Back when I was reading The Girl of Fire and Thorns I was confused, was this part of a trilogy of a standalone story? Up to the last few pages it had felt like it was paced like a trilogy but between the way it ended and that there wasn't any mention of forthcoming books in any of the copy I figured I was just crazy. Turns out that my instincts were right and this was part of a trilogy (in case anyone's guessing why I guessed that instead of a duet, there are just really few duets out there so it didn't occur to me), let's see what exactly the plot of these last two books is about!
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson
Elisa has achieved what she never could have believed was possible, she has become Queen of Joya d'Arena and her new subjects adore her as the woman who fought off the Invierne invaders. But Elisa still fears for her country's protection and knows that with the power of just her godstone, the mystical stone in her naval that was a gift from god marking her for great things, can hardly fight off the Inviernen army with all their sorcerers. She sets out in secret them, with her most trusted advisors, to chase down a legend that may give her the power to keep her country safe.
The plot for this book was on shaky ground the entire time which is both frustrating and unexpected. The first book ended on a deus ex machina, no question about it and semi-literally as well, now this book goes "you know that prophecy you fulfilled? Aaaaaactually that might not have been the true fulfillment of it (since canonically none of us are even sure of it's interpretation!)" which felt like a rather cheap cop-out to me. If the series had gotten rid of the deus ex machina last time and changed things around (so that the outcome remained the same, it was just achieved differently) then the basis for this story would be stronger already. I also found the premise for this story, that Elisa goes on a quest to magically power-up, to be a bit out of character for her (and knew that it would never work, you can't tell a story if the character will simply solve all her problems by razzing a foreign army into the ground single-handedly) and was incredibly frustrated that she doesn't realize this until the last few chapters. It really felt like this story was killing time, I don't know why it was doing this but it felt more like a "filler arc" than a meaningful contribution to the story.
However I'll admit that as much as I disliked the plot this time around I really liked the time it spent further developing the characters and thought that was 100% necessary. The court politics that Elisa must navigate have no easy solutions, she has to deal with the fact that even her friends have different agendas that she does, some of the character betrayals from the previous story come back to make her life even more complex, and I really liked how her relationship with Hector grew even more. I had already liked their relationship in the first book, growing quite friendly with each other but a bit restrained, and I was happy to see it blossom into romance for once, it seemed like a good fit for both of their mindsets.
To talk about the characters just a bit more though, there is one part of Elisa's character that confused me. In the first book, we establish that she is overweight (they story implies that she eats too much and doesn't exercise enough and I'm guessing she already has a heavier body-type) and yet she loses a lot of it in her flight through the desert. Not just a bit but enough that "her nightgown billowed around like a tent" and I was under the impression that there wasn't a large gap of time between the first book and this one. So why is she already worrying again about needing to lose weight? Is this the author showing that this is just a continual struggle, that she just puts on weight easily and that her new duties didn't allow for her to get as much exercise before/she slipped back into old habits while dealing with stress? If that was the case then it didn't feel like it, it felt a bit lazy, like Carson needed to squeeze in a few more paragraphs and did it around Elisa's weight. I suspect that it's harder to write a larger character than a thin one just because we, American/Canadian audiences, all know what a "healthy" skinny character looks like but don't necessarily know what a healthy, larger character does, skinny is the "normal" and large is the "other". If it sounds like I'm harping about this I'm just trying to make clear how disconcerting it was to go from the end of the first book, where Elisa is clearly happy and healthy about her looks, to this one where it sounds like either she has become unhappy or that her weight changes far faster than I could imagine.
I also continued to enjoy the setting, although not as much as the first book since Elisa spent so much time in transit that we just saw less of it (and I am so over books being set on ships, just read entirely too many of them over the past five or so years). However, if the story really is going with the "the magic was science fiction all along!" trope like it was hinting towards the end I will flip a table over it since that is one of my most disliked tropes (I feel like it really undermines the setting since no explanation works well enough and often causes this disjointed feeling between the "magic" and the rest of the setting afterwards). I am a bit surprised since I haven't seen the trope in printed fiction in a while but regardless, none of that please!