Seeing as I loved Graceling, I was a twitchy wreck till I got my hands on Fire, the companion book. If you’re wondering (as I was) as to what a companion book is: it’s kinda sorta related to the first, but not a prequel or sequel; the books are essentially independent of each other, but work nicely together (like real companionship, eh?)
Fire is a human monster whose great and terrible beauty makes most men into dribbling idiots. Much of her allure is to do with her hair–a multi-hued crimson mane she covers up (cutting does not help, as it grows back within the hour). Fire has the ability to read and influence minds, but she’s scared and ashamed of her power, believing that her skills amount to trespass. And then, when war seems imminent, she must decide whether or not to use her powers to save the kingdom she lives in.
I found the central conceit of equating excessive beauty with monstrosity so interesting. Of course, my first thought was of the trope of beautiful women as dangerous objects causing men to risk life and limb and sanity. It’s a notion that pervades every culture–think of Helen of Troy or Sita or Mata Hari (of course, men tend to be absolved of blame for their actions in such scenarios). Also, a woman’s hair has always been viewed as a device to seduce and ensnare men, which is why hats are worn in churches and Hindu widows, not long ago, were required to shave their heads bald. So having Fire’s beauty so explicitly related to this feminist issue made me very excited as to Cashore’s plans for Fire.
Sadly, my excitement was interred by the fourth chapter. The main impression I have of Fire is that it was written in a rush. There are some brilliant ideas, some beautiful writing, but the book itself is bit inchoate. Many themes–rape, illegitimacy, the imperative to procreate–are touched upon but not explored in enough depth, and after finishing the book, I felt Cashore hadn’t done justice to either her intelligence or skills in the execution of her ideas.
(MILD SPOILERS ALERT)
I had three main issues with Fire. First, the lack of character development for anyone but Fire. There’s a huge cast of mostly unmemorable secondary characters–fathers, brothers, guards, illegitimate children, and animals. (Fire’s romantic interest Brigan, who is written flatter than a pancake, unfortunately falls into this category. ) And I didn’t find Fire all that appealing. Her self-doubt comes across as myopia, and her bravery seems more like sacrificial do-gooding designed to make the readers love her. For a monster, Fire is a lot like an EMO girl, with a whiff of talk-show confessional about her “I forgive myself”. Also, to my dismay, Cashore did very little with the hair and seduction trope. When Fire finally stops hiding her beauty, she does it with the purpose of beguiling the enemy into revealing their secrets. Ho hum, here we go…
And the romance, which is an essential part of this book, is a weak-kneed, weepy mess. Brigan is such an unmemorable character that I feel I air-kissed him at some party and then moved on; I actually had to look up the book to remember his name while writing this piece. Brigan doesn’t inhabit this book–he visits to show how brave and heroic he is, and then goes away somewhere to fight some more. The pacing of their relationship is so poor that I still don’t understand why he and Fire fell in love. Oh, and I hate that there’s a misunderstanding of the “keep away from my brother, monster” sort followed by “I can’t help myself” love. I hate that Brigan falls in love with Fire when she is weeping in distress–she’s saved him from death, saved his army from being eaten by monster raptors, but somehow, she’s most lovable when she’s vulnerable? Yuck. And then there’s lines like “I don’t want to love you if you’re only going to die,” [Fire] cried, burying her face in his arm. “I don’t love you. ” The restraint that made the romance in Graceling so powerful is grievously absent in Fire.
And the plotting was just meh. There’s a war, because there needs to be a war in such books, you know? I feel as though Cashore needed a conflict to heighten Fire’s situation and plumped on war as an easy solution. There’s no attempt to make us acquainted with the perpetrators–it’s just a bunch of greedy kings with weird names who covet Brigan’s kingdom, and I frankly didn’t give a damn who won. I was also really irritated with the series of reveals towards the end of the book. The whole raison d’être of a reveal is that it makes the reader re-look at everything she believed about the prior narrative; a reveal that causes no shift in the reader’s perceptions of the characters’ behaviors and actions is redundant. The last third of Fire, IMO, was peppered with pointless reveals. Graceling was a character-driven story, but Fire relies on plot twists for most of its momentum.
(END OF SPOILERS)
As I said earlier, there is much that is good about the book, notably some really skilled prose, and I’m still a Cashore fanwoman. I won’t be revisiting Fire though; I’m pinning my hopes instead on the third installment–Bitterblue, out in 2011. Bring back the magic, please!
Note: The only character from Graceling who appears in Fire is Leck, and a child Leck at that, and only peripherally. The book doesn’t have any other connections to Graceling, apart from a brief mention of the Seven Kingdoms, so if you are looking for more Katsa, you’ll have to wait for Bitterblue.