Fire by Kristin Cashore
I absolutely loved Graceling, which I reviewed early in my book blogging career. Katsa was everything I wanted in a prickly heroine, Cashore’s matter-of-fact attitude towards female realities in a traditionally male-dominated genre was refreshing, and the action was thrilling. It even came with a doomed princess on top! So I’d always meant to pick up Fire, a companion for Graceling that has the origin story of that book’s Big Bad as a minor plot. I settled in, expecting Graceling round two, but I got something different. Not unwelcome, but different.
Fire is set in the Dells, far from the Seven Kingdoms of Graceling. Whereas the Seven Kingdoms has superpowered Gracelings, the Dells have monsters; astonishingly attractive, beautiful, and powerful telepaths of all species, noted by their bright and freakish plumage. The titular Fire is the last human monster. She lives in a secluded estate in the north, protected from those who would use her power in the current civil war—a three-way split between Lord Gentian, Lord Mydogg, and King Nash—and those who would kill her for the sins of her despicable (and thankfully deceased) father, Cansrel, by the kindly Lord Brocker and her jealous lover, his son Archer. But Fire cannot remain secluded from politics all her life; when Prince Brigan comes to ask if she can use her telepathy to help the King, Fire rides to King’s City and into the heart of civil war.
Graceling is an action adventure novel, complete with a third act that focuses on Katsa and the young Bitterblue trying to survive as they cross a forbidding tundra—easy for Katsa, desperately difficult for Bitterblue. So I suppose I was expecting more of the same; more action, more prickly heroines, more completely reasonable romance. But Fire is a different woman facing different circumstances. She’s softer, more protected, but also crueler and more pragmatic—while she doesn’t love Archer the way he loves her, she’s happy and sustained in the relationship until his jealousy becomes too much for her to bear. Her kingdom is trying to put on a unified face, but it’s fractured in different ways; political intrigues rule the day here. It’s very different, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s nice to know that Cashore can write girls who aren’t like Katsa, but Fire lacks the vitality and intensity that made Katsa so interesting to me. Perhaps it’s my love for prickly heroines, but while I liked Fire’s energy, she was too quiet for me. Perhaps if the novel were more internal, I’d like her better—I did love the portions where she considered the hard choices she had to make so far. But when it comes to political intrigue, I tend to be on the side of the scheming and devious; Fire lacks that sharpness that makes players in this sort of conflict vivid and engaging.
To be fair, the political intrigue itself could be better. Perhaps it’s because the last political intrigue in fantasy I read was A Clash of Kings, but it doesn’t feel as right as the small pieces of political intrigue we saw in Graceling. I’d wonder if writing for the young adult market would hurt the complexity of the situation, but Cashore doesn’t shy away from more mature content; in fact, Fire’s circle of friends are fairly casual about sex, as she is herself. We’re never really given a reason as to why it’s better to support King Nash over the two other choices, which I would be fine with, as long as the idea that it was ultimately an arbitrary choice was explored… but it’s not. It’s not bad political intrigue, but it’s just not as satisfying to an adult reader than to a young adult reader, you know? Most of the interesting tension and drama comes from the sins of the older generation and the relationships between these characters rather than the political intrigue at hand, which is mildly disappointing.
But if I had read this in middle school or early high school, I think I would have loved it. Cashore’s romances are refreshingly rational and practical, which is rare indeed in young adult fiction, and the cast is lovely to spend time with, especially the scheming royal family. (A book about Clara would have been awesome!) There’s also the interesting implications of Fire’s power—she overwhelms the female-attracted (Cashore is cagey about queer relationships in this universe, but they’re mentioned enough that we know they’re there) and their often unwelcome advances have become part of her life simply because of who she is; even menstruation is a hazard to Fire, since predator monsters enjoy eating other monsters. I can imagine a teenage girl, herself learning how to navigate the dangers of being female, being fascinated by this, and I’m glad the powers have a little more depth here than in Graceling.
Bottom line: Graceling it isn’t—the heroine is softer but even more pragmatic and occasionally cruel (in a good way), and the plot centers on undercooked political intrigue. If prickly heroines and action/adventure aren’t your cuppa, Fire might be the Cashore to pick up; but it’s ultimately just alright. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.