Review: The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson


11431896Title: The Bitter Kingdom

Author: Rae Carson

Genre: YA, High Fantasy

Publication Date: August 27, 2013 (Greenwillow)

Source: eARC for review from the publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis: The epic and deeply satisfying conclusion to Rae Carson’s Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny.

Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she’s never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most.

3/5 stars – Often fun but racist/colonialist just as often

Most of my friends love this series, but I seem to be a black sheep when it comes to Carson’s fantasy trilogy. Sure, it’s fun, but there’s been something crucial missing from each installment that kept me from feeling anything more than mild appreation of it. I came in hoping . The Bitter Kingdom is a strong finale, but it’s also pretty racist in how it represents Elisa and the Inviernos.

If anything has changed since The Girl of Fire and Thorns, it’s Elisa. Her character arc from then to now is beautiful in how she’s grown more confident, settled into her role as a ruler, and learned to do what has to be done for the good of the people. She demonstrates her ability to be cutthroat when she has to multiple times throughout this novel and she never gives up. Carson’s story is by and large well-paced. Some of the journeys drag on too long and other parts move too quickly to fully allow readers to feel what just happened, but rarely did it feel as long as the 448 pages the novel actually is.

The parallels between Elisa’s world and ours are well-written and horrifying in equal measure. Elisa’s society and people are clearly European; when they arrived, they forced the Inviernos from their native lands in order to settle there themselves and the courts seem to bear a lot of European influence as well. Much of the vocabulary has a Spanish flavor, especially our antagonists’ names; “inviernos” is how one says “winters” in Spanish and this is why I have never been able to take our antagonists seriously.

With their long, formal names and how Elisa’s people kicked them out of their homelands to a place inhospitable to them and bereft of their cultural heritage, Inviernos are clearly the Native Americans here. They’ve got a very good reason to be bitter at Elisa’s people and have taken their anger to the point of war, though they’re clearly the antagonists (that’s a whole other stew to consider post-review). It reminds me of the conflicts between Native Americans and Americans in the Great Plains during the 1860s and 1870s, though Americans were the aggressors there.

These parallels is where my claim the book is racist comes from: the colonialist overtones these parallels provide. Elisa is at one point positioned as the Inviernos’ champion because she is supposed to be one of them. Just to repeat it a little more simply, our colonialist-European-parallel heroine is positioned as the God-chosen hero of a people with clear parallels to Native Americans.

Really? REALLY? Suppose she is one of them. She is so far removed from that ancestor that it’s practically a nonissue now, as is the fact she isn’t white due to the parallels between her racial-ethnic group and Europeans in this world. Being able to use magic and having a Godstone in her belly does not make her an Invierno nor their God-chosen hero. It makes her a member of the racial-ethnic group that forced their off their land and made to live in a place that is slowly killing and/or weakening them. Considering she wasn’t born with the stone or the magic, she displays no dominant traits of her long-ago ancestor.

A question comes up later as to whether or not God intended Elisa to do as much as she has or if it’s something she chose to do herself. This is a rather important question in this context because if God  intended her to be the Inviernos’ supposed champion, this entire world is inherently racist. If Elisa chose it, it’s just her. Either way…

Carson’s next work is the first book in a fantasy trilogy set during the Gold Rush, but considering how each book in the Fire and Thorns trilogy either failed to improve on the previous entry or barely improved on it, I’m having second thoughts. If its quality is going to be on level with this, it’s not going to do me any good to read it.

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