Monday, March 4, 2013

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

Title: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
Author: Rae Carson
Pages: 423
Publisher: Greenwillow
Rating: Worthy!

You can read my review of volume two in this trilogy, The Crown of Embers here.

You can read my review of volume three in this trilogy, The Bitter Kingdom here.

There's an interview with Rae Carson which you might find interesting. She's a lot younger than I had, for some reason, imaged her! This is her debut novel and she has already followed it up with The Crown of Embers and a third novel, titled The Bitter Kingdom is due in August this year.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a fiery and thorn-infested novel which is well-written and doesn't waste a moment before putting your feet to the fire, or bringing you face-to-face with thorny problems. Given the anatomy of the protagonist, I find it rather ironic that the initials of the title spell GOFAT. I wonder if Carson realizes this?!

Lucero-Elisa is the younger sister of Juana-Alodia, both daughters of the King of Oraville. Alodia will become Queen of Oraville upon her father's death. There is no prince. Elisa is the bearer of the magical godstone, a stone in her navel which appeared on the day she was named, and which changes temperature in response to events in her life. She's the chosen one, which she believes explains current events, even though she has no idea what being the chosen one really means.

The novel begins on the morning of Elisa's 16th birthday which is also the day of her marriage to Alejandro de Vega, King of the neighboring country of Joya. Elisa is praying that Alejandro will be ugly, or as plump as she, or covered with poxes, anything to make her feel less wretched about her marriage to him, anything to help her feel justified about her own self-image, but he is none of these things. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The marriage isn't consummated that night because Elisa feels wretched, and ugly and sweaty, and she begs her husband not to be intimate, to which he acquiesces with no protest - something which further depresses Elisa. They do talk for a while and he tells her he needs a friend.

The next day, the marriage party departs for Joya. It’s a long journey through hot plains, through a sweltering jungle, and skirting a desert before they reach Alejandro's capital. As soon as they are out of sight of the palace, Alejandro asks Elisa to travel in a different carriage - so that the royal party is not all together in one location. Elisa can understand this; having read the book of war and internalized it well, splitting up potential targets makes good sense. This seems to her to be another rejection of her by her new husband; however, traveling with her two maids, and feeling isolated from home, she takes the opportunity to learn more about these women who have known her for her entire life, and what she learns is interesting.

On the journey, in the jungle, the party is attacked by the Perditos - the lost prisoners who were turned out of jails and scattered into the wilds for reasons not well explained. As arrows hit the carriage and a fire starts, Elisa escapes through the trapdoor in the floor with her maids, the older of which breaks her leg. They manage to hide in a hollow tree trunk, but Elisa sees her husband fighting two Perditos and not doing well. She charges and kills one of the attackers with a knife which she had retrieved from a dead Perdito. After the battle, her husband thanks her for saving his life and offers her the task of deciding what to do with the one prisoner they have.

As she questions him, he somehow recognizes that she is carrying the godstone, and as soon as he mentions this, her maid kills him by sticking a pin through his neck in a crucial location, claiming that she thought he was going to attack Elisa. Elisa is shocked.

The first morning at the palace, Elisa is greeted by a maid, Cosmé, who has been sent to wait on her. Elisa asks for clean clothes, but Cosmé brings things which obviously will not fit Elisa's plus-sized frame. Insulted but saying nothing, Elisa later learns that Cosmé is the servant of the Condesa Ariña and evidently a spy. At a meal, Elisa is greeted respectfully, but coolly by all except the Condesa. She plays on this, telling the Condesa how pleased she is with Cosmé and that she would like to keep her for a while. Ariña is somewhat put out by this but agrees to the loan.

King Alejandro arrives at the meal and introduces Elisa as the Princess of Oraville, not as his wife. He has already informed Elisa that he wishes to keep their marriage a secret for now - which she takes as a further insult, but to which she acquiesces. Everyone's attitude changes towards her now that they realize that she's the third highest ranking person in the palace (after Alejandro and his son Rosario by his first wife - who died). Elisa has not yet met the young prince since he's away from the palace, but Alejandro arrives in her chambers that night through a connecting door normally kept locked, and he tells her that he's going away for a month to retrieve his son, and bring him home. He tells Elisa that he wants her to stay at the palace and record, either in memory or in writing, every significant topic about which anyone approaches her, so he can find out what might be going on behind his back. She is to be his spy.

Elisa agrees to this, although she feels somewhat slighted by it, but nowhere near as slighted as she feels the next morning when Cosmé, no doubt with some pleasure if not spite, proudly reveals to her that her own Lady Ariña is accompanying the King on his trip. Elisa feels even more upset to learn that her new husband evidently has a mistress, but harking back to what she has learned in the Book of War, she resolves to muster her resources and play to her strengths.

She decides that her first best bet is to discuss things with father Nicandro, whom she met the previous day when taken on a tour of the palace by Lord Hector, King Alejandro's childhood friend and now his bodyguard. Nicandro and she have scholarship in common since they are both very familiar with the Holy Scripture, and he has a very early copy of it which Elisa is anxious to read and compare with her own copy. The scripture tells of the hand of god bringing the people to this world. Is this a reference to some alien space travel technology used to populating this planet? Is this what ties it all to the 'magic' of the godstone - merely advanced technology?

Elisa secretly arranges to meet Nicandro, but before she does, she has to meet with General Luz-Manuel, whom she had already put off earlier. He invites her to a meeting of the Joya d'Arena's Quorum of Five - a very important advisory body. Elisa pretends she can offer little, but accepts his invitation in order to fulfill her vow to her husband that she learn all she can in his absence

Carson hesitates not at all to stir in liberal dollops of action with the exposition, and even in the latter case, her writing is so well done that it’s not glaringly apparent that it is exposition. Elisa meets Nicandro late at night in the monastery and learns from a listing of the previous bearers of the godstone, that their life expectancy is likely to be rather short. Some of the chosen are missing from the list, but it’s not known why. Nicandro gives her three godstones taken from the bodies of previous bearers, one of which is very ancient. She doesn't know if they retain any power at all, but she hides these in one of the potted palms which she had made Cosmé find in order to brighten up her room and to keep the spy maid occupied and out of mischief to boot.

Elisa learns about a reception to which she must go because Alejandro is back from his trip. She's annoyed that she learns all this, including the return of her own husband, from Cosmé the spy maid. The reception is of course for Rosario, Alejandro's son, and the first observation he makes when he sees Elisa is that she's fat! Elisa is unsure of how to react to this, but she laughs heartily and others laugh with her; after that it seems that some barrier has broken and people are more friendly towards her. Except, of course, for Araña.

She turns up the Araña enmity factor to eleven when she meets at the quorum of five. She's little interested in the every day mechanics of administration, but she does try to tune in to people's emotions, to gage what it is which each feels most strongly about. When the discussion turns to the impending war with the Invierne, she focuses tightly on that. Araña has a horse in this race because the military pressure from Invierne is all coming in the hill country which is her domain. She's incensed to discover that Elisa doesn't feel the same way. The latter's advice is not to fight them in the hill country which is where the enemy fights best, but to let them come all the way to the city in the desert heat, where they will be trailing long supply lines and will not fight so well, and where the Joyans will be safe behind the walls of the city.

The King tells Lord Hector to advise his son that he cannot take him into the city that day because of the pressure of work, but Elisa invents a trip she must make, and volunteers to take Rosario. In the end, Lord Hector also goes along too, and Elisa realizes that Rosario has been taught no respect and no discipline. She resolves to address this deficit and at the end of the trip, Rosario likes her very much, even though she's denied him coconut milk as a punishment for his not listening to her requests.

Cosmé discovers that Elisa is the bearer of the godstone, and reacts un-maid-like to this discovery before realizing her proper place and asking to be dismissed for the night. Late that night, the King visits Elisa and tells her he will soon announce their engagement, which is as much a heartwarming revelation - that he is acknowledging her rightful place - as it is a slap in the face, given that they're already married!

That night, however, she is drugged and kidnapped from her bed and carried miles outside of the city before she starts to regain consciousness. One female voice that Elisa hears upon awakening is familiar, but it’s not identified as of the end of part 1. Are we to conclude that it’s Cosmé, since she now knows that Elisa bears the godstone, or is this a red herring, and the familiar female voice is Araña? Or is it someone else we’ve met - someone completely, shockingly unexpected? Only reading on will tell! Great cliff-hanger, though, and as of the end of the end of part 1, I'm, loving this story! It’s really engaging, well-written and a page turner. I hope it doesn’t blow up on me!

Elisa discovers that she has been carried far into the desert by people who are pretty much her own age. And there was no red herring - it’s Cosmé, her brother Humberto, and two others, five being a holy number. The trudge though the sand is hard, and Elisa doesn't do well, but she holds out as long as she can before they have to re-employ the travois which they had been using to haul her whilst she was unconscious. The desert is harsh and there's no escape. There is little food, so she can never get enough to eat nor enough to drink. She begins to bond a little with some of them, a lot with Humberto. Finally they reach their destination, and she realizes that after a month of slogging through the desert, she has lost a bit of weight.

The village they are at is sickening. Most people are injured from attacks by the Invierne. Most of the inhabitants are children. Soon newly injured come in, and Elisa feels helpless as she watches Cosmé help them one after another. She offers to help and finally takes up the job of bringing fresh water and getting rid of the dirty, blood and gore mess in the pails. She discovers that the priest of the village has Homer's Aflatus, a scripture which Elisa has never been able to read. She realizes that even these people, miles across the desert, know more about the chosen one, the bearer than she has ever learned.

As she starts to settle into her life of captivity, she hatches a plan to fight back against the Invierne. She finally reveals to the people that she is not just a Princess of Oraville, but the wife of the king of Joya. She makes them a promise that if they fight against the Invierne, she will demand from the king that the lands which they inhabit here be given to them.

She decides that they should send spies to observe the Invierne, and five are chosen to go - including Elisa! At first she infuriates them because she still cannot travel as quietly, nor as quickly as they can, but she soon discovers that when her godstone goes ice cold in her navel, it means imminent danger. She saves them on one occasion and quickly discovers that the closer they get to the Invierne, the colder the stone makes her feel. Eventually, it becomes unbearable and she has to pray almost constantly to stay warm. The park themselves in a cave overlooking the valley where the Invierne are camping and Humberto kisses her, but their dalliance is cut short as they espy Invierne down below the cave, looking like they're coming up to search the cave.

The long and short of this is that Elisa is captured and taken to the Invierne encampment, and delivered to the animagus's tent. He thinks he can control her with his amulet, and so he 'freezes' her when he leaves the tent briefly, but Elisa is protected by her godstone and can still move. She takes the same berries which were used to drug her during her own kidnapping, and puts them into the animagus's wine. He drinks it and passes out. She takes his clothes and his amulet, which turns out to be a godstone, sets fire to his tent to cause a distraction, and leaves the encampment, spotting one of her own party who is evidently a traitor, as she leaves. She escapes and is met by Humberto who helps her return to the village.

They decide that their best plan is to take up an invitation from Conde Trevino - who they know is going to betray them - to form an alliance against the Invierne, but before they visit him in his palace, they put that same drug into the food which the Conde routinely sends to the Invierne. Not only will this poison the Invierne, it will also poison the relationship the Conde has with them. The Conde kills Humberto who dies in Elisa's arms, shattering her, since she is now in love with him. She resolves to kill the Conde, but before she can, Lord Hector shows up, and she is saved, and taken back to her own capital where her husband awaits; her marriage to him has now become common knowledge. She returns as the Lady of the Malficio - the rebel group she was critical in forming to fight against the Invierne. Her husband does not seem to recognize her at first, but his son, Rosario does.

She is crowned queen, but the Invierne army is heading hard for the capital. The first to arrive is the cavalry, which is formed entirely of Perditos, who surround the city barely giving time for the small army her father sent to get inside the city walls. She cannot find the godstones which she had hidden in the potted palm plant. The plant has been removed from her rooms during the five months she was gone, but she has no idea where it is. She doesn't seem to be able to figure out that as queen, she can ask for it back, and even offer a reward for whoever returns it to her. Instead she keeps the loss a secret because she doesn’t want anyone to know the godstones are there. Instead, she recruits Rosario to go around everywhere in the palace and dig into every potted palm he finds to try and recover the stones. He has no success in this endeavor.

One thing she does discover is that the tiles in her bathroom, which somehow excite the godstone in her navel, were created by a young woman who was also a bearer, but Elisa cannot figure out what this means, or how it might help her. She has been trying to figure out how the animagi can make such powerful use of the godstones they carry, but the use of this power escapes her. She cannot figure it out.

Elisa realizes her husband is still weak as a king. He's incapable of making tough decisions, but her priority isn't him, it’s finding the godstones and protecting the city. Eventually she realizes that the stones are in Araña's room. No surprise there. She retrieves them and tries to figure out how to make them work for her in the way the animagi make them work for them. Unfortunately, three of the five animagi break through the city gates on only their second attempt and storm the palace, eventually, with the traitorous Araña's help make their way to Elisa's room where she is with Alejandro, Rosario, Ximenia, Mara, her new maid who came back with her from the badlands. How they managed this alone without anyone even managing so much as to shoot or stab them in the back is a bit of a weak point to this story!

The animagi kill Araña now she's no further use to them, and Mara claims to be the chosen one. Meanwhile Elisa is hiding in the bathroom trying to figure out how to use the stones. She has her own, and also the one she took from the animagus she killed, which is embedded in a metal design like a flower petal, with four petals. It’s reminiscent of the pattern on the tiles on the walls, and Elisa suddenly realizes that she needs to put a godstone in each of the petals. But the godstones are out in the main room with Rosario, so when she hears Mara step up, she storms out and admits she is the bearer. She slowly closes in on Rosario and he surreptitiously gives her the stones, whereupon she slots them into the petals and...nothing happens! One of the animagi launches himself at Elisa to grab her godstone, but her husband intercepts him and stabs him, whereupon one of the other animagus zaps Alejandro.

Right as she's on the verge of surrendering in despair, Elisa realizes that all along, the magic number has been five, not four, so she presses the metal petal to her own godstone, and suddenly it begins to spin producing a brilliant ball of light which rises above them all. Elisa begins to pray, using words from the scriptures in their native language, which surprises the animagi, but not as much as it surprises them when a wave of power spreads out in all directions from the ball, aging the animagi so rapidly that they quickly blacken and turn to dust, not just the three in the room, but the remaining two outside.

Alejandro dies from his wounds, but not before he officially appoints his wife as queen of the nation. Elisa awards a special commendation to Rosario for his help, and true to her word, appoints Cosmé as queen of the badlands in her own right. But despite all the celebration, all the success, Elisa's godstone has not fractured and ceased to function. it still glows. Clearly, something else is in store, and maybe we'll see what that is in vol 2, because when I returned vol 1 to the library, damned if I didn't find vol 2 sitting there. It was fate! So the next review will be of that.