Review: Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

The Crown of Embers
Rae Carson

Greenwillow Books
Released September 18, 2012
410 pages 
YA / Fantasy / Magic

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In the sequel to the acclaimed The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a seventeen-year-old princess turned war queen faces sorcery, adventure, untold power, and romance as she fulfills her epic destiny.

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.

My journey through the first book in this series, The Girl of Fire & Thorns, was tarnished by the final big action scene and the crazy, silly image it created in my head. What had otherwise been a slightly more than mediocre start to a fantasy series devolved into something where I really didn’t see the point of continuing on. And yet the library book beckoned until I fell for its charms and cracked open The Crown of Embers.

I’m so glad that that little library book was so persistent because Crown of Embers isn’t just a few great scenes surrounded by lagging woe-is-me lamentations. It’s a great adventure from start to finish and Elisa finally comes into her own, showing strength and fearlessness while still maintaining her intelligence. All the things that made me so lukewarm about the first book were pushed aside in the second and replaced by only the most interesting characters, a budding romance that made sense (and not in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of way), and a series of new destinations that were each distinctive and fascinating in their own right.

SPOILERS FOR THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS AHEAD

The first book ended with Elisa using her magic belly button bling top thing to spin out some magic and rid the area of the evil wizards threatening her kingdom. In the process of the belly button bling battle, her husband – the King of Boring – was mortally wounded. This leave Elisa as the queen regent, ruling at the young age of 17 until her step son comes of age. Because she is a girl, a foreigner and so young, all the major players in the castle walls think they can play her into doing whatever they want through veiled threats, actual physical harm, and strategic game playing.

This political intrigue could have easily become boring and monotonous, but so many different elements were in play and Elisa’s journey on the way to becoming a savvy politician left me feeling a little sad when the action took her away from the kingdom and her castle. But then crazy (the good kind) started coming in from all sides and I didn’t care as much.

Whereas The Girl of Fire and Thorns felt as though it was made of mostly things that had been done before, but this time in the desert by a girl with Troll-bling, Crown of Embers blazed its own way with new ideas, locations and character relationships that, while not entirely new, felt fresh and engrossing. Elisa made good decisions and found interesting, often grey companions to help her in her quest. The turn at the end was surprising and the ending left me wanting to immediately jump into the third book in the series. That’s a huge achievement after the comic disappointment I felt after the first book.

I’m glad I dove into Crown of Embers despite my misgivings. It turned out to be a fabulous example of YA fantasy, world building and character development. Not once did it cross into boring territory and not once could I predict what the forthcoming major events would be. Carson made a complete 180 with this one and somehow managed to ground her weird belly bling Chosen One story into something that had way more depth and complexity.