These days, romance in YA fiction is the thing of soap operas. Vampire boys watching girls sleep at night. Dramatic life and death situations in arenas. Romeo and Juliet vibes left and right. YA romances also come in two strains. The first is love at first sight. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. The first minute of their relationship they know it’s destiny and they will be together for eternity. The other strain of YA romance is the Darcy/Elizabeth hate at first sight that develops into true love. That’s it. There is no middle ground. Or realistic ground.
That is what is so refreshing about the romance in Rae Carson’s YA fantasy novel The Crown of Embers. The sequel to The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which had its own original elements, The Crown of Embers portrays a realistic romance that is neither Romeo and Juliet nor Darcy and Elizabeth. Carson’s protagonist Elisa spent the first book in the series as the secret wife to the king of Joya, the leader of a rebellion against the enemy country of Invierne, and ended up queen and sole monarch of the kingdom. Where The Crown of Embers picks up, Elisa is the newly crowned queen and enjoying her status as a war hero. But while she thought she had successfully defeated Invierne, trouble begins to brew abroad and in her own court. She’s pressured by her council to marry and solidify her position as queen. She’s also desperately trying to figure out how to harness the magic of her Godstone. All in all, she’s trying to rule a country at 17, and it isn’t going that smoothly.
But as she navigates the politics of court, seeks out God in prayer and study, and tries to find a way to protect her people from a rising enemy, one person is always by Elisa’s side—Hector, the captain of her guard. Hector protected her in The Girl of Fire and Thorns, but now that she is queen he becomes her personal guard. Her safety is his concern at all time, and Hector and Elisa are friends at first sight. That’s it. Just friends. No insta-love, no hate filled with sexual tension. In the first book, Elisa befriends her husband and falls for a boy she meets in the dessert (spoilers: who dies in book 1). Even for most of this book, Elisa and Hector are just friends. But over time and through many dangers, they become closer and closer until they do fall in love. And as they progressed in their relationship, I found myself becoming more and more invested as a reader. (And now I am DYING to read book 3, The Bitter Kingdom!)
I think it’s important for girls reading YA fiction to know that love often works through a more natural course of events than love at first sight or antagonistic affection. Friendship is the best foundation for romance. As Hector himself points out when describing his parents’ marriage, true love is built on friendship, built on an equal partnership between two people. And it’s the only kind of romance worth having. Not suicidal vampire romance. Not let’s go hunt demons together romance. True love is friendship, honesty, trust, and putting another person before yourself. The Crown of Embers does a much better job of presenting that kind of relationship than any of YA book I’ve read this year.