Since I was raving so enthusiastically about The Girl of Fire and Thorns in my last post, I feel like I need to come back and wrap up my opinion, which changed over the course of the book.
I gave this 4 stars on Goodreads, really more of a 3.5 book. Honestly, though, the first part of the book was almost a 5, while by the end it had dwindled down to a 3. There are a lot of elements to my reaction, and a lot to pick apart, I think.
First, what I loved about it was what caught me at the beginning. I think a lot of it had to do with how unusual it felt. First, the Hispanic influences of the language and names, which is not the same-old. The fact that the characters seemed to be Latino/a was also a big plus. It just gave a slightly different flavor to another fantasy story.
I also really liked the angle that a lot of things came in at. I liked that Elisa and Alodia are princesses--Elisa finds it oppressive, Alodia empowering. For both of them, being a princess has nothing to do with dressing up in fancy dresses or having parties--either good or bad. So many books either push back against "girl things" or embrace them, but they really don't show up much at all here. Elisa is bookish; Alodia is social--both are smart. I liked that the arranged husband is neither treated entirely as a sex object nor is he a terrible curse. So many things like this felt more real and complicated than they are in many fantasy stories. I think this is what set my expectations so high.
There were so many little worldbuilding things that I loved at the beginning. The religion aspect was cool--Elisa bears the godstone, which warms when she prays. God is a big part of Elisa's life, but it's not clear how literally we're supposed to take him--is God going to be a deus ex machina in this story? Are we going to find out God's big secret? Are the priests good or evil. All of these, and none--in real life, the answer to "what's up with this religion thing?" doesn't jump out at you, and it doesn't here, either.
So the beginning, essentially, had a ton to love about it. But about one-third of the way in, there's a big shift, and the story changes abruptly. It's not entirely unexpected--quite the opposite, in fact. From an unexpected, interesting, unpredictable place, the book takes a shift into standard YA territory--there is a quest, and a finding of the self, and friendships, and an enemy that is OMGSOEVIL! Elisa shifts into this new zone well before I did--from the minute she left the palace, she didn't act like I expected; she acted like someone who knew what was coming in the story and was behaving the way the story wanted her to.
I was really bothered by how "other" the enemy seemed. They're barely human, pure evil, out to Take Over The World for no particular reason. They're physically disgusting, cruel, and manipulative. It's not like I haven't seen this problem in other books--a bad guy with so little subtlety that there's almost no point. It's just that I have seen it so often, and I hoped for so much more here.
I don't want to give away the story, but suffice to say that all sorts of things that you might expect happen--romance, betrayal, escape, etc. It's all quite dashing and kept me reading, and was well-written. But nothing in the last 2/3 of the book lived up to the glorious promise of that first 1/3.
Now, let me get to the thing that so many people have been bothered by: Elisa's body. She starts out fat--"piggy," "disgusting," frequently eating herself sick. This is the angry, weak, lonely Elisa who's never good enough. I kind of liked this, actually--a fat heroine. Yeah, the fact that she's not just fat but gross about it--frequent scenes of her eating herself sick use phrases like "cramming food into my face"--is kind of bothersome, but this, of course, is the flawed character we start out with. The direct association of fat and grossness is the before picture.
And I'll say, I thought her internal life was really neatly drawn. Her sense of failure and hopelessness and shame is all tangled up in hope and wishing and pride in her other accomplishments and frustration, both at herself for not being less gross and the rest of the world for not realizing that she's not as gross as she seems.
But again, the rest of the book let me down. As Elisa gains strength, she stops stuffing her face. As she gets more confident and accomplished, she sometimes forgets to eat. As she undergoes physical trials, she finds her clothes don't really fit anymore. And finally she emerges--strong, proud, confident, and thin. So the fat was never separated out from the gross. The appetite and enjoyment of food is never distinguished from gorging herself sick. Thin is beautiful is healthy is successful wins the day.
Really, it's not a bad book. It's a run-of-the-mill YA fantasy adventure story. But it promised to be so much more at the beginning--in spite of the 4 stars, I'm left feeling pretty let down in a lot of ways. But I'll read the next one; I'd like to see if Carson brings other bright spots to the rest of the series, the way she promised to in this book.