Book Reviews

The Fire and Thorns Trilogy: Religion and Magic Meet

I recently finished this trilogy by Rae Carson. One of the most interesting aspects of these books that Carson herself highlights in interviews is that she addresses religion in a young adult fantasy setting. It’s not just religion on the side as a background character to magic. Religion is the main theme with magic inextricably tangled in it. Elisa is supposed to be God’s chosen, the one person in a century who receives the blue “godstone” in her navel at her christening and who has an unrevealed act of service to complete before the stone detaches and God’s will has been done. The godstone pulses in response to Elisa’s prayers no matter what they are, whether they are answered or not. It goes cold at the threat of danger, sometimes so cold as to endanger her further. Her godstone is the manner through which she can channel magical power. At the beginning of the series, the value and truth of religion as Elisa knows it, is taken for granted and magic is the forbidden anathema. But by the end, Elisa’s grasp of herself and her own power far exceeds the hold religion has on her, and magic is discovered to have a connection more real than her religion.

One interview I read said that the interviewer appreciated Elisa’s questioning of her beliefs because she could relate to them in a very real manner. This was true for me as well, but it is such a small part of what I found in this religion with the godstone. On the one hand, having a tangible connection to God living within oneself rings true to what I believe and experience in my own life. On the other, the godstone felt like a living entity of its own in the story without any actual connection to God. It served to protect Elisa with warnings and to save her life with particular information here and there, it warmed to her prayers but never once responded. Once Elisa’s godstone detached, so did any sense of connection to God making it feel as though the connection always stopped at the stone anyway. It was God, or as much of God as I could ever find in the book.

Because, there was no God behind the godstone. I think that is what surprised me slightly when I finished the series – in the end, despite all talk of religion, I could have just as easily read the story with no God. Beliefs about him were everywhere, but he was never present. There were fanatics who interpreted scripture in harmful ways, countless people who presumed to know the will of God and acted on it in terrible ways, there were prayers unanswered, sacred ceremonies, plenty of doubts and questioning, and there was history and confusion over who had rights to the correct story of the beginnings of life in that world, but never once did God have any sense of being an actual being. No one was in relationship with him. The best they could ever do was tout that his ways were mysterious and unknowable and bend his will to look remarkably like their own. For me, if religion is not relationship, then it is nothing at all.

In spite of religion abounding, there was an empty cavern where God should have been leaving a sort of empty cavern of hope as well. The message of the ending was that the power and ability was always within Elisa; it never had anything to do with the godstone. Her act of service was much like the God described in this series – small, mysterious, and worthless in the present moment. What she accomplished both before and after her act of service was vast, powerful, filled with suffering but also of love and companionship, built on her own strength, using her incredible wit, intelligence, and courage to accomplish the impossible. In the end, Elisa saves the day on her own. My own beliefs are predicated on the idea that I needed to be saved once and for all, and over and over again each day. Relying entirely on who I am is disastrous.

While this story captured doubt, I never felt that it adequately captured faith and the reliance that comes when you know there are things beyond you and your ability to accomplish something. There is an end to yourself and a beginning of someone else infinite yet knowable, where the source of power is him and it is your relationship with him that gives you access to it. When I talk about doubts and questions, it is because I believe and somehow the reckoning of this dichotomy of belief without full disclosure (aka faith) has to fit inside my fragile being that can barely comprehend the existence of that which I believe in. In my own exploration of religion, I want relationship because anything else is a hollow shell.

Carson admittedly is not religious. This is her exploration of something she thinks is important for young adults to connect to and examine for themselves. Since it got me to think on and examine my feelings about religion in the story as well as my own beliefs, she accomplished her goal well I’d say. I’m grateful that she stepped out in this to begin a conversation where religion and magic aren’t separate in the fantasy genre.


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