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.
January 21, 2014 @ 1:33 pm
Weight is only rarely affected by diet/limited food intake and exercise.
For somewhere between 95-98% of people, that formula doesn’t work. Yes, even if one is striding through the desert and doesn’t have enough food. One of the things I appreciated about Lost (and I didn’t really much watch it) was that Hurley never really dropped poundage despite being shipwrecked on a desert island. Because that’s far more realistic, in my experience and in the experience of the nutritionist I work with.
I would much rather the main character’s eating for comfort, which people do do (and I’m one of them, though I also *don’t* eat on occasion to comfort myself) be addressed without bringing weight loss into the picture at all. She would certainly get somewhat fitter in the desert situation without necessarily dropping weight.
Here are a few citations for diets really not working well:
Berdanier, C.D., and McIntosh, M.K. Weight loss-Weight regain: a vicious cycle. Nutrition Today 26, 5(1991).
Blackburn, G.L., et al. Weight Cycling: The experience of human dieters. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 49(1989):1105
Goodrick, G.K., and FOreyt, J.P. Why treatments for obesity don’t last. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 91, 10(1991).
Gaesser, G. Big Fat Lies (Fawcett Columbine, 1996)
and also the CSWD’s “health” references: http://www.cswd.org/docs/health.html
January 21, 2014 @ 1:34 pm
NB: I haven’t read the book.
January 21, 2014 @ 2:34 pm
I was a huge fan of this series, partially because of Elisa’s weight (and also since it’s an awesome fantasy world). I read the afterword about her losing weight during the desert journey as well since I was thinking these same sorts of things. I think the weight loss during the desert was necessary because she was very much close to starvation conditions if I remember correctly, eating stew in the evenings based on desert rat I think? I really hope you read the rest of the trilogy since I liked how things continued to develop with this issue. It was my impression that Elisa gained back at least some of her weight when she gets back into her normal setting but retains her confidence, which I loved (I read the series last year and there have been a lot of books in between, so I might be remembering incorrectly, but that is my general recollection).
Jim C. Hines
January 21, 2014 @ 2:49 pm
Oh, I am most definitely planning to continue reading the series 🙂
January 21, 2014 @ 5:12 pm
I really appreciate your ability to say that you liked the book but struggled with this portrayal of a fat protagonist. I thought the way Elisa’s dramatic weight loss was tied with her transformation into a hero and a leader was incredibly problematic, stereotypical, and even fatphobic. I also hated how the Stockholm/kidnapping aspects were shuffled under the rug, so I very emphatically plan not to read any more Carson in the future.
January 21, 2014 @ 8:59 pm
I liked the book overall but also have serious problems with the weight loss issues. As Sistercoyote said, significant weight loss doesn’t work in the vast majority of people – and even if it works short-term, it doesn’t work long-term, so if she lost weight, she would almost certainly gain it back (plus 5%) within 2-5 years.
I’m sort of used to that being the narrative at this point, though, I’m sad to say – I’ve been trying for years to find good (fiction, preferably f/sf) books with good fat protagonists and they are vanishingly rare. I even have an anthology specifically of fat protagonists and only half the stories managed to not be actively offensive.
January 22, 2014 @ 11:24 am
I loved this book and I felt like the rest of the trilogy lives up to the first one. I don’t think Elise ever becomes slender — my sense of it (although it’s been a while since I read the first one) was more that she becomes stronger but never slim, and even when she’s muscular there’s still a lot of fat on her body. I think even in the second and third book she’s not always pleased with how she looks, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about how other people judge her based on her appearance, but (not to give anything away I hope) she comes to appreciate her own strength and to accept her body.
This is one of my very favorite YA books/series, especially because there is, in no way shape or form, one of those characters who are just TOO SKINNY. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feeling self-conscious in that way, I do think it’s waaaay over-represented in fiction, so this was very refreshing.
January 22, 2014 @ 12:51 pm
While you were reading her on the flight to MarsCon, I was sitting next to Rae Carson at a book signing at Confusion. Nice woman.
Jim C. Hines
January 22, 2014 @ 1:35 pm
You know, I had a blast at MarsCon, but I *really* missed being at ConFusion, too! 🙁
January 24, 2014 @ 11:19 am
I had a good time at Confusion. I’ll be back (said with menacing Austrian accent). 🙂
January 26, 2014 @ 10:49 am
I read the book and enjoyed it, but I had the same issues when it came to how weight loss was handled in the book. I’ve watched multiple people do starvation-and-exercise (600cal day/2hrs cardio/weights at gym) over long periods of time and even on scary “diets” like that it’s not a fast process. More than that, it doesn’t just magically make you just a thinner version of yourself. You wind up with all kinds of extra skin in flaps and pouches in a lot of places that do not go away, stretch marks become even more pronounced as grooves, and any muscle you may be gaining from the work is being used up the same way the rest of you is — being eaten by your starving body.
I know the plural of anecdotes isn’t data, but watching someone drop 100lbs in 8 months on a starvation diet like this was a terrifying experience, so this just didn’t ring true at all to me and made me feel like it was just reinforcing the “diet and exercise” spiel everyone from doctors to concern-trolling internet comments puts forth.
Again, I enjoyed the book but I haven’t read on, because this issue bothered me a lot.