commonalities with Elisa, we have never been able to bond. I respect her now and admire her, but we would never be best friends (maybe because I'm plotting her death to steal Hector? - kidding...mostly). Hector is everything fabulous, and other YA love interests should learn from him. He walks the line between protective and trusting perfectly. There's a place for protecting your lady and a time to step back and let her get shit done, and he knows when to do which thing. My favorite characters are Mara and Belen, and they are both just the cutest. The Bitter Kingdom gave me a couple of new ships, and I actually would really like another book set in this world about one of them. *coughs* (Who would have thought, right?) I'm a little disappointed that Rosario basically didn't show up in this book, since the little prince is kind of important, but oh well. (I'm asking for more moppet? What has this book done to me and my values?) Oh also, Red is an incredibly adorable moppet as well, and, yeah, she's the best, even if her name is straight up My Little Pony.
The plot of The Bitter Kingdom meanders a little bit. There's a lot of journeying to one place and then hearing about a thing and needing to go somewhere else and OH HEY a plot point. It's not a huge issue, but I also wasn't really all that concerned about the plot overall. You basically know what the endgame is and ride that train all the way around the theme park until it gets to the final stop. There was one part that was straight out of Lord of the Rings basically, which was a little bit ridiculous to me, but, again, not a major problem for me either. Carson also took things a bit easily, with Lord of the Rings being a good comparison actually. The stakes are always really high, but she's not merciless to her characters, which I know some people love but I like knowing that anything could happen at any time.
What Left Me Wanting More (WHICH HAS SOME SPOILERS SO BE CAREFUL):
Only one aspect of The Bitter Kingdom seriously irked me. To explain it, I will have to delve into SPOILERS in this section, so stop here if you do not want to know, mmkay? In The Bitter Kingdom, Carson throws in this huge world building twist, but doesn't really address it. She just throws it out there like it's no big deal and I'm like WHUT. Anyway, Elisa and company learn that if an Invierno mates with a Joyan, their offspring will be unable to reproduce. These offspring are referred to as mules.
Now, I seriously suck at science, but this immediately set off serious warning bells, because the reason mules, the product of horse and donkey sex, cannot reproduce is because they come from two disparate, if similar, species. Considering all of the racial themes in the series, this made me really uncomfortable, especially since the word mulatto, came from the same root word of mule. Now, it turns out the Joyans actually came to the planet and colonized it much like the Europeans came into the Americas, so they are actually not the same creatures, but I still feel like this is some really messy, sensitive subject matter to throw into book three. I especially do not feel like enough world building was put into this, since apparently one or the other of them is not human but alien. This begs so many questions. It's a pretty cool twist, but leaves me feeling hyper-curious and not entirely satisfied with the world building.
The audiobook versions of this series have been marvelous. Jennifer Ikeda does a fabulous job with the different characters all the way through. I'm not as thrilled with the casting of Hector, who sounds a bit too much like Kevin Spacey for any guy as sexy and hispanic as Hector is in my head. Still, he doesn't do a bad job. I'm also not entirely sure Hector's POV was necessary in The Bitter Kingdom, but whatever.
The Final Verdict:
Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns series is one that I do think is well worth reading, even if it has always been varying degrees of problematic for me personally. The series gets better as it goes along, and features one of the best and healthiest romantic relationships.