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The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

I brought Rae Carson‘s The Girl of Fire and Thorns [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] along to read on the flight to and from MarsCon. I enjoyed it enough that I ended up finishing the book before I reached Chicago on the flight home. It has engaging characters, plenty of action, interesting magic and worldbuilding, everything a good book needs.

The official description:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa has always felt powerless, useless. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could save his people. And he looks at her in a way no man has ever looked at her before. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

The book is popular enough that there are a ton of reviews if you want more details there. I want to jump right into an aspect of the book that jumped out at me. Namely, the fact that Princess Elisa is unapologetically fat.

Now when I say that, I don’t mean that the character herself is unapologetic. When we meet Elisa, she knows she’s seen as unappealing, ugly, even grotesque, and she’s internalized those beliefs for most of her life. But Carson doesn’t dance around the fact. She doesn’t try to minimize it, or to soften the descriptions or effects, both physical and societal. At the same time, the narration never struck me as fat-shaming. It’s an impressive and powerful balancing act.

I really appreciate meeting this strong, intelligent, likeable character who happens to also be fat, and I’m very glad Carson chose to write her. I’ve read a lot of epic fantasy, and I believe this is the first time I’ve come across a protagonist like this. (I’m sure there are other examples; my point is that it’s very, very rare.)

As impressed as I am with the writing, there were things I found troubling. Elisa is someone who eats to cope with stress and anxiety and depression. Over the course of the book, as she’s drawn into the middle of a war, she finds herself living a much harsher lifestyle. Less food and more exercise, and within a few chapters, she’s dropped a great deal of weight. She’s never skinny, which I appreciate, but there is a pretty drastic physical change that coincides with her growth into a leader.

This particular narrative thread troubled me as I read it. To her credit, Carson notes in the afterword that she struggled with it as well, and that she even considered not having Elisa lose weight. But she felt that given everything Elisa endures, it would be unrealistic to not show the physical effects. It’s a valid argument, and I’m not sure how she could have done it any differently.

But at the same time, it makes this a story about a character who’s fat because she’s slothful and gluttonous, who loses lots of weight when she has to hike across the desert with very little food, and who suddenly has more confidence, male attention, etc. once she’s lost weight.

It’s not that this narrative is necessarily unrealistic. Sometimes people are fat because they eat too much and never exercise. Sometimes diet and exercise is all it takes. But this is pretty much the only narrative we ever hear. Fat = slothful and lazy and gluttonous, and all those fat people need is a bit of exercise and discipline, and their lives would be so much better.

To be clear, I don’t believe that’s what Carson is trying to say here. In fact, there are places where I believe she’s working against that narrative. For example, one character’s attraction to Elisa begins before the weight loss. But I’m not sure it’s enough.

It’s something that bugs me in the cover art, too. The U.S. paperback shows only Elisa’s face within a blue jewel. Other editions consistently show slender women on the covers. We all know why they do it, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

While I may have reservations about this part of the story, I still appreciate Carson writing and struggling with it. My guess is that a lot of people, particularly those who are or have been overweight in our society, will relate to much of what Elisa experiences.

And it really is a well-written, engaging book. I love the way Carson incorporates religion, how she interrogates it and shows it as a tool for both good and evil. The culture, a loosely Spanish setting, was interesting and new to me. The magic system works well, and the various revelations were wonderful.

It’s a good book, and I think it’s definitely worth reading. You can read a sample at the Harper Collins website.

I would absolutely love to hear other people’s thoughts on this one.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
nyxalinth
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:22 pm (UTC)
This sounds great, though it also makes me want to write a fantasy character who is fat and too effing bad if others don't like it, she likes it,and doesn't lose weight, not a jot, and her fat is just something that runs in the family and the muscles under it are strong. Having said this, I appreciate that it sounds like the author did a pretty decent job of writing her own character and her story. I'll be looking for this one.
marielaf
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:43 pm (UTC)
I had exactly the same reaction.
wintersillusion
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:38 pm (UTC)
Added to my reading list. As a girl with a lot of extra padding which I've struggled with most of my life who is generally not slothful, lazy, and gluttonous, I appreciate your take on that aspect of the book and that you don't readily prescribe to that stereotype.
3rdragon
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:42 pm (UTC)
Your review pretty much nailed this book for me. You captured what I liked about it and what made me uncomfortable. I was also thrilled that the narrative clearly portrayed an overweight protagonist, but a little bit disturbed at the overall character arc, even as it made sense for what was going on in the story. And she did a lot of things really well.

I liked books two and three, as well.
jimhines
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:55 pm (UTC)
I've heard the sequels are even better.
(no subject) - elialshadowpine - Jan. 21st, 2014 08:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
lydy
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:49 pm (UTC)
I can see the argument for losing a bunch of weight with a restricted diet and lots of exercise, and it makes sense within the structure of the story that this would coincide with gaining authority and autonomy and that character growth would have nothing to do with her weight. But what happens when she stops living in such extreme circumstances? Real people mostly put back on a fair amount of the weight they lost. Sometimes the maintain an exercise regimen because they like not puffing every time they go up the stairs, but when the calorie restriction is over, not only are they likely to eat more, but the body having been exposed to a famine situation will be even more inclined to store fat. So, if I were structuring a story like this, I'd try to include regaining the weight. Which is the fate of a startling percentage of people who lose weight for reasons other than, you know, terminal illness.
jimhines
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:55 pm (UTC)
That would be a logical conclusion. I'm planning to read the second book, which I've been told is even better than the first, and I'll be curious to see if that's where Carson goes with it.
(no subject) - 3rdragon - Jan. 21st, 2014 05:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tylik - Jan. 21st, 2014 06:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
bunn
Jan. 21st, 2014 04:57 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that something that has thrown me out of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' on occasion is the remarkable fatness of Samwell Tarly and Ser Wylis Manderly, which persists despite military training and rations, forced marches, seasickness, and lack of money, battle,and even being taken and held prisoner for some considerable while in a situation where the prisoners are driven to cannibalism.

Personally, I have padding and I prefer it that way because when I am thin, I tend to fall over and faint a lot and get furious attacks of pointless rage and generally have problems maintaining equilibrium.

I think there is certainly an argument that people who are forced to live on gruel in books should feel feeble and grow fewer muscles, and spend more time feeling random fury and less time thinking in a coherent manner - because, really, if they are going through hell, writing it as if they have suddenly decided to live in a health spa is ludicrous too - but I don't really think that they should just stay fat, because that just raises ridiculous questions about where on earth they are getting their maintenance calories from.
elialshadowpine
Jan. 21st, 2014 05:35 pm (UTC)
edit: trigger warning for some discussion of eating disorders


On top of that, Elisa is not white and some of the covers whitewash her. (Although I actually really like the first two UK covers, because they show her race and they also avoid making her skinny. Third fails at the latter part, though.)

It's something I struggled with too, esp being a fat lady myself. Honestly, I don't necessarily think the problem is with Carson's depiction so much as that we hardly ever see depictions of fat women who can kick ass. Because of that, I think, Carson's depiction has a greater impact than it would if there were, say, lots of books with fat women protagonists.

Because the portrayal of Elisa, initially, is someone who binge eats for emotional reasons. Someone like that probably would lose weight if they went through what she did, hiking miles upon miles through the desert. It is, of course, possible to have someone who both binge eats and who has familial genetics/health disorders that prevent weight loss, but I generally don't expect writers to portray intersection (for lack of a better word; I'm in pain and it's early) to that degree.

It's never especially spelled out what Elisa weighs after her adventures in the desert. I somewhat like that because it means I can see her in the way that I want; in my mind, she's on the small end of plus size, like me. But I realize other people will default to cultural ideals -- meaning, skinny. So it's a toss-up.

Also, the binge eating is something that she kicks. In the second book, the beginning of which takes place back in the palace, she doesn't revert to the overeating that she did before, which suggests to me that Carson might be showing a binge eating disorder. (Anorexia and bulimia are not the only eating disorders out there.) Elisa makes great emotional strides and growth during the first book, and I think that's reflected in her later eating habits.

It's a hard subject, and I honestly think that the lack of other fat protagonists in fantasy fiction (ones who are not played for laughs, anyway, or who don't fall into stereotypes like the plump elderly mother figure or plump religious figure) contributes. If there were more depictions, it wouldn't be as big a deal, because there would be lots to choose from. Right now, we don't have that, and people looking for portrayals of people like themselves wind up short -- and disappointed, when a protagonist that starts out seeming like them becomes totally different over the course of the story. If that makes sense?

Edited at 2014-01-21 05:35 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Jan. 21st, 2014 06:05 pm (UTC)
"I don't necessarily think the problem is with Carson's depiction so much as that we hardly ever see depictions of fat women who can kick ass. Because of that, I think, Carson's depiction has a greater impact than it would if there were, say, lots of books with fat women protagonists."

Yes, very much so. It's not that this is in and of itself a bad or unrealistic narrative. It's that we have so few stories like this, and of those that do exist, this is the pattern they tend to follow.

I also found myself thinking of Elisa's binge eating as a disorder, and noticing how she was initially described as often being hungry, but later on, you see where she's specifically described as not hungry as she grows and develops as a character.
(no subject) - elialshadowpine - Jan. 21st, 2014 08:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 21st, 2014 09:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - 3rdragon - Jan. 21st, 2014 06:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
reedrover
Jan. 21st, 2014 05:44 pm (UTC)
I read and reviewed this book a couple of years ago. I had many of the same reactions that you did, including "it's a good story" and "it could be better." I especially, sincerely detest first person present tense storytelling. But I got over it. Http://reedrover.livejournal.com/1358397.html

One thing that I might mention is that there is an anthology out there that is more useful for people who don't enjoy the "she got skinny and everything worked out!" storyline: Such a Pretty Face

jimhines
Jan. 21st, 2014 06:06 pm (UTC)
I've read several present-tense stories lately. Is this becoming a trend, at least in YA?
(no subject) - reedrover - Jan. 21st, 2014 06:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - thedragonweaver - Jan. 22nd, 2014 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - reedrover - Jan. 22nd, 2014 12:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
roseaponi
Jan. 21st, 2014 07:35 pm (UTC)
I thought this was an excellent story, and Elisa's body image had such a - oh, wow, all my word choices here now sound like bad puns (weight? Heft? Fleshed out? Gah!) - okay, she and her body were real in this story. At the end her skin is loose from dropping the weight so rapidly. I was floored that was in there! She didn't go through a boot camp experience and come out perfect and slim with no after effects.

I may be more inclined to believe that she gained confidence not because she lost weight, but instead because she was spending all that time praying and living her purpose. Once she had confidence, she no longer needed to deal with her feelings with food or hide, paralyzed by indecision and self-consciousness. So it does look like the order of events was inactive and gluttonous, to essentially boot camp and rations, to losing weight, to gaining confidence - but the real order of events was scared and conflicted, to survival, to relying on God, to discovering more about purpose, to gaining confidence, to no longer needing to medicate with food. Weight loss? It's a side effect. The root problem of purposeless-ness and shame was dealt with and the primary symptom is now resolving.
naomikritzer
Jan. 21st, 2014 09:14 pm (UTC)
I've read the first two and loved them. (And I bought a copy of #3, ostensibly for my daughter, for Christmas, but I need to re-read the first two before I read the last one, and we've misplaced our copy of #1.)

Part of what worked for me about the narrative arc with her weight is that although she loses weight she doesn't get skinny, and the main thing that delights her about the changes in her body is that she no longer gets winded from moderate exercise.

I'm not particularly fat and never have been. If, however, I'd read this as a teenage girl, the takeaway message I'd have gotten from the body stuff definitely would not have been, "if only revolutionaries kidnapped me and made me eat on camp rations for months -- then, at last, I'd be skinny, like Bette Midler's character in 'Ruthless People!'"...it would have been, "exercise is for everybody, not just the jocks," which would have been a positive one.

The other stuff I adored: I really, really liked the fact that she bonded with her stepchild, that she committed to the child even when the child clearly had hesitations about her, that she refers to the child as her heir and her child throughout. I liked the fact that there are some people she's very fond of who turn out not to really have her best interests at heart, because people are complicated and "likeable" doesn't always mean "good." I loved all the religion stuff and the fact that she was CHOSEN and SPECIAL and this drove a huge wedge between her and her un-chosen un-special sister even as Elisa had no idea what she was supposed to do with her specialness or what she was supposed to accomplish. (I really like religion geekery in my books -- I also really truly adore Bujold's "Chalion" books and I highly recommend these to other Chalion fans, FYI. For that matter, if you've read these and not the Chalion books, and liked the religion geekery here, pick "The Curse of Chalion" up next. It's a very different book and yet it hits some of the same emotional notes for me.)
naomikritzer
Jan. 21st, 2014 09:18 pm (UTC)
...although (since we're discussing weight issues in books) I should note that the one notably fat character in "Chalion" is also despicable.

But when you pick up the sequel, "Paladin of Souls," there's a totally awesome and delightful fat Divine of the Bastard. (I would recommend reading "Curse" first, though. "Paladin" stands on its own but it's better with the first book to set it up.)
(no subject) - elialshadowpine - Jan. 22nd, 2014 01:44 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 22nd, 2014 01:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
raktajinos
Jan. 22nd, 2014 06:29 am (UTC)
Wow. A fat protagonist. When I read that I immediately went to goodreads to add the book to my 'to read' list. Then I read the rest of your review. I will probably still read the book, but the elements you highlight are problematic.

I'm a huge supporter of the fat activist/health-at-every-size movement and as a fat lady myself I love it when I see fat protagonists in literature.

But siiigh. there are many many fat people who remain fat even after exercise and diet changes. Myself, I'm a competitive olympic weight lifter - always been fat, always will be. It seems like an element of the story that didn't necessarily need to be there. But I'm pleased the author is aware of the problematic aspects of that, so that's something.

Anyways, great review. I'm new to your lj (but not new to your work) and its just so awesome you're on the antifat-shame wagon!
jimhines
Jan. 22nd, 2014 12:58 pm (UTC)
Hello, and welcome!

I do give Carson credit for writing the character, and for struggling with the story, even if she ended up with some problematic parts. I guess I have more respect for people who aim high and sometimes fall short than people who aim for mediocrity and hit the mark, if that makes sense?

Someone else mentioned that part of the problem is that there are just so few stories about fat protagonists at all. If we actually got to see and read a more realistic range of experiences and body types, it would help a lot...
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )

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