by Rae Carson423 pages, Greenwillow Books
Review by Melissa Conway
I’ve lately become a staunch supporter of flawed heroines, especially since the more politically correct reader/reviewers among us seem to have decided that female protagonists in young adult literature should portray only the best of characteristics; those we would like to encourage our own children to develop. These readers don’t seem to want their daughters to equate with the literary loser - the passive protagonist that makes bad decisions. As if the best way to teach self-esteem is to shun those with self-doubt.
As a writer, I was taught that not only must my main character overcome whatever external force is driving the plot, that character should grow/change/learn something valuable by the end of the story. A character that remains unchanged internally is considered one-dimensional and unrelatable.
We all know that reading, as more than just entertainment, is a way to escape the narrow confines of our world, to learn about other people and places, be they real or fantastical. Reading introduces us to characters that may not respond to a situation in the same way we might (or in the way we think we might). It’s perfectly fine to become annoyed with a character - it might even be an emotion the author has deliberately coaxed out of you - but I don’t understand the urge to criticize a character because s/he is not strong, smart and uncomplaining. A role model from the moment s/he is introduced.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: there’s a difference between preference and intolerance. For a reader to prefer that a heroine be strong is one thing; for them to be intolerant of a heroine that is flawed (or starts out flawed) is another thing altogether.
Rae Carson, in her debut YA Fantasy, The Girl of Fire andThorns, has created a main character that starts out weak, naïve and, well, okay, she’s stoic, I’ll grant her that - but as a substitute for complaining, she stuffs her face with food.
Here are some of the comments from low-star Amazon reviewers: “When I first picked up this book I had hopes for a strong female lead and what I got was a very weak character who didn't grown (sic) up until the very end of the book.” “Had a terrible time relating with the main character and getting into the novel.” “Instead I found her to be weak, whiny, and unmotivated. I would rather have a strong female lead take this role.”
What frustrates me about the naysayers here is that they don’t appear willing to acknowledge that an individual’s personality, whether in fiction or real life, is shaped by more than just that person’s strength of will. We aren’t born perfect, and exterior forces do more than just sweep us along with the plot (or our lives) - they influence us - how we see ourselves in our world. Carson’s main character is deliberately kept naïve by her own family. Once freed from their ‘protection,’ however, she slowly throws off the bonds of self-doubt and self-destructiveness and grows strong. I loved that about her.
Other criticism leveled against this book had to do with the heavy underlying religious theme. Here, although the religion in question is not Christianity per se, it is a close equivalent on a fictional world. One reviewer said, “We all have tastes. Personally, I tend not to like fiction that has religious faith as a major theme. It's not my thing.” In this, I feel that the line between preference and tolerance blurs a bit, but not much. I’m not particularly religious, but I had no problem reading about the devout society in this book. Again, the main character was raised that way, she was taught to believe, and incidentally, she questions her own faith constantly, especially as magic figures more and more prominently. In fact, I suspect the subsequent books in the planned trilogy might even address the concept of religious doctrine as an invention to explain the unknown.
(Perhaps the negative reviews in this instance might have largely been avoided if the book jacket were more forthcoming about the religious theme. I encountered a similar ploy by the publishers of Ash, who didn’t make it clear on the jacket that the story was a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Those purchasing the book in a bookstore would have no way of knowing that salient fact - I certainly didn’t - but in my case at least, it wasn’t a big deal.)
Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, on to the story! Oh, wait, first I must mention that the narrative is told in first-person present - another thing readers seem to feel strongly one way or the other about, but which doesn’t bother me a whit as long as it’s done well - as it is here.
The Girl of the title is Elisa, the younger of two princesses. She is overweight and describes herself as not pretty, but the reader gets the impression Elisa’s unattractiveness is merely how she sees herself. Her older sister, who will be queen one day, is clever and decisive, athletic and beautiful - all the traits a younger sister would naturally envy and reluctantly admire. Elisa has a few things going for her, one of which is a formidable intelligence - oh, and there’s the little matter of the Godstone that was divinely placed in her navel when she was baptized.
The Godstone is awarded to one person every hundred years or so, and is much prized for its intrinsic power. Exactly what that power entails is kept from Elisa, who is quite suddenly married off to a neighboring king at the tender age of sixteen. She’s thrust into this foreign environment just as a vast horde of barbarians, led by fearsome and evil animagi, is poised to invade her new husband’s country.
Our poor, uncertain Elisa cannot fathom why she was chosen to be the bearer of the Godstone. She vaguely knows she has a destiny to fulfill, and luckily, her new situation gives her the opportunity to seek out just what it is that she should be prepared for. She’s soon thrust into a dangerous adventure that tests her true mettle, and reveals she isn’t so useless after all...
I very much enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to the sequel.