Happy 2012, everyone! My year started off with someone backing into my car on New Year’s Eve and a wave of bitter, bitter cold sweeping over my city, as if even the weather was buckling down and getting back to work. Nonetheless, I had a wonderful holiday and am really excited about what 2012, especially what new books I will read. I plan to do a fair amount of traveling the first part of this year and am actually looking forward to the time in airports and on buses to get some reading done. Nothing like winter travel to ensure that you will have hours and hours to nothing but read and watch your flights get delayed.
To finish up my 2011 books, the best thing I read over the holidays was The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which is the sequel to The Magicians. I raved about how much I loved The Magicians and I liked the follow-up just as much. I don’t want to say anything about the plot of characters, because it could spoil things for people who haven’t read the first one, so let me just say that I thought they were both great, everyone should go read them both, and I am very much looking forward to the planned third book.
The book I can talk about is also great, although in a different way. The Girl of Fire and Thornsis the latest in my winter string of YA books featuring kick-ass female protagonists, and it’s my favorite so far. Elisa is the younger princess of a small country and as the book starts she is being married off to the king of a neighboring land, as part of a treaty that will unite the two nations against an aggressive enemy that is threatening them both. Elisa is smart and understands the political necessity of the marriage, but she is also insecure, overweight, in the shadow of her capable older sister, and overwhelmed at the idea of being queen of a foreign nation. And when she gets to her new home she learns that her husband hasn’t told anyone they’re married, leaving her stuck in the middle of a political mess. To top it all off, Elisa is the one child chosen by God every 100 years to bear the Godstone, a sign that she has been selected to perform a great service, but she has so little faith in herself that she is scared she won’t even recognize the service when she sees it.
From this starting point, the book follows a military and political storyline as the country prepares for war, but the real focus is Elisa’s development as a person and a leader. There is a terrible trope in fiction (both YA and adult) in which the fat girl loses weight and finds herself, and I had a moment of panic early in this book when I thought that was where things might be going. However, Carson does a great job of showing how Elisa doesn’t become an entirely new (thin) person, but uses the skills and intelligence she always had to rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done. Yes, she loses weight along the way (why can’t a character just be fat and awesome for once?) but it’s made clear that this is not the most important change. Elisa’s voice is so clear throughout the story that her progression from scared teenager to capable adult feels like real, believable growth.
I will also say this: The Girl of Fire and Thorns surprised me constantly. As much as I love YA books, they can sometimes be predictable, and there were a few plots twists in this one that I did not expect at all. And while there could be a sequel that continues the story, and I would happily spend more time with Elisa, this is a complete and satisfying book all on it’s own. I’ve still got a pile of YA fantasy waiting for me, but I suspect this one will stay very high on my list.