Graceling Realm, Book 2; published in 2009; 480 pages. ★★★★☆
The stars always eased her lonesomeness. She thought of them as beautiful creatures, burning and cold like her; each solitary, and bleak, and silent like her.
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men.
This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she had the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own.
Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City, The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom.
If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.
I’m so glad I’m rereading this series. I had a vague memory of Graceling and Fire, and remembered liking the latter much better, but I didn’t recall – or maybe, seven years ago, never noticed – the complexity of Kristin Cashore’s themes or the way these two books complement each other by approaching the same issue of self-determination from different angles. It’s… fascinating, and kind of beautiful, and looking at it as an adult I find myself loving this series, much to my own surprise.
Fire is definitely the stronger of the two books from a technical standpoint. The vocabulary and syntax is more advanced and elaborate – possibly a deliberate choice, a contrast between Fire and Katsa’s backgrounds, but either way, more pleasant to read. The worldbuilding is a bit more developed, though still kind of vague, and Cashore does still have a problem with naming cities in the most boring way possible. (In this one we get “King’s City” and “Fort Middle”. Take a guess at which one is the capital, and which is located near the center of the kingdom?)
Thematically, Cashore is once again writing about a young woman trying to find her place in the world after a lifetime of being defined by others. However, Fire and Katsa are radically different characters, with different desires and backgrounds. Where Katsa anchors herself to one person as she sorts out her identity and her Grace, Fire’s growth comes from forming bonds with many of those around her. Katsa fears herself; Fire fears others, because of herself.
Their different opinions on marriage and pregnancy were particularly striking to me. Katsa, famously, never wants children. Fire, however… she longs for them.
Fire tried to ignore her own involuntary flash of resentment at the majority of humanity who had children as a matter of course.
In both cases, this reaction is against the expectations they were raised with. Katsa always felt she was meant to marry a noble and bear his offspring, whereas Fire was explicitly forbidden from letting herself get pregnant:
“Two of us is enough, Fire,” he’d say smoothly. She heard the threat in his words toward the baby she wasn’t going to have. She took the herbs.
There’s something about the way Cashore writes these characters that feels… I don’t know how else to say it; it feels very female to me. Fire and Graceling are both coming-of-age stories, but they’re explicitly about rejecting the confines of social expectation, claiming power, and exercising control over one’s romantic life and reproduction. While I don’t know how much of this experience is relevant to young men becoming adults, it certainly rings true with my experience as a woman. And teen readers of any gender can, I think, benefit from the message that becoming an adult means you get to decide what’s right for you in these matters – having kids or not, pursuing one career over another, choosing your own partners at any level of commitment.
Speaking of choosing partners: I’ve seen a great many reviews that criticized this book’s handling of sex and relationships. Personally, I firmly disagree; I think Cashore did a brilliant job with relationships that were realistically messy. Archer, Fire’s childhood friend, is at the center of much of the mess: a young lord desperately in love with Fire, he deals with her lack of similar feelings by… sleeping around with other women. It’s not healthy for anyone involved, but it clearly isn’t meant to be. It’s clear that even as Fire values Archer as a reliable constant in her life, she also knows that his jealousy and controlling behavior are wildly out of line, and she calls him on it repeatedly.
Love doesn’t measure that way, she thought to him. And you may blame me for your feelings, but it isn’t fair to blame me for how you’ve chosen to behave.
The thing I keep coming back to here, as with Graceling, is that Cashore’s truest monsters are those who take away the choices of others. Archer is at his worst when he is trying to restrict Fire’s actions; Cansrel damaged the entire kingdom of the Dells by controlling its king; and Fire’s behind-the-scenes antagonist, shared with Graceling, uses his every word to take away free will. By contrast, Fire’s decision to sleep with Archer is about freedom of choice… and so is her later decision to end their sexual relationship. Freedom means that she can pick one as easily as the other, and she can reject those around her who think they know better what her life should be.
Fire does gather herself something of a found family throughout this book, which I suppose is another part of why I enjoyed it so much; I’m a sucker for that trope. Also, it allows Cashore to explore a wide variety of relationships: Fire’s bond with her horse, her almost-familial relationship with Archer’s father Brocker and with Queen Roen, her awkward friendship with her guards, even a sibling-like bond with much of the royal family. This kind of diversity is something that was missing in Graceling, and while it did make sense given Katsa’s character, I appreciated the variation here.
If Fire seems plodding and full of navel-gazing to some people, I guess I can understand why. It’s a story about character growth more than war or intrigue, and I don’t think it pretends otherwise, but after Graceling it makes sense that many readers would expect more action. Still, after my reread of Graceling, it seems obvious that the two are narratively linked more deeply than that – they reflect each other, and in doing so the depth of each becomes more evident.