Fire by Kristin Cashore
Published: 2009, Firebird
Series: Graceling Realm, #2
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Personal book
Source: Personal book
Contains spoilers for Graceling.
Not all sons were like their fathers. A son chose the man he would be.
I didn't think it was possible for Kristin Cashore to create a companion novel in the world of Graceling that I'd love just as much as Graceling. I didn't think it was possible for me to love a new female protagonist just as much as I love Katsa. And then I met Fire and became immersed in a story about the political and societal intrigues of her world beyond the mountains.
Close to forty years before we met Katsa, Po, and Bitterblue in the Seven Kingdoms, readers are introduced to the lands of the Dells and Pikkia, across the mountain ranges east of the Seven Kingdoms. The Dells is the home of normal humans and animals as well as those with brightly colored fur and hair, referred to as monsters. As a human monster, Fire has hair the color of fire, unbelievable beauty, and the ability to read and influence peoples' minds. As the daughter of the human monster Cansrel, who controlled the old king Nax and caused so many conflicts within the Dells, Fire isolates herself by spending most of her time in a northern house far away from the public and any hint of politics.
As young king Nash's hold on his kingdom becomes more perilous as two other lords rebel against the crown, Fire and her neighbors find themselves encountering incredibly skilled archers whose minds are mysteriously clouded over. Fire is summoned to court to assist the king and his siblings, children of the king that Fire's father manipulated so well. There she has to decide whether a loyalty to protect and serve her country can trump her reluctance her monster powers, for fear of becoming exactly like her infamous father.
I'll refrain from Graceling comparisons as much as possible here. Fire is simply not another Katsa. In many ways, I found Fire to be even more realistic and relatable. She's spent most of her life feeling guilty for everything her father did to the Dells, and worried that by embracing her own monster powers she'll become just like him. She's a subtler type of heroine, and, though I adore my fighting female protagonists, I find heroines like Fire easier to identify with. Fire can wield a bow, but she's much more at ease playing her fiddle. She must guard herself against fellow humans who fall deep under the power of her beauty, while also guarding her back against all animal monsters, driven to attack human monsters. Truly life has not been easy for Fire, and the challenges only continue when she travels to the capital city. I loved reading about Fire's internal struggles, from the guilt and fear associated with her father to questioning her worth to her struggle to find herself. Fire's past understandably has given her a reluctance to open up to others, but it's an issue that she works with and seeks to amend as the novel progresses.
And of course Cashore has created another wonderful romance in Fire. Realistic, complicated, and oh so rewarding for both the lovers and the readers. At first I was worried that a love triangle was being established, but fortunately that was not the case. The romance actually functions as a smaller example of Fire's personal evolution over the course of the novel. She's first involved with her childhood friend Archer, who represents stability and also her reluctance to branch out and mature and fully embrace who she is. As with her eventual acceptance of herself, the second romance with Brigan is not easy on Fire. But it develops as she starts to accept herself and do things that she wants to do, instead of solely what she thinks others want her to do. While her first lover is still present in later parts of the novel, Fire herself has made it clear that she suffers from no conflicting feelings and there is no love triangle here.
I really enjoyed learning about Leck's history. Although he is the main antagonist in Graceling, I felt like the characterization of him is pretty biased and pretty limited. It makes complete sense within the context of Graceling to have such a distance between his characterization and the story itself. It was, however, a bit exciting and terrifying and sad and even thought-provoking to learn a little more about his childhood and be able to extrapolate some reasons as to why Leck grew up to become the evil king of Monsea. Leck's back story is not a central part of Fire, but it does provide a nice way to connect the two novels.
One thing I've come to appreciate in the two books I've now read by Kristin Cashore is how Cashore is not afraid to let her heroines and heroes suffer. They find themselves in dangerous situation after dangerous situation, and they do not emerge from them all unscathed. I think I've become so accustomed to protagonists in epic fantasies undergoing so many ordeals only to emerge with no physical trauma and perhaps only a bit of psychological damage. That's not the case in Cashore's works. Her leading characters must accept real consequences of their decisions and actions. Although I don't necessarily like seeing favorite characters suffer, it does make their stories that much more realistic to me.
It was really refreshing reading another book that takes place in the same world as Katsa, but that makes only the slightest reference to Graceling. By doing so, Cashore is able to explore another fully-functioning microcosm of this world. Cashore's worldbuilding is superb, and I loved how through the outwardly political conflicts of Fire, Cashore is also able to examine certain cultural and societal issues. I loved the story that Cashore created in Graceling and after seeing it matched (or even surpassed) through Fire, I am so happy to have found a new YA fantasy author to be respected.