Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fire, by Kristin Cashore

Identified as a "Companion to Graceling," this story is actually chronologically a prequel, although it shares only one character in common with Cashore's acclaimed novel. Set in the same world as the earlier book but in a largely inaccessible portion of territory, Fire is the story of a young "monster" human named Fire who, like all of the monsters who inhabit this area, has the ability to bend people's minds to do her bidding. It is an unwelcome talent to the girl Fire, whose father used the power to pervert the mind of King Nax and sent the kingdom into debauchery and self-destruction. After's Fire's father's death, she tries to maintain a lower profile.

Two events thwart her plans: the appearance of mysterious archer with a foggy brain and the command that Fire come to the King's city (a place she has avoided all of her life because it was where her father did his evil deeds) to help the surviving royal family unearth their enemies. Once in the city, Fire becomes embroiled in untangling the politics of the court, unraveling the plots to overthrow the royals, and averting all-out war. It is a calling she resists but ultimately proves adept at, although she must approach it on her own terms. And always in the background, there is the threat of an unknown force that put that mysterious foggy-headed archer out there.

I've done something of a disservice in my simple summary of the story's plot, but it is a long novel (460pp) and a very complex narrative. You'll do well to simply believe that it all works very nicely. As for the story, I have a number of things on my mind upon finishing this book.

First of all, there is the theme of generations and inheritance. Almost every character in this book bears the scars and the legacy of their parents (or grandparents). Fire fights off the guilt of being related to a literal monster. Archer struggles with the legacy of his parentage as well. The royals are who they are because of the mistakes of their King Nax. Everyone struggles with not wanting to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors and with wanting to atone for those mistakes. It's a beautifully universal theme and adolescents (and older!) readers will appreciate a familiar theme in their own lives.

The second theme I want to mention is a bit more controversial: sexuality (and sexual violence in particular). Cashore's first novel was noted often by reviewers for containing a number of mature themes. That pattern is replicated and expanded here. It is not that Cashore is ever explicit, but sexuality is quite persistent in the world of this novel (with regular mentions of menstruation [which is admittedly an important plot device in this case], birth control, pregnancy, childlessness, etc.). None of this bothers me. I'm all for a healthy dose of mature and responsible sexuality in YA as it sets a healthy standard. What is trickier is the high presence of rape and sexual violence in this story. Within the first 100 pages, there are mentions of at least three rapes and many more of assaults and sexually-motivated attacks. It is integral part of the plot that Fire's powers include the liability that men feel uncontrollable desire for her and that that passion frequently leads them to attack her. This sets up dramatic tension of course, but it also creates a truly terrifying world.

I myself am torn over the issue. I appreciate the author witnessing for the overwealming presence of sexual violence in modern society. If young women are not aware of such things, then they need to be and if reading about a strong heroine who confronts it and actively protects herself can empower the reader, then this is a good thing. But at the same time, I worry that becoming aware of the prevalence of sexual violence can also make a person see it everywhere and retreat into a world of fear. I suppose others will say "it's just a book!" but it won't stop my conflicted sense of loyalties about this message. Is it a good message or a bad message to be sending out to readers? I honestly do not know.

In general, this is a very good book. It will please fantasy fans and it has something to offer folks who never shy away from fantasy (like myself) because they want more human interest than the ol' hack-and-slay normally offers. It is a worthy successor to Graceling and I look forward to the next installment.

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