Fire follows Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling, which garnered quite a lot of praise from reviewers, including this one. A coming-of-age tale set in the Seven Kingdoms, where some are born with a particular “grace” or talent, Graceling focused on Katsa, whose grace seemingly is death. Many readers loved Katsa’s fiercely strong and independent character, as well her compatriots Po and Princess Bitterblue; loved to hate the creepy villain; and found the idea of Graces intriguing and ripe with potential. By the end, it was clear there was more to tell about this land and these characters.
So what does Kristin Cashore do for a follow-up? She writes a story set decades earlier in a different, but neighboring land about wholly different people (save one, and that appearance is relatively brief, though significant). I have to admit, I was already on Kristin Cashore’s side with Fire just because she didn’t take the familiarly easy road to book two — a simple sequel with the same old characters using their same talents to deal with similar, if superficially, different dangers (you authors know who you are). But while the characters and setting are new, the story has many of Graceling’s strengths and even improves in some ways on the first book, though it also has its flaws.
Fire is set in the kingdom of the Dells, a land of “monsters”: beautifully colored, vital, and often aggressively predacious versions of typical animal species. The main character, Fire, is the last human monster, whose beauty fogs the mind of humans (especially men) with powerful emotions, and drives them to desire her, please her, rape her, kill her. She also has the ability to manipulate minds with her own, though strong wills can resist her. Her dangerous beauty (she can hardly ever uncover even a strand of her hair) and potentially dangerous ability forces her into a life of nearly total loneliness, broken only by her best friend and informal lover Archer, and Archer’s father Brocker.
The other barrier between Fire and people is that her father, who had the same mind-manipulating ability, was a sadistic, depraved, and brutal figure. He was an adviser to the former King Nax, himself somewhat deranged and depraved. By the time they died, the two of them had driven the Dells to near-ruin, and now the kingdom is barely being held together by young King Nash and his brother and army commander Prince Brigan, who have to deal with potential rebels, an almost-sure to happen civil war, and a mysterious new threat from beyond the Dells (that will be familiar to readers of Graceling). Against the backdrop of these events, Fire’s seclusion — part forced upon her and part self-imposed/desired — starts to shatter, and she must find her way to a sense of herself and her place in the world.
Fire has some clear connections to Katsa of Graceling: both are strong women whose talents (Fire’s mind-manipulation, Katsa’s death-dealing) make them objects of fear to others, and make them terrified of themselves and of how their gifts might be abused or exploited. However, there are also interesting and clear distinctions. Katsa’s talent was physical, while Fire’s is mental. Katsa’s was more conscious — she could choose to kill or not. Fire can choose to use her mental ability or, as has been the rule for most of her life so far, not to use it, but she has no control over how her beauty affects others: the terrible things it makes them want to do or attempt to do, the danger it brings her and also them, the shame it brings them afterward (if they haven’t been killed to protect Fire), their fear at her mere presence.
Fire’s coming-of-age is also more adult: she isn’t so much an adolescent trying to figure out who she is as much as an already fully-formed personality, first trying to remain in her lonely yet stable life, then trying to see how her old self fits or not in the fast-changing world around her. The romance is more adult as well: it’s more slowly drawn out, more rife with complexities, shadings, fears, and insecurities, and more intertwined with lives beyond those of the two potential lovers.
Certainly the strongest aspect of the book is Fire’s characterization, with her gradual opening to the world and the realistic portrayal of its glacial pace, complete with backslips. She’s a character one comes to care for and about, and is enough to carry the book. King Nash, Prince Brigan and Archer aren’t quite as fully drawn. They aren’t two-dimensional and have their complexities — Archer’s semi-unrequited love for Fire and his propensity for other women, Nash’s inability to control himself around Fire, Brigan’s hatred of what the times force him to become — but the complexities feel a bit singular and one-note and are maybe “announced” too often, rather than shown in more subtle fashion. Even side characters, nicely drawn as they are, tend toward this pattern of having a single bad act or aspect.
But none of this detracts from enjoying their presence or significance to the plot. The plot itself is less action-oriented than Graceling, focusing more as it does on Fire’s internal struggles and political intrigue, but it is mostly compelling. The weakest aspect is probably the single link to Graceling, the non-native threat to the Dells, but I won’t go into more detail so as not to spoil things, save to say that this plot thread never felt fully thought out or integrated. The same can be said to some extent for the world-building: the Dells felt a bit thin, more like a crafted backdrop made for the story’s purpose (like those “towns” in Westerns) than a fully realized world unto itself. I would have liked a richer sense of how the whole thing worked, but again, it didn’t really detract from the story.
Before I read Fire, I already wanted Kristin Cashore to succeed, because of her choice to ignore the easy path to a sequel and introduce a whole new land and group of characters. Fire — both the book and the eponymous character — certainly succeeds.