Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: THE CROWN OF EMBERS by Rae Carson

Elisa is the hero of her country. She led her people to victory against a terrifying enemy, and now she is their queen. But she is only seventeen years old. Her rivals may have simply retreated, choosing stealth over battle. And no one within her court trusts her-except Hector, the commander of the royal guard, and her companions. As the country begins to crumble beneath her and her enemies emerge from the shadows, Elisa will take another journey. With a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with, Elisa crosses the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone's power. That is not all she finds. A breathtaking, romantic, and dangerous second volume in the Fire and Thorns trilogy.
Second books are a tricky thing. They have to live up to the expectations set by the first book but avoid rehashing the same tricks from before. If the second book is part of a trilogy, it must bridge the gap between the two books without faltering in structure or withholding proper closure.

I adored The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Literally, the first thing I did after writing my review was to look up the publisher to request a review copy of The Crown of Embers. When it arrived unexpectedly, I was thrilled. Like, got-a-pony-for-Christmas thrilled. But I was also very, very nervous. I knew it would be good, but what if it wasn't good enough?

Friends, Crown of Embers wasn't just "good enough." It was spectacular.
The Crown of Embers opens five months after the Battle of Brisadulce. [If you haven't read the first book, spoilers ahead.] The people of Joya d'Arena seem to adore their foreign queen Elisa, but the country is shaken. The animagi's (animaguses'?) fire continues to eat away at the ruined boundaries of the city, reminding everyone of what has been lost.

When Elisa ventures out to celebrate her seventeenth birthday, her parade is attacked by an animagus who demands that she surrender herself to the Invierne to "fulfill God's will." (Yes, Ms. Carson does an excellent job of keeping up with the unanswered themes from the last book.) If she doesn't, his people will come for her like ghosts, killing those dear to her.

Within the first twenty-six pages, I was spoiling for a fight. The animagus's threat begins to turn Elisa's people against her - not all at once, but slowly, especially as the death count mounts. Her situation is also tenuous within the palace as the Quorum leaders try to trap her into an unwanted marriage. Though queen, Elisa has very little power at her disposal. She's a foreigner, an interloper, and a young, inexperienced one at that. Her advisors want to curtail her power or steal it for themselves. Her people want to be safe, even if it means giving up their queen. Her nobles want to marry her or belittle her or both.
Me during conflict: Can't we all just get along?!

Usually, unavoidable conflict within a book makes me unpleasantly tense. While I was distressed and frustrated by Elisa's apparent lack of options, I didn't despair. Why? Because Elisa is Elisa. She is Maleficio, a cunning mastermind, the bearer of the Godstone. If anyone can get out of a mess, it's her, right?

I was spoiling for a fight, because I thought Elisa was going to start kicking butt. But she didn't. Elisa endured tremendous changes in the last book, but she still had so much more to change. She is Maleficio of the desert, not Joya d'Arena. She is a cunning mastermind who fends off an attack from outside, not one from within. She's the bearer of the Godstone but she has no idea how to wield it outside of pairing it with an amulet. She is a warlord (warlady?) who can wage devastating guerilla strikes, but diplomatic struggles and politics are her sister's strength, not her own.

Whereas Elisa's change in the last book was more external (her slimming down, her physical strength), her change in this book is more internal. She knows what she can do. She knows what she's capable of. She knows what she wants and doesn't want. The problem is in Elia herself.

There's a spot in Crown when Elisa is being attacked. Several assassination attempts have already occurred, but for this one she's (semi-)prepared. There's shouting and chaos, blood and fear. And then one of my favorite parts of the entire book:
The blood from Hector's wound drips to the floor now. My head swims at the sight. Don't you dare faint, Elisa.

Then something about the smell, metallic and hot, snaps me back to myself. It's familiar.

It's war.
She can handle war. She can handle strategy and violence and pain. What Elisa has to learn is power -  the power of being queen, of taking responsibility upon her own shoulders.

Ms. Carson handles Elisa's continuing growth deftly. Not once does Elisa become overly weak or whiny, which is a hard thing to do in the face of unavoidable conflict. She is clever, buying herself time as often as she can while she thinks of a way to turn the situation to her advantage. She makes poor choices in places, yes, but they are at least understandable choices.

As always, Elisa has a small band of supportive friends. Cosme is off ruling her new kingdom and therefore doesn't make an appearance, but she sends a small delegation to the palace, so we're able to meet some old friends. Mara especially is given a chance to shine, and Rosario is as cute as ever. (I want one of him, I really do.)

We also make the acquaintance of a few more characters. I won't tell you much about them, but two are especially great. One is a suitor vying for Elisa's hand and the other is a spy living in the heart of her city. I look forward to seeing what roles they take on in later stories.

Ms. Carson also irons out the few complaints I had about the first book. Fire and Thorns was slow in places, especially in the beginning, whereas Crown is engaging from start to finish. The reader is treated to action and adventure, sneaky political intrigue and mind games (but nothing as confusing as the first book), trips through hidden tunnels to forgotten cities, and a meeting with the absolute creepiest hermit I've ever read.

He just read a scene between Elisa and Hector
My other complaint - that of a lacking romance - is completely taken care of in Crown. Holy smokes.

I don't know if Ms. Carson was planning to ignite a romance between Elisa and Hector from the beginning and I caught on or if I was unintentionally clever, but I've been in Hector's corner from his first appearance in Girl of Fire and Thorns. Oh wowzer did my loyalty pay off.

For you Humberto or Alejandro fans out there, don't worry, they're not forgotten. But they are gone, irrevocably gone, and Hector isn't. Given that this is the second book in the series, Elisa and Hector can hardly be classified as insta-love. Instead, their attraction a slow, steady burn. Oh sure, there's a little issue with Elisa being queen and needing to marry for political advantage and Hector being the head of her Royal Guard, but holy spicy guacamole.

The Crown of Embers is a masterpiece, fully equipped with action, intrigue, suspense, mystery, and a romance that will curl your toes. (Pages 189-190, I love you dearly.) If you'd like a helping of all that, topped with some sturdy character development and an ending that will leave you clamoring for more, then go preorder The Crown of Embers NOW. September 18th is just around the corner.

Points Added For: ALL THE POINTS TO HECTOR!!!! Okay, and some bonus points for Rosario, Belen, character development, Franco (you rocked my socks, man), humor, and that creepy gatekeeper.

Points Subtracted For: Conde Tristan's uber-predictable secret, lady's shroud (a magical herbal birth control that is a very worn YA lit device), and a secondary romance that rubbed me the wrong way.

Good For Fans Of: The Girl of Fire and Thorns (the first book by Rae Carson), the Graceling series by Kristin Cashore, the Trickster series and the Provost's Dog series by Tamora Pierce.

Notes For Parents: Once again, I don't remember any language, but there may have been a word or two. Violence, homosexuality, magic, birth control, nudity (but not conjugal nudity, if you know what I mean), a possible allusion to the Creation vs. Evolution debate.

Disclaimer: I received a free ARC copy of this book from HarperCollins.

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