One by one they are pierced and blessed and tended to. Belen acts as the priest’s assistant, anointing their tiny prick wounds with ointment, wrapping them in bandages, giving the occasional cryer a quick hug.
When it’s my turn, Father Alentin smiles sadly, even as he grasps my neck and pulls my forehead against his own.
“What is it you seek, child?”
Last time, I prayed for wisdom. God must have answered my prayer, for I certainly feel wiser now. Older. Different. But I still don’t understand what God wants from me. I sigh. “Alentin, I need faith. I have so many doubts about God and His will.”
His lips, moist and warm, press against my forehead. “Everyone has doubts,” he whispers. “Pray through them. God will show you what to do when the time comes.”
Author: Rae Carson
Synopsis: Though chosen by God for an unknown task, Princess Elisa, heavy and awkward, has always lived in the shadow of her beautiful and capable older sister. When she’s secretly married at sixteen to the handsome but hesitant king of a distant country, however, Elisa must face up to her destiny both as queen and as bearer of the Godstone. Before long, she’s bringing the strength of her knowledge of the sacred texts and war to bear not only on King Alejandro’s councils, but on the fate of a small revolutionary desert people, among whom is the one man who truly loves her.
Notes: With the recent openness to unsoftened violence in young adult fiction (The Hunger Games, Divergent) and the popularity of no-character-is-safe authors like George R.R. Martin and Jodi Picoult on the bestseller lists—not to mention an overall focus on diversity of representation—the doors have been opened for Rae Carson, whose powerful debut refuses to conform to expectations on a number of levels.
Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, princess of Orovalle, is no pretty, wiry YA heroine stuck choosing between two good-looking and possessive young men. She lives for two things: her studies of the Scriptura Sancta and the Belleza Guerra, and food. We meet her as she’s on her knees, about to be squeezed into a massive wedding dress, praying that her arranged-marriage bridegroom will be ugly enough to love her. The only thing she feels is attractive or special about her is the living stone God installed at her navel by means of a beam of light on her naming day, but anything relating to the meaning of that, or what God’s will for her might be, is carefully kept from her.
As most of those difficulties—excepting the Godstone—are far more common in reality than fiction, it’s to Carson’s credit not only that Elisa is what she is, but that her struggles are carefully described and deeply sympathetic. Elisa's early passive weakness and self-disgust could make her uninteresting; instead, they serve to interest the reader and set up a strong trajectory for growth.
Elisa’s culture and religion are as surprising as the character herself. Carson, rather than mining cultures foreign to the modern West or developing entirely in fantastical directions, unashamedly adapted Spanish high-church Christianity minus the obvious figure of Christ. The rose—elevated over an altar as part of the main sacrament—is a not-so-subtle stand-in, perhaps. Quotes from the Scriptura Sancta strongly resemble verses of Scripture, such as “Wherever five are gathered, there am I in their midst” (cf. Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, KJV). The Lengua Classica (plain Spanish, though not called so by name) and the Lengua Plebeya are flatly reminiscent of Catholicism’s use of Latin and vernacular, and the reference to Orovalle’s Via Reformas is an equally blunt parallel.
The religion is wholly fantasy, of course, despite the open basis in Christianity. The Christian faith claims a lot of wild and weird miracles, but nothing quite resembling the placement of a Godstone in the navel of a newborn child every hundred years. There are also little twists that would subtly distort the teachings of Christianity if Carson’s work were meant to be a faithful representation. The fixing of the sacred number at five, as noted above, is one such. That said, the religion is portrayed sympathetically, which is always a delight to find.
It should be noted, of course, that Carson’s use of Christian imagery doesn’t make her a Christian. In fact, according to herself on Twitter, she’s an atheist. Which might also explain the lack—unless I missed something—of religious themes on the symbolic level, as well as the phrasing of some “faith in myself” lines at the end. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes the next two books, but right now it’s at least hard to imagine Elisa turning her back on her faith in God.
The book breaks from expectations on one more level, in that Carson allows certain bad things to happen in shameless defiance of the likely wishes of her readership. This reader actually went to bed unsettled and annoyed after staying up late "finding out what happens", but later discovered that it’s only the first in a trilogy. Again, it’ll be interesting to see where the story goes.
The book is well written and engaging, and I enjoyed it despite my growing dislike of present tense narrative. The portrayal of religion intrigued me, and Elisa is an appealing heroine, one I felt a lot of affection for. To add to the interest, the desert-heat atmosphere, the systematic breaking down and reforming of Elisa’s character, and the emphasis on the number five leave me suspecting that Carson may have plotted her trilogy alchemically. I expect to read A Crown of Embers when it comes out.
Recommendation: Read it for an intriguing fantasy tale of a seemingly unlikely heroine, a girl with great weaknesses but greater inner strength.