Though I normally try to avoid sequels, I feel that this book is diverse enough from its predecessor to stand alone, plus I just loved it so much I have to share. You may have expected this for a while, seeing how much I raved about Graceling, but here at last is the sequel/prequel/standalone in the same universe, Kristin Cashore’s Fire.
Okay, this universe is kind of complicated, but here’s my best stab at describing it. In the Dells (a land across a huge mountain range from the Seven Kingdoms of Graceling) there exist humans, but also Monsters, who can be strange beings like raptors or ordinary ones like mice – but always they are more beautiful and intensely desired by normal species, sometimes beyond rationality or restraint.
Fire is the last human Monster, and the prodigy of a cruel father who nearly brought about the destruction of the Dells. She has the power to access others’ minds, to influence or interrogate, but being accustomed to the necessity of hiding from everyone, it is only at the command of the king that she voyages to the capital to unravel a plot of regicide.
Firstly, my favorite thing about Cashore is she uses these gorgeously-wrought fantastical stories to present tough questions, and to stare them in the face. This means that if this book were a movie I would rate it R, because it deals with some horrible themes and events. But they are handled with dignity, and really resonate deeply. There are characters whose goodness is like a knife, and the horror of the villains does more to make you think than make you hate.
Fire delves much more into the fear of oneself that Katsa’s character only probed. Fire is wary of her power and avoids using it when not in self-defense (which ends up occurring often anyway). This fear comes from both the evidence of her father’s cruel misuse of it, and also the knowledge of what she has done with it herself. I won’t spoil the surprise, which is wrought in stunning Cashore fashion, but suffice it to say that it is as compelling and challenging as you could hope.
Fire doesn’t suffer from self-loathing, but rather the acute knowledge that a part of herself is horrifying, the Monster she must keep locked away. Towards this point, take a scene towards the end where she takes herbs to render her infertile, though she weeps for the future children she cannot allow to live. The goal of this book is not to bring Fire to a place where she accepts her power and herself. If it is about acceptance at all, it is about acceptance of one’s capacity to do horrible things, and there really isn’t a lot of acceptance in that.
Instead it is the story of Fire’s adventures – finding love and revealing her secrets and discovering her past. And there’s a little something refreshing in that, maybe a gesture back towards Tamora Pierce’s great stories of unapologetic feminine might. (Of note, Cashore loves Pierce too – of course, she’s a breathing human – for proof check out her blog here).
In any case, Fire’s Monsterness (whatever, it’s a word if I say it is) assures that her day-to-day is interesting enough to carry a whole 462-page novel. Just the simple logistics of living with the simultaneous desire and hatred of everyone around her; when an unwary moment may lead to an attack, when her period means more Monsters hunting for her blood, when she can never be sure of the true love of her friends, are plenty to base a story on. Add into the mix several characters with uncertain and intermingled parentage, a kidnapping, and lots of political intrigue and you’re in business.
While both Cashore’s books ostensibly take place in the same universe (there is only one crossover character, Leck, the villain of both books) and both deal with a female protagonists blessed/cursed with incredible power that cannot be used for good without also chancing horrific terror, that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. Unsurprisingly, Fire rates an AJ on the PSA. I am waiting impatiently for Bitterblue, which isn’t set to pub until 2012 at the very earliest.