Book Review: Fire, by Kristin Cashore

Please note that this review contains some mildly spoilery discussions of Fire, and if you have not read it yet, you may want to wait to read this. Don’t worry, the review isn’t going anywhere. (By ‘mildly spoilery’ I mean ‘on par with what you would find in a book review,’ not ‘major plot points are revealed and you will be unable to enjoy the book at all if you read this.’)

Fire was sent to me by Karen Healey, who reviewed it thusly:

BOOK: Feminism! War! Magic! Intrigue! Musings on the price of pretty privilege for women!
ME: This sounds even better than Graceling.
BOOK: Oh, it is.

Now, I confess, I haven’t read Graceling. This turned out not to be a problem with Fire, thankfully. The book stood well on its own and interested me enough to make me want to go back and read Cashore’s first book. This book takes place in the same world, but a different region, and while one character does have a Grace, it was pretty easy to follow and understand what was going on. So if you’re going ‘eh, I want to read this, but I don’t want to have to read another book first,’ it’s ok, go ahead and read Fire.

Fire revolves around the last living human monster. Monsters, in this setting, are supernatural creatures or people with unusual beauty and the ability to compel humans and animals to follow their orders; they can enter minds and mold responses, form memories, control people, and so forth. With special training, people can learn to resist them by closing their minds, although some people actively choose to open their minds to monsters because they find the experience pleasurable.

The title character of the book is feared and hated by the people around her. They remember the manipulative powers of her father and the problems he plunged the government into by controlling people. At the same time that people fear her, though, they are also compelled and attracted to her; her unusual beauty makes people want to be around her and want her body. It’s kind of an interesting conundrum for a character, to be too beautiful, and to struggle with being constantly desirable. People literally lose control around her, endangering her, and while this is often framed as flattering or a compliment in other settings, this book reminds us of the danger inherent in it.

It’s not that I think people in this world, our world, lose control around pretty people and can’t be held accountable for their actions. In Fire, the compulsions people experience and the attraction are supernatural in nature. And, as various characters demonstrate, even with the strong origins of the compulsion, it’s still possible to master it. Fire forces the King, for example, to learn to control his mind so he can control his behaviour around her. In fact, the book puts forward a strong personal accountability narrative. Fire is never allowed to blame herself for things that happen around her. Other characters aren’t afraid to say, ‘look, people losing control around you is their fault, not yours.’ So, yay, embedded feminist message.

The book of course includes a love story, which I found rather boring because, well, love stories bore me, as a general rule. Fortunately there was a lot of other fun stuff to keep me occupied, like tons of intrigue, and if you too are not that into love stories, I think you’ll still find something to like here. I also enjoyed the sexual openness of the society in Fire. Numerous characters, including members of the royal family, have children out of wedlock and it’s not stigmatised or commented on. Likewise, Fire’s exercise of bodily autonomy is not a topic of debate or discussion. This is a society that doesn’t shame women or men for being sexual as long as that sexuality is freely exchanged and everyone is having a good time.

Fire also managed to avoid falling into the trap I sometimes see with books where the lead character has ‘unearthly beauty’ and is supernatural, evidently infallible, and in constant need of protection. Fire makes mistakes. She struggles with herself. She admits those mistakes and talks about their costs, instead of eliding them or trying to erase them. Her supernatural powers come with costs and she’s deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being able to control minds. She struggles with ethical issues like using her powers in interrogation. And she’s not constantly relying on other characters to save her. She does a fair amount of saving herself, and she’s a mean hand with a bow. I like that in a character; what strikes me most about her is that she is interdependent with the people around her. She provides support and is supported. She stands on her own, but she doesn’t fall into the strong and silent warrior trap where she isn’t allowed humanity (monstranity?).

If you like fantasy and you like YA, I suspect you will probably enjoy Fire. The book has some great thematic elements and left me with some food for thought when it comes to issues like beauty, love, and attraction. And there was plenty of adventure and fun times to keep me on my toes, as well as some really awesome friendships between many different characters, including lots of friendships involving women, which I always love to see depicted in fiction. Cashore’s characters are dynamic, diverse, and interesting, and they manage to step beyond a lot of stereotypes that readers might be tempted to shove them into.