Sunday Reading

Posted by Niall Harrison

In under the wire, again: this week's reading was Fire by Kristin Cashore, a prequel to her first novel, Graceling that retains its predecessor's sentence-level poise and directness -- not to mention a similarly young, female, superpowered protagonist -- but which structurally and thematically is less neat. I liked it better because of that, I think. Fire's superpower is that she is a monster: in her land, monsters are those creatures that manifest "unnatural" beauty, to the point of provoking irresistable compulsions in those who see them. Monstrousness is heritable, and monsters can be any type of animal; human monsters are rare, others are more common, and their feathers and fur are sought-after accessories in certain circles. In Fire's case, her monster nature gives her the ability to read and manipulate the minds around her.

Both Graceling and Fire are fantasy novels doubling as criticism; the difference between them, I'd suggest, is that the former is more focused on critiquing tropes of the genre (supernatural female power, and badass female protagonists), and the latter is more focused on a critique of real social mores. That's not to say Graceling is divorced from reality (nor that Fire is without critique of generic tropes: Fire's distinguishing characteristic, after all, is her extraordinary red hair), but Fire's central conceit reminds me of the Noise in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking books, something highly resonant and because of that volatile. The notion that beauty is bewitching, that we (especially men) are somehow helpless before it, the whole egregious conceit of erotic capital, appears to be embodied in the monsters: unprepared or weak-minded men are literally compelled against their conscious minds to try to control, possess or assault Fire. As Nic Clarke pointed out in her review for us, Cashore is acutely aware of how monstrousness is inevitably gendered -- Fire explicitly wonders at one point what the point of a female monster is, before deciding to set out and be the answer to that question -- and unpacks the implications of monstrousness quite thoroughly.

I feel like a bad reader of the novel, though, for being more interested in these metaphysics than in the characters or story; in particular more interested in the metaphysics than in any of Fire's relationship prospects. Her plot-destined partner is one of her realms' princes, Brigan, who we can tell is a good guy because he has absolute self control in her presence, and a mind that she cannot read. I don't want to belittle Brigan: his relationship with Fire is good and healthy, and I'm glad it there: but I did find it a little on the dull side, a little too easy. More interesting, it seemed to me, was the story of Archer, Fire's childhood companion who is at the start of the book her lover. He is a damaging companion -- has an aggressive and possessive temperament, and when Fire breaks up with him, she says it is because he has forgotten how to be her friend -- but also flashes of self-awareness that demonstrate he knows how thoroughly he's failing to be a better man. Archer's failure unlocks new angles on the condition of monstrousness for me in a way that Brigan's success does not.

Where Fire was less sure-footed, I felt, was in its dealings with the nature and nurture of heritability. There's a proliferation of bastard pregnancies, adoptions, and surprise parentage revelations that seem intended to reinforce that you are not your biology, even if your biology is monstrous; but they seemed rather undercut by the fact that the novel's antagonist (who shows up later in Graceling) is more or less born evil, thanks to his particular psychic talent, and stays evil. Perhaps individual's qualities are not necessarily determined by their biological parentage, but they seem to be relatively fixed: As Nic notes in her review, Fire's closing thoughts are "Some people were too terrible [...] Some things just had to be done", and within the world of the novel, she's not wrong. Coupled with the fact that, like Graceling, Fire ends with an endorsement of monarchy based on the fact that a Good King is on the throne, there's a sense that in this regard Cashore's analysis doesn't quite go deep enough.


Comments (2)

Great analysis, Niall! Fire was a quick read for me, and I concur with most of your talking points. It's rare for me to find a review with such eloquence and precision.

Cashore has mentioned the different angles of criticism on her blog and how she derives the most pleasure from writing stories that make people think. When faced with an accusation that her work promoted abusive gender roles, she was somewhat shocked, but left it up to interpretation.

I think she accomplished her goals and I hope to write something of equal quality someday. Thanks for mentioning Chaos Walking; I've never read it and it sounds interesting.

Thanks! She made me, at least, think more with Fire than with Graceling; so I'm looking forward to Bitterblue (which sounds like it may address some of my issues with the handling of monarchy) next year.

And I do strongly recommend Chaos Walking, some of the best YA I've read. Martin Lewis reviewed the whole trilogy for us -- The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask & The Answer, and Monsters of Men.

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