Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Dial (US) / Gollancz (UK)
Publication Date: October 2009 (US) / September 2009 (UK)
Hardcover: 480 pages
Stand alone or series: Fire is the prequel/companion novel to Graceling, but can be read as a stand alone novel (as Graceling also can be read as a stand alone).
Why did I read this book: I loved Ms. Cashore’s debut novel and the first book of this planned trilogy, Graceling. In fact, Fire was one of my most highly anticipated reads of this fall!
Summary: (from amazon.com)
She is the last of her kind…
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. In King City, the young King Nash is clinging to the throne, while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. War is coming. And the mountains and forest are filled with spies and thieves. This is where Fire lives, a girl whose beauty is impossibly irresistible and who can control the minds of everyone around her.
Exquisitely romantic, this companion to the highly praised Graceling has an entirely new cast of characters, save for one person who plays a pivotal role in both books. You don’t need to have read Graceling to love Fire. But if you haven’t, you’ll be dying to read it next.
When I started reading Fire, I was a bit confused – the story does not take place in the world of the Seven Kingdoms, home of Katsa and Po of Graceling. Rather, Fire‘s tale is set in a different realm altogether, called the Dells. There are no gracelings here, no gifted youngsters whose singular skills are betrayed by their mismatched eyes. But the Dells have magic of their own in abundance. It is a land of monsters – creatures in the same shape as normal animals, but in vibrant, impossible colors, and of breathtaking beauty. These monsters are so impossibly beautiful, in fact, that humans around them are completely without logic; the monsters have the ability to dazzle, confound, and even control the minds of their prey.
Fire, named for her shimmering mane of hair, is the last of her kind; she is a human monster, and therefore the most dangerous of them all. Fire’s unparalleled beauty is also her curse, for all those who look on her – human or animal alike – long to possess her, to woo her, to love her, to kill her. The animal monsters are drawn to her, threatening to rip her apart should her head scarf slip and a strand of brilliant hair fall out of place, and they are always looming outside her rooms when her monthly courses strike and they are drawn to the scent of her monster blood. And Fire’s skills as a human monster are the most powerful and dangerous of them all, for she can read and change the minds of people around her, making them act against their own volition, should she desire it. Her father was the last King’s advisor, a cruel human monster named Cansrel who abused his beauty and power by bending everyone to his will and whim, encouraging depravity in the King and discontent in the kingdom – and his legacy of hate and fear is one that Fire struggles to live down. When war looms ominously on the horizon and mysterious assassinations begin, Fire’s talents are enlisted by the young King Nash and his brother Brigan, and Fire finds she cannot refuse. Leaving her peaceful but stifling life in the Dells for the first time, hungry for adventure, Fire travels with Brigan’s army to an exciting but dangerous fate.
I found myself literally holding my breath when I began Fire; I had high expectations after Graceling, and when glowing reviews began to surface around the blogosphere these expectations were raised even higher. And, amidst all the hype and nervous trepidation, I can add my own voice to the ever-growing chorus of praise – because Fire unquestionably, unfalteringly delivers. Fire is a completely different novel than Graceling – an even better novel, at that.
The premise for Fire, I’ll admit, sounds trite. A beautiful magical heroine so gorgeous everyone that looks upon her desires her – come on now, my inner skeptic raged, how can that really be a curse? It certainly sounded like contrived Mary Sue territory, or at least that was my impression when I read the blurb of the novel. But, I truly needn’t have worried because Ms. Cashore uses her heroines hard, pits them against impossible situations, and in her brilliant, sadistic way, she shows them no mercy. Fire’s gifts as a human monster, her gorgeous locks of hair, her Professor X-like powers of persuasion – these actually are horrible burdens to bear, as shown in the novel. Fire’s beauty is so great that some who see her will force themselves upon her in a desire to possess her; her namesake hair attracts death and destruction from other animal monsters in her wake; and she has suffered so much in her young life, scarred and ravaged as her body is, that she has decided she will never have children, for she would never bestow her curse upon another.
Even more devastating than her beauty, however, is Fire’s ability to read minds and alter peoples’ behaviors. Terrified she will become like her truly monstrous father Cansrel if she uses really ever tries to use her powers over others, Fire initially refuses to use her powers to influence people, even with war looming and the fate of the kingdom in her hands. Like Katsa before her (or technically, after her), Fire has been gifted with extraordinary talents that inspire terrible fear and distrust. While Katsa’s grace enabled her to kill and to survive against all odds, Fire’s talents are less physical but explore even more deadly emotional vulnerabilities – rather than killing people with her hands, Fire can control people’s minds, stealing their deepest secrets, subverting them against their will. And she is so terrified of crossing this line, and by a dark secret in her past, that she refuses to use her powers in this way. This fear and Fire’s lack of trust in herself, along with her constant need to cover herself (physically in layers of drab clothing to hide her terrible beauty, emotionally as she cringes from confrontation or drawing attention to herself), are ingrained into every facet of Fire’s character. There is nothing Mary Sue about her – for all her trials are haunting and concrete. For all Fire’s power and beauty, she is a lonely, even disenfranchised, outcast. Never safe, never truly accepted, and never able to truly be herself, Fire still is an incredibly sympathetic character because we readers see her struggles firsthand and feel her despair at how different she is from the humans around her.
In many ways, I found Fire to be a much more compelling and fleshed out character than Katsa ever was – less forceful and clinical as Katsa was in Graceling, Fire is a mass of introspective emotions, and all the more endearing because of it. Besides Fire, the other characters were also more dimensioned than those in Graceling – Archer and Brigan were my two favorite standouts, in their very different ways. There’s also a familiar face in this book – a young boy with two different colored eyes and a disquieting influence on people – that readers of Graceling may be looking forward to seeing again.
In terms of plotting and world-building, Fire also excels in every way above its predecessor. There’s action aplenty in this novel, just as there was in Graceling, but rather than relying solely on fight scenes or a traveling quest story driving the action, Fire is a much more nuanced novel. There is a brewing war, and much journeying across different landscapes, but there’s also political machinations and a subtle murder/overthrow scheme that comes together slowly over the course of the novel. Ms. Cashore has clearly grown as a writer, and this is reflected in the more subtle, skillful plot, as well as in her standout characters. Also, I think the emotional angle of Fire, the romance subplot in particular, was fabulously done here – much more believable and compelling than that of Graceling.
Finally, I should say something about how thrilled I am that in both Graceling and Fire, Ms. Cashore gives young girls heroines that do NOT inevitably end up at the altar, get married, pop out babies, and live happily ever after in domestic bliss. In the era of Twilight, with girls pegging their entire sense of self-worth on someone else’s love for them, Ms. Cashore provides a strong female alternative. Challenging the accepted roles for women in young adult literature, Fire is a woman that wants children but will not have them, and like Katsa she resists and refuses marriage – and yet both women find acceptance, happiness, and yes, even love. I can get on board with that. These characters remind me of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Patricia Wrede’s Cimorene, Garth Nix’s Sabriel, Robin McKinley’s Aerin & Harry – favorite heroines of my childhood that were physically and emotionally powerful, intelligent, independent, and inspiring. Ms. Cashore’s Fire, as well as Katsa, certainly are worthy of a place on this list and a new brand of heroine for a younger generation.
Additional Thoughts: Stick around as later today we will be hosting a stop on Kristin Cashore’s Fire Blog Book Tour – complete with an excerpt from the book, and a chance to win an autographed copy of Fire!
Verdict: As with many of the hapless characters in this book, I fell in love with Ms. Cashore’s Fire at first sight, dazzled by its beautiful prose, its lush world building, its subtle and complex plot lines, and its heady characters. I absolutely loved Fire, and it is one of my favorite reads of the year. Absolutely recommended to all.
Rating: 9 Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Ark by Stephen Baxter