This galley sat, neglected and outdated, on our ARC bookshelf. Finally, I got around to reading it. The cover is beautiful, and I'm not about to turn aside a recommendation from Tamora Pierce herself. The back promised a story full of adventure, rebellion, magic, and romance. I was hooked, and I bit.
Unfortunately, great stretches of this book left a foul, foul taste in my unsuspecting mouth. Don't get me wrong, there were parts I really liked. Parts that were witty, smart, beautiful. If I had to describe this book with one word, though, it wouldn't be beautiful. It would be objectifying. This book, ladies, gentlemen, is objectifying.
I was quite happy with the main character at first; she was large, in an overweight way, and she knew it. She complained about it. She ate lots of food. I was OK with this. I was happy with this. She's smart, witty, a touch insecure... realistic, in a word. I loved her for it. She was happy, so I was. (You're probably checking the cover next to this right now. Overweight? She looks fine! No. More on this later.)
For reasons I shouldn't go into, for risk of spoilers perhaps, she finds herself abruptly in the middle of the desert. She travels across this desert. She makes it across. She survives.
But wait. She takes a swim in a nice, cool desert pond and, just before putting her clothes back on, she realizes something about herself. She has lost a lot of weight in her trek. The clothes given to her no longer fit her. They are twice as big as they need to be now. Ok, I admit that this is still slightly realistic. I still loved her here. What happens next and for the rest of the book disgusts me.
Now that's she's some slim dame (her newly found sex appeal is both hinted at and explicitly stated) every guy wants to sleep with her. She suddenly has choices, suitors, lovers... At this point I got very disillusioned with her proclaimed intelligence. She's a brilliant girl, really, bilingual(not that that necessarily means much) and all that, but this made me doubt her. She takes her new image and runs with it. It's carefully documented, by the way, that she can do more physical exercise, feel less hunger pangs, and eat significantly less with her new weight.
Weight and body image has been a growing concern of, well, a lot of people from every walk of life. The most vocal proponents of improving body image and moving away from the Hollywood standard of 90-pound-women are authors and celebrities. J.K. Rowling, for example, wrote a moving editorial on body image in teenage girls. Tamora Pierce (the one that recommended this book in the first place...(?)) regularly writes about the stereotypes associated with women; fighting chauvinism and body image, for example. I could go on forever. To quote a great review on Goodreads: : "And frankly, though I am not one to believe that young people are so impressionable that books could sway them in a negative direction, I think this book sends the wrong message to young girls."
Incidentally, the cover doesn't match the main character at all. I'm dead serious. The girl on the cover is some random model, wavy hair arranged artistically, pale skin going nicely with a silky blue dress. Her silhouette is slender and emphasized; she is turned sideways for the camera. Unfortunately, it's bracingly obvious that it's just that: some random model.
The main character is described a lot in the book. Obviously. I like to think I have a good idea of what she looks like. Overweight, if you'll recall... Pretty features, yes. Another feature that Rae Carson chooses to emphasize quite a bit is her "dark" skin; this is ambiguous in book, but I'm interpreting this as some sort of dark-tan color. Carson states that it is unusual for her race, and this race lives in a Spain-like climate with jungles. So it stands to reason that abnormally dark skin is, well, dark. Not the moon-pale skin of the girl on the cover. This leaves me with an unfortunate conclusion... it's the old let's-put-models-everywhere-to-sell-a-product. I've never seen it employed this brazenly in literature before. It's depressing, honestly. Maybe I've just read too many of Pierce's editorials.
For the rest of the book, content-wise... yeah, it's good. It's not stellar, but it was good enough to make me want to at least see a sequel. I wouldn't call it a guilty pleasure, but yeah, it was good enough to read. It's pleasant enough, descriptions are good, if shallow and one-sided at times, and her mental journey is unbelievable to the point of driving me insane with every new jump she made. And you're probably wondering why I haven't mentioned her name yet--it's Lucero-Elisa. Her sister's name is Juana-Alodia . Everyone had unwieldy, albeit pretty, Spanish-sounding names that I eventually got used to and like. I just abhor the thought of typing her name out thirty times. Oh, and the religion is jarring, shallow, and too close to by-the-book Catholicism to give me any chance at liking it.
Speaking of which... this book is religious. Deeply. The girl has a Godstone embedded in her stomach, a living Godstone, one that marks her out for a great Service of unknown identity. This stone, as I said, is alive, and throbs contentedly for absolutely no reason every once in a while. It kind of creeped me out, even before all the really creepy stuff started happening with it. Oops. It does more, though. It warns her of impending danger (this is pretty cool) by cooling rapidly and sending icy chills through her body. When she prays, it warms up. These two would be great if they remained uncombined. Let me explain, but first preface the following: I'm not religious, but I know religious people (they're eeeverywhere) and my family is mostly religious. I understand (sometimes) religion. So it was extremely irritating, in this book, that Rae Carson abused the religion of the world.
When the main character got into dangerous situations, like she did a lot in the latter part of the book, she feels the need to pray obsessively and continuously for the sake of staying warm. As the cold recedes, she only needs a quick prayer in the morning to warm up, and when she is out of danger, she only prays to feel the buzz. This makes praying a mechanical, thoughtless process that, I'm pretty sure, doesn't jive with the way one is supposed to pray if one is religious. Like, with faith and reverence and all that.
This book is a 2.7, I guess. I'd like to give it a deal lower, but there were good parts, and those deserve decidedly higher. So this is my compromise. Food-wise, it's a burrito that steams and wafts enchantingly, shredded pork, light cheese, and sour cream spilling out of it--until you bite down and discover a pig's hoof inside. It's too big, to sharp, too jarring to ignore. And then there a few more. Your burrito just turned into a dead-pig-bones repository. Bon appetit!
FOLLOW-UPs (Because this book at least deserves them.)
- This woman agrees with me! http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/178266387 . She also give a more comprehensive explanation of the plot, in case I haven't scared you off yet.
- Rae Carson's personal website informs me that she was a cheerleader in high school in order to get over being unpopular. She says it worked. (This does not surprise me, honestly. Not to get personal or anything, but this jives with how she writes and portrays her characters. The cavalier must-be-popular attitude.)
- She also wrote an essay about weight and self-image (like a lot of the other authors I mentioned). http://raecarson.com/pb/wp_edea27a5/wp_edea27a5.html . I would like to say that it contrasts dramatically with her portrayal of Lucero-Elisa.