Fire by Kristin Cashore
Published by Gollancz, September 2009.
Review by Mark Yon.
I was surprised to realise that it is nearly three years since I reviewed Kristin’s first novel, Graceling. At the time I was a little underwhelmed. It was well written, but I was disappointed that the book contained little to engage my interest, as well as having some inappropriate names so jarring that they almost destroyed my much-needed suspension of disbelief.
That was a shame. And to be honest, it put me off Kristin’s second: plenty more to read, instead.
Set in the same world, Fire still has some of those issues. But it is a much more satisfying read.
Like Graceling before it, Fire is the tale of a young girl, the titular Fire, who is a Graceling: that is, someone who has been born with a special power that enhances the typical capability of a normal human being. Fire’s skill (shown by her rainbow-coloured hair) is the ability to manipulate other people’s thoughts and persuade them to do their bidding. (In another galaxy, some would call it a Jedi-mind-trick.) Living in the Dells, she is initially quite reticent to use such skills, especially against her friends and those who protect her. It also doesn’t help that, as a consequence of her Grace, others are desperate to give her their attention. She has a relationship with her life-long friend Archer, who is fiercely protective of her.
When visiting neighbouring Queen Roen’s castle with Archer, she meets King Nash and his brother Prince Brigan. It is clear their relationship is not going to be easy at first: Fire’s deceased father, Cansrel, was the King’s Advisor who Nash and Brigan’s father killed most cruelly, something not easily forgotten. Fire is at first treated with caution and distrust, as her skill appears to have been inherited from her father. However, as you might expect, this changes as the story develops.
In the second part of the book Fire agrees to use her skills to interrogate prisoners and gain an upper hand in the war brewing between King Nash and Lords Gentian and Mydogg. In the time of her father this was major and cruel torture, though Fire is determined to be more understanding.
The third part of the book deals with Fire’s kidnapping by her enemies and the consequences of such an action.
What impressed me more this time was that although we have clear heroes and villains in Fire, the outcomes are less predictable here. We see a much bigger view of the world first seen in Graceling, and the importance of ‘monsters’, as mutant creatures who love a bit of human flesh is developed nicely. Whereas Graceling mentioned these monsters on the other side of the world it was mainly focused on the effect of the Grace on Katsa and those affected by her, here we see a wider picture of their world as Fire deals with a harsher environment and the political and social machinations that such a society has. There’s also a lot more sexual content here, though not explicit.
Although they are mainly in different places, there are links between this book and Graceling, such as the emergence of Leck as a young boy. Having said that, the two books can be read pretty independently.
On the downside, the names of characters are still an annoyance (this time, the winner is King Mydogg) though less jarring than last time. We still have a little too much of the ‘Why-am-I-so-beautiful?’ tone from the lead character that, like Graceling, permeates the novel. And Fire’s close relationship with her horse, Small, in places borders on pony-porn (usually reserved for Anne McCaffrey, Kristen Britain and Elizabeth Moon, that one.)
However – and it is a big positive – the broader political scale of Fire does allow these irritations to be less jarring than in Graceling. As the plot of Fire develops, it becomes a real page-turner, despite my reservations. Most pleasingly of all, though there are many things here that the reader can work out early on in the novel, not all things end up as predictably as I expected. In the end I found that, despite my concerns, I cared about what happened to the characters, which is all an author can hope for.
It is interesting to see that in the time since Fire’s publication the book has been suggested as an alternate, more Fantasy-based Twilight-type tale. To my mind, whilst Fire is, like Bella, a young and shy (some would say bland) young girl, with her personality yet to develop, she is a little more pro-active than Bella. She is however much less independent than Katsa in Graceling, at least at first.
So, in summary, a great, but for me not an outstanding, read, though I suspect that many readers will not be as critical as me. For some readers this will be wonderfully entertaining, whilst others, I suggest, approach with caution.
Kristin’s third novel in this world, Bitterblue, is due out later this year.
Mark Yon, April 2012.