Review: Fire

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.

7 thoughts on “Review: Fire

  1. I actually think I wound up liking Fire a little bit better than Katsa. I think her lack of outward prickles hides a wealth of inward scars, and I thought the complications and complexities that came with Monster status were more intriguing than being Graced.

    But I do agree that the plot of Fire isn’t quite as lively or as well put-together as that of Graceling, so even though I preferred Fire as a protagonist, I wound up liking Graceling just a little bit better. Nice review!

    • Thanks, Fyrefly!

      I do agree that being Monster seems more complex than being Graced, because being Graced is hugely varied—there are some Gracelings that are left to their own devices since their superpowers are useless—while being Monster is a specific thing.

  2. When I read Fire, I loved it, even though I wasn’t really sure at first. Somehow, I couldn’t help hating Archer, he said he loved Fire, but I don’t actually think he did.
    In spite of Archer, the story was great, but, just like you, I prefer Katsa. I find Fire a weak girl who has to get over some stuff (and she does, certainly), on the other hand, Katsa knows what she wants and she is the one who makes the decitions.
    I have to say that Katsa and Fire were both quite complicated (and both had their reasons), but I liked most the way Katsa solved her complications.
    Anyway, Fire and Graceling are equally enthralling and enjoyable. : )

  3. I liked Graceling better but Fire had its good moments; the royal family being one of them. I was glad to see that Cashore didn’t shy away from hard topics either, sex being one of them.

  4. Interesting review. I concede that Graceling is better structured and more action-packed than Fire, however I’m inclined to agree with Fyrefly about liking Fire better than Katsa as a main character. I suppose personal preferences for characters may have something to do with a reader’s personality and what she can relate to (as you mentioned in your review of Graceling), but I find myself analyzing the two characters from a feminist standpoint as well.

    I’m beginning to get irritated with the notion that a female character gains strength and becomes feminist by being physically strong or mentally obstinate, a good fighter, closed-minded or “rational,” –in other words, taking on characteristics typically given to “strong” male characters and rejecting all characteristics typically assigned “feminine.” I appreciated Katsa’s reason for deciding not to marry–not wanting to be owned, and was glad it was not a dis-like of men or some plain desire to be “un-feminine.” Her relationship with Po in that sense, their equality, if you will, is gold. I was thrilled to see the distinction between love and possession, so rarely found in young adult romance (or any romance, for that matter), as well as the clarity of their equality in the face of the patriarchal gifts and allowances we tend to view as equality these days. In that way, Katsa is superb and refreshing.

    But Fire has all of these same qualities in her relationships with the men in her life, especially Archer and Brigam. She is honest, direct, and even prickly at times, though it is not in her nature to be so, as much as it is for Katsa. This is what makes her more interesting and more satisfying to me. She loves children and wants children desperately, in spite of her decision not to have them. She is often quiet and introspective, and is sometimes emotional and “irrational.” She is plagued with hopeless beauty, which is a constant presence in spite of all injury, and struggles against being defined by that beauty. In spite of all these “feminine” touches, she is strong-willed and firmly in control of her self. She disallows Archer from possessing her and understands the implications of Brigam’s attention to her beauty. While at first afraid of her power, she eventually harnesses it and learns that she is always the creator of each moment, and can determine how her power manifests. I find this type of feminism much more engaging: the kind which grants femininity strength, rather than granting females masculinity.

    Sorry for the long comment! I just finished these two and had a lot of thoughts! Was glad to find your reviews. 🙂

    • No apologies necessary! I adore long comments!

      Feminism, I agree, should cover all of that: praising female masculinities as much as femininity. In a society that believes masculinity is “natural” and femininity is “unnatural”, we denigrate femininity. Have you read Whipping Girl? I think you’d get a lot out of it.

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