Kristin Cashore’s Fire is not only a very entertaining and gripping story, but is a true gold-mine of deep questions concerning men and women. This was the impression Kristin Cashore’s second book, Fire left on me after I’d finished feverishly reading it, unable to wait to read what happened next in the story. Some of you may be rolling your eyes at that. Very cliché, I know, but honestly, I’m a person who has very high standards for my fiction and limited time so, if it doesn’t wow me I tend to meander with my reading a bit. (That, and I have a habit of picking up too many books to read at once, but that’s another issue.) Fire, however, had me completely enthralled in its rich tale and left me thinking long after I’d finished it.
The story follows Fire (yes, that’s her name), a young woman with an interesting and unwanted origin: she’s a “monster,” born dangerously alluring to people and with the power to control minds. If that didn’t make people wary enough, her father, Cansrel was a monster in both body and mind, using his “monster” abilities to control the previous king and spread violence throughout the kingdom until his death years ago. Together with her legacy and her given powers, people are filled with suspicion and hatred for her (if they’re not blindly lusting after her). Fire has stayed away from those who might harm her, living in a village with the former army commander Brocker, who has become a father-like figure to her, and his son Archer, her friend and lover. But when circumstances lead her to the King’s City, Fire becomes tied up in dealings with the royal family and suspicious activities.
When I read Cashore’s debut novel, Graceling (Fire is a prequel of sorts to it) I liked it in many ways, but I wasn’t wowed at the time. Don’t get me wrong. The lead female character in it was very good and it was also thought-provoking so, I still liked it and would not hesitate to recommend it, but I did have a couple of problems with it. The flow of the story felt a little uneven at times and the main antagonist had me yawning a bit (a little too pure evil and a little less realistic and fleshed out in my mind). (I will say that I read Graceling years ago and this was just my first impression.) In fact, when I finished Graceling and read the preview of Fire in the back of the book, I initially wasn’t interested in picking up Fire since it focuses on the same antagonist and, let me to tell you, even as a kid, this guy is evil. Obviously, I liked Graceling enough in the end that I did pick up Fire and I am extremely happy that I did. Fire succeeds in fixing the problems I had with Graceling as Cashore’s writing and story-telling goes to the next level. Where Graceling was good, Fire is breathtaking.
So, you may have question marks floating over your head about this “monster” power. Here is another story about a pretty girl who has to beat the guys off of her because there are so many interested in her (Hi Bella Swan!). But despite sounding like a petty cliché, this was actually a very interesting aspect of the story. People constantly objectify Fire because of her looks and because she is female and desired, her beauty becomes a danger to her since it often draws the unwanted attention of men. Some men are fine, but as I said earlier, others are the type to blindly lust after her and don’t use control. In Fire, the situation is exaggerated by Fire’s inhuman beauty, but Cashore brings up an interesting question; is it more dangerous for a woman to stand out? Here’s one quote in particular that struck me: “Cansrel had loved attention, Fire thought to herself dryly. More to the point, he had been a man. Cansrel had not had her problems.” (Cashore 181) Her father held a powerful position and was infamous for being tough and cruel and, while everyone should understand that men can most definitely be victims as well, women still are at higher risk to be attacked. Fire is perceived as less of a threat, perhaps in part because people see a female who, unless proven otherwise, are often equated with fragility. Rape and gender issues are something that is discussed seriously within the story. (By the way, for those of you who are wondering, although it gets into deep and serious issues, rape is only discussed and never depicted in Fire.)
It should also be noted that Fire isn’t actually an easy victim, even if she may seem to be. She’s become tough, both mentally and physically and can hold her own. Fire does have issues which she must work out and that is a big part of the story, but she’s no damsel-in-distress. Fire dislikes her powers and has a fear of following the path of her father who misused his power, but can use them when need be. Keeping on the issue of how people tend to objectify Fire, some of my favorite moments showing off Fire’s strength are when people attempt to force her into the role of a pretty little doll. Fire does not allow others to objectify her. For example, after a long and hard journey with some people Fire doesn’t really care much for, she’s given the chance to bathe and change into some slinky dress. She doesn’t have much choice, but thinks twice about the bath “because she sensed, and resented, that its purpose was to prettify her” and blatantly refuses to walk around in a sexy dress, defiantly throwing a man’s long, heavy coat over it. (Cashore 367) She also uses her beauty and assumed docile nature to her advantage. There are plenty of other strong female characters in the story as well.
This is a fantasy that delves headlong into issues like relationships, birth control, rape, and coming to terms with things. The romance of Fire is mature and realistic and the plot is well thought out and paced. This was one of those books where I was struck frequently by just how thoughtful and provoking some of the issues were in the story. It just goes to show you that you can’t underestimate a young adult book!