In my profession, I read a lot of the first books in series. Usually, that tells me all I need to know to help a patron decide whether this book would appeal to them. If I read the rest of the series, it means that the book was a real favorite.
Well, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Crown of Embers, by Rae Carson, sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Since I don’t know if you’ve read Girl of Fire and Thorns, I can’t tell you about Crown of Embers without spoiling it for you! So, I’ll set up the first book and you can discover book two for yourself.
Elisa is a Bearer. That is to say that she bears on her body a gemstone that sets her apart as the person most connected to God in 100 years. She has special gifts and powers, and has had to be thoroughly educated, especially in a quasi-Christian religious history and scripture. Where is this gemstone? In her navel. Yes, she has a bejeweled bellybutton, and she can’t remove it. Were someone to attempt to steal the Godstone, they would have to kill her and cut it out of her, and there are plenty of people who would be perfectly happy to do so.
Since Elisa is part of a family of royalty, she must marry well so that her father’s house will be strengthened. And since Elisa is fat and plain, her father is not expecting the suitors to line up at his door. Ms. Carson has set her novel in a sort of alternate Spain, probably in the middle ages or so. Elisa is dark-skinned and dark-haired, and the people and places have pseudo-Spanish names. At long last, Alejandro, the king of a neighboring country, decides to take Elisa as his bride for political reasons. She has such low self-esteem that she’s relieved that anyone stepped forward. When Elisa arrives in his kingdom, though, she finds that, even though her prince is a very nice, mild-mannered guy, he intends to continue his long-standing relationship with a beautiful— though not marriageable— woman of the court. Elisa and Alejandro are quietly married, and on the wedding night, he tells her that although he may be required to produce an heir someday, it won’t be tonight, thanks.
Before Elisa’s coronation, she is kidnapped by a band of outlaws because of the bellybutton thing. They want her power, and at the moment they’ll let her live so that they can force her to wield magic for them. If she refuses, well, it’s really the Godstone they’re after. She is disposable.
At this point you’re thinking, “Surely Alejandro or Elisa’s father will rescue her, and Alejandro will fall deeply in love with Elisa for her keen mind and depth of character!” Not even. As the novel continues, though, the reader comes to respect her more and more as she grows in strength and courage. She is the anti-Bella: tough, smart, and honorable. The book is not predictable, as Rae Carson is second only to George R.R. Martin in her cheerful willingness to kill off major characters. Once in particular, I thought, “Oh, no! This can’t be happening! Surely he is wearing a bullet-proof– er, swordproof vest and just got the wind knocked out of him! He’ll stand up in a minute.” He doesn’t. I must confess that when I started Crown of Embers, I peeked at the end just to see if Elisa lives all the way through. Since Carson leaves us on a cliffhanger ending, and there has to be a third book, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. In any case, I felt that I could not trust the author to make things turn out happily, and that’s just as it should be. If I could comfortably breeze through, knowing that she would never let certain things happen, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. Furthermore, none of the characters are portrayed as completely good or bad, and Elisa is truly fair and realistic in her expectations of other people.
These books are appropriate for older teens and adults, particularly for those who love a strong heroine, adventure, and romance. Highly recommended.
The usual disclaimer: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer. I read library copies of the books, but if Harper Collins wants to send me a galley of the third volume, I would not complain.