by Gina L. Grandi, artistic director
You may not be aware that I am the tri-state expert on young adult dystopian romance trilogies. Now you know.
Books and trilogies along the Hunger Games lines tend to be classified as young adult, due to young adult protagonists, but that classification can feel arbitrary. I mean, who doesn’t like a good dystopian adventure?
There are a slew of books that aren’t technically or necessarily dystopian, but somehow have that same feel to them, that appeal to the Hunger Games crowd. Today, I bring you one of these, for the readers and young readers out there who appreciate a strong female protagonist.
Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns series has three books: The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom. The premise: princess Elisa is a godstone bearer, a chosen one. She is married off on her 16th birthday to a neighboring king, whose country is falling apart. There’s politics. There’s magic. There’s kidnapping and scheming and travel.
This is not a dystopian series, technically. It does have that flavor, as it takes place in an alternate world, similar to our own but with significant differences. It could be in the past, it could be in the future.
Let me tell you why this series is one of my favorites.
1. The third book doesn’t suck.
I call this The Mockingjay Problem – weak/terrible/disappointing third installments of an otherwise delightful series. Characters behave totally out of character. Love triangles are wrapped up in annoyingly convenient ways. Everything feels a little flat. Sometimes it feels like the author was rushed. Sometimes it feels like there just wasn’t enough story to last for three books. For whatever reason, it’s a common issue. The Mazerunner series. The Selection series. The Uglies series. The Divergent series. All, in my opinion, rushed, flawed, disappointing third books.
The third book in this series, The Bitter Kingdom, brings all kinds of new information and situations, after a second installment cliffhanger. It’s real story, not just a stretching out of what we’ve heard before. Questions and relationships are resolved, and satisfyingly so.
2. Elisa is a great.
Elisa is a strong protagonist. She’s not beautiful; she’s heavy and not traditionally attractive. The author does have her lose a significant amount of weight in the first book (as a result of a month long march across the desert), which makes sense in the circumstances, but feels like an unnecessary nod to beauty norms. While I could do without Elisa’s sense of self-worth and confidence having a weight correlation, I do like that she never becomes traditionally beautiful, and never ‘thin’ or ‘slender’. What she does become is muscular, and strong. She takes enormous pride in her ability to walk for days on end and for being able to defend herself. She is clever and shrewd, studies strategy and politics, and is the one who pretty much saves everyone’s butts, in both action sequences and political maneuvering. She is not perfect, either. As queen, she struggles, and makes decisions she later regrets. But she’s capable and doesn’t need saving. When she does lean on someone – be it a friend or a love interest – it feels real, not a girl-needs-help trope. Much of this story is Elisa’s journey to trust her own abilities and instincts.
3. There are a whole lot of strong women, and Elisa has actual relationships with them.
Almost all the powerful rulers in this series are women. I love that, when she becomes queen, Elisa’s gender is never an issue. Her age, experience, and personality are all questioned at some time, but not her gender. This feels like a big deal – other writers, I think, would fall quickly into that plot device, and Elisa would have to battle the patriarchy. This world has no issue with strong women. This world relies on strong women. It’s not even a question.
While there is a (heteronormative) romance contingent to this series, Elisa’s relationships with the women in her life feel like the most important relationships in the book. From her sister to her nurse/guardian to her best friend/lady-in-waiting, she discusses politics, power, strategy – every aspect of her life. They speak about relationships and love, but these women are more than a sounding board to forward the romance. They are integral to the plot. They have personalities, strengths, and flaws. They are well-rounded, and Elisa’s relationship with them is complex and layered. The Bechdel Test is passed, no problem.
4. Elisa is a woman of color.
And it’s made clear that the majority of the main characters are. We can surmise from the names and language (Elisa’s full name is Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, other characters include Ximena, Humberto, Conde Treviño, and Cosmé; Elisa’s home country is Orovalle and the country she comes to rule is Joya d'Arena) that this fictional world has Latin roots. Elisa is described as being dark skinned, dark eyed, and black haired, and this is described as the norm.
All around, this is a good read, and Elisa is the kind of character I wish there were more of.
So if you’re a fan of alternate/dystopian worlds, strong women characters, books with magic that don’t feel like fantasy novels, this is your series.
The Bechdel Group
Working to challenge the portrayal of women in film and on stage.