Fire is, like the cover says, a companion book to Graceling (don’t pay attention to this graphic, my book says quite clearly “companion”). Chronologically it’s a prequel, but in setting inhabits a mysterious world separated by mountains from Katsa’s and populated with Monsters instead of Gracelings. Monsters are no less captivating or powerful than Gracelings, but they’re considerably more deadly; Dellians fear Monsters as much as they inexplicably love them. Lucky for Fire–the protagonist–she’s the only human Monster left in the Dells. The rest are animals: brightly colored with poisonous malice and a thirst for blood, especially Monster blood.
What attracts normal people to Monsters is their beauty. As Clara eloquently put it, “Everyone wants a bit of something beautiful.” (p. 204) The danger with that sentiment is not everyone responds by fawning or showing devotion and adoration. Some people are driven to do mad, horrible, violent things. It’s because of the degree of reaction (overwhelming unless a person has learned to control themselves, which can be done), Fire has learned to grudgingly defend herself by making use of the hypnotic, controlling power she has as a Monster. Exerting her will onto others while distasteful and utterly disagreeable to Fire’s inclinations, helps keep her safe, but it also reminds her of her father.
Cansrel was a lustful man who abused his Monster abilities and enslaved people to do terrible things for him. Worst of all, he enslaved the Dellian King, drove him mad enough to kill himself and ran the kingdom into ruins. As Fire is constantly reminding herself: she is not Cansrel. That doesn’t stop other people from sending harsh, critical stares in her direction or judging her objectively before they’ve ever met her. But Fire is nothing else if not brave. For as much as Fire’s Monsterhood ostracizes and objectifies her to other people, it saved her from her father, Cansrel. In his beautiful little girl, Cansrel found a bit of himself, a person of like abilities to share a bond with, someone whom he could never harm, but train–in secret–to hone her abilities and harness her will for selfish and bad deeds. Before his sudden death, Fire learned everything she needed to know about her power: how not to be like Cansrel.
And so Fire, the novel, opens onto an eerie scene with a man and his Graceling son, a wicked boy who uses his Grace for cruel exploitation and perverse motivations. Immiker, who is also known as Lek, is creepy. He’s so creepy, I was glad the book moved onto the first part and chapter, leaving him far behind in favor of Fire. Fire, who is not creepy. Fire, who is determined to find the poacher who shot her on accident and the archer who shot him and continues to kill throughout the Dells. But to do that, she has to contend with a king who can’t resist her, vicious raptors, her own misgivings, and a prince who doesn’t hide his distrust and dislike of Fire.
Those of you familiar with Graceling will appreciate Fire. Kristin Cashore writes amazingly strong, complicated female protagonists. In Fire, it’s not just the protagonist who’s strong, it’s every woman, even those on the fringes. Women are in the military, they’re used as guards, spies; they’re mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters; they’re powerful no matter what role they play. Women are everywhere and everywhere productive, indispensable. That the women on the fringes are even noteworthy speaks to their phenomenal contributions side-by-side their male counterparts; they’re equals and for that, I thank Cashore tremendously.
Fire’s an interesting character. She’s both a metaphor for the archetypal woman and the one that breaks the mold. Fire is desirous and desired; because of this she’s seen–and recognizes herself as–dangerous. As a result she’s become self-conscious and weary, quick to dread the presence of men. Male Monsters don’t illicit the same response in women as Fire does to men. It’s inexplicable to me why males are automatically put into the weak-minded category and constantly have to wrestle with reality when Fire’s around, but were she a man, women wouldn’t be fawning all over her. It’s a double standard I had a lot of trouble with (maybe someone can explain it for me?), but for all that, Fire was still interesting. In addition to being dangerous, she’s also powerful and is keenly aware of this. With her power (to attract others, to change the will of most people) comes those who want to use her as a tool, a possession, a thing to be stolen, an object. In this way, she’s reduced to a feminist nightmare. But, when in the course of the book, she is actually kidnapped, Fire does everything but sit helplessly at the mercy of her kidnappers. She’s resourceful, willful, determined, brave, and smart. She also has the capacity for love of every kind. In her whirlwind life, she even finds the time for romance.
Cashore is determined to, once again, show young girls everywhere that they can have everything they want out of life, it’s just a matter of balance. Fire’s choice not to have children is a difficult one that haunts her throughout the book. She also struggles with her Monster-ness even as she successfully completes the work she tasks for herself using her abilities. Through Fire we see that finding a moment of peace with who we are isn’t always, or ever, easy, but it is doable if we want to work for it.
For everything I admired and loved about Fire, it did have some drawbacks. I was confused why the revelation about Cansrel’s death was presented in such a way that led me to believe I, as a reader, was supposed to be more shocked. I wasn’t. For all the attention and guilt associated with it, there should have been more suspense. As it is now, the narrative doesn’t warrant the outcome. If I had more clues to pick out the truth on my own, and why the truth was so consequential, I’d be more involved in the emotion of that revelation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. It was more of a shock when two women became pregnant, and by whom. Maybe I’m just dense.
The major problem I had with Graceling was the plot. With two major events taking place, and the first so easily trumped by the second (which seemed to me to be less consequential), I found myself lost and unable to be caught up in either one with any real conviction. Cashore fixed this in Fire. At first, it appears that the mysterious assassin that sends Fire to King City in the first place is completely forgotten about in favor of the jobs Fire takes while there to help out Nash. As we find out, that’s not the case, not entirely, and both threads were wrapped up rather nicely, if with a bit of an afterthought when Leck is thrown in quickly at the end. After letting the end simmer, I came to appreciate it a lot better and actually think Cashore did a great job tying everything together.
I kept getting distracted, though, with Fire’s Jedi-like ability to read other people’s minds and project her thoughts and feelings onto other people. Especially in the gala scene, her inner dialogue and manipulations ruined the suspense from an extremely suspenseful situation. Her ability in this case, seemed like an easy excuse for Cashore to use the dreaded “tell” instead of showing us what was happening. To be fair, this scene was the worst offender and Cashore did a good job otherwise. I just hope there isn’t anything like that in Bitterblue. While it’s unfair to criticize that because it’s who Fire is as a character and that technique is to help us understand her ability and what she’s experiencing, I still thought it detracted from the book. If my expectations were so high, it’s only because Cashore raised them considerably herself!
I love how Kristin Cashore’s characters are so complicated and realistic. Her multi-layered approach to their needs and desires is mirrored in their surroundings and the thematic issues raised in both books. Her writing and the issues she raises are so much more eloquent and sophisticated than I’ve ever expected. I can’t recommend Fire or Graceling enough. I winded up liking Fire better, but only because some of the kinks in Cashore’s writing were smoothed out. It doesn’t matter which you read first; both are worth reading; Graceling is about independence; Fire is about desire and control (and has a girl with wicked red hair, and bows and arrows. BOWS AND ARROWS). Your only dilemma is deciding which to read first!
Release Date: October 5, 2009
Reviewed Format: hardcover