The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson
Sixteen-year-old Elisa is the younger of two princesses. She's bookish, uncomfortable in social situations, and turns to food in times of stress: in other words, she's nothing like her perfect older sister.
She's also the carrier of the Godstone. Which means that she's destined to do something great—if she doesn't die before her opportunity to do that Great Thing, whatever it is.
And it's starting to look more and more like she might not live to see her chance. On her sixteenth birthday, she's married off to the king—he's much older than her, but is exceedingly handsome, and seems kind enough, though for some unknown reason he insists on keeping the news of their recent marriage from his people—of a nearby country on the brink of war.
Suddenly, she's the secret queen of an unfamiliar land, thrown headfirst into a sea of political intrigue, unable to trust almost anyone, and where every aspect of her position is uncertain: as the Chosen One, as a ruler, as a representative of her country, as a wife.
HOO BOY, THIS IS A GOOD ONE.
I'd heard great things about The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but I'd put off reading it up until now because I was scared off by the cover, which I find busy, muddy, and generic. (Of course, it could have been much worse.) I've said it before, and I'm sure I'll say it again: thank goodness for the Cybils. The Girl of Fire and Thorns is a 2011 YA SF/F finalist, and so obviously I had to get over my Cover Art Issues and read it.
I picked it up on Friday morning, and I lost two hours. Like, I started reading, and then, what felt like five minutes later, Josh said something, and I realized that I'd read half of the book without even noticing the passage of time.
I WAS SO INTO IT THAT I FORGOT TO EAT BREAKFAST.
Elisa is (obviously) a captivating narrator. She's down on herself in some ways, but always Steps Up when it matters. She's read everything there is to read about the Art of Battle, but she's lacking in life experience and confidence. She's imperfect, utterly believable, and I loved her from page one.
All of the characters—even the minor ones—read as real people, and the worldbuilding was so strong that I'd be extremely sad if I didn't know that there are more books on the way: this is the first in a trilogy. I'd also be really jazzed to see a companion novel from the perspective of a person fighting on the other side of the war. Or a prequel, about Elisa's nurse.
Only complaint? The very last climactic scene didn't work for me. I'm still not exactly sure how or why—the pacing, maybe, or that it was just Too Cinematic in comparison with the rest?—but, really, when it comes down to it, I absolutely loved every last bit of 419 out of 422 pages. Which is a pretty good run.
Also, while the storyline doesn't really allow for Team Guy vs. Team Other Guy, if it did, I'd be Team Lord Hector. All the way. AGE DIFFERENCE BE DAMNED.
Recommended to fans of books by Kristin Cashore and Tamora Pierce, other fantasies starring Strong-Willed Heroines, and also to fans of The Queen's Thief books, but especially to fans of The Blue Sword. Not for the prose stylings—no one can beat McKinley in that department—but because there are some serious similarities in storyline, and as I, a Blue Sword fangirl from waaaaaaay back, had so much fun picking up on them that I figured that others would, too.