The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

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.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I loved The Magicians.  As I said in an earlier entry, I had not been interested in reading it and knew basically nothing about it when I started, but I was sucked in within a few pages and read like a madwoman until I finished. It was engaging and full of magic and fantasy, but also felt grounded and modern. Calling it Harry Potter Says Motherfucker is really quite a good summary.

I don’t want to go into many details, because I went into the book blind and really enjoyed seeing things unfold, but it’s a very Harry Potter-like set up: a normal teenage boy discovers there is magic in the world and enters a magical boarding school. However, it differs from Harry Potter in some significant ways. First, it is an adult book and there is a fair bit of sex and drugs and violence. Second, things are far less cute than at Hogwarts; learning magic is presented as a real slog, like trying memorize endless complicated multiplication tables, and it’s made very clear that magic can’t fix everything and can’t make someone happy. And third, Grossman doesn’t let things end at graduation, so there’s a real exploration of leaving school and transitioning to the “real world.”

The other thing I really liked about the book was that for me the tone and the writing fell somewhere in between young adult and adult. I worry that this sounds like a criticism, and it’s not. It’s just that as much as I love (LOVE) young adult fantasy books, they tend to be somewhat heavy on the fantasy/moral lesson side of things (Narnia, Robin McKinley, Harry Potter himself). Adult fantasy books, on the other hand, are often so dark that the wonder of magic seems tamped down by the MISERY and UNENDING PAIN OF EXISTENCE. The authors that come to mind here are China Mieville and Octavia Butler; I like both those authors, but when I finish one of their books I generally feel the need for a stiff drink and some restorative episodes of How I Met Your Mother. The Magicians does a nice job of balancing the idea that parts of life are sad and miserable but other parts (including magic) are awesome. It also uses a traditional YA template (magical boarding school, parents who don’t understand, real evil in the world) to talk about the kind of adult issues that come up in every hipster literary novel: “Why do I do such stupid stuff sometimes? What am I doing with my life? What does it really mean to be an adult?”

Abigail Nussbaum, who I mentioned last week, hated this book. I don’t personally agree with her take–she seems to ascribe a lot of socio-economic and religious themes to what I read as primarily a coming-of-age story–but she makes some really interesting points. (Note that her review includes a lot of plot details, so you may want to wait to read it until after you’ve finished the book.)

And finally, while doing some Amazon research for this, I stumbled upon the page for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is fairly recent children’s chapter book about a china rabbit that made me cry and cry. You think The Velveteen Rabbit is touching? That rabbit’s got nothing on Edward. This book is too much for me to ever read again, but everyone else should–it’s a surprisingly layered story about love and ego and heartbreak and personal growth. It’s got nothing to do with The Magicians, I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew it was out there.