Other elements: femininity, love, moral imperatives, right vs wrong, family, duty, beauty.
Read it: if you’re a Tamora Pierce fan. If you love a strong, intelligent, complex heroine.
That’s right, folks. My first 10/10. It turns out that writing a really positive review is much scarier than writing a negative review.
I was just skimming the reviews of this book on Goodreads and I think what some people hate about this book is exactly what I loved so much about it – the spectacular and overt feminism. Not to mention the exceedingly sane discussions of contraception, abortion, casual sex, body image, and love. Those are all things that it’s vital for young women to think and learn about and also things that are exceedingly difficult to discuss. To find those topics so responsibly handled in a YA novel is marvelous. And yes, I am going to spend a lot of this review up on my Lady Issues soapbox.
Fire is a companion book to Graceling, which I’ve already reviewed. They take place in the same world but they can stand alone. I really liked Graceling, but Fire blew it out of the water.
I think that the exploration of body image issues is one of the more vital things that can be potentially explored in literature. One aspect of this that authors and readers must perpetually face is the physical appearances of heroines. It’s hard to resist the trope of the pretty princess – even Katniss and Hermione have makeover scenes in which they prove that they look good in dresses with their hair done.
In Fire, Kristen Cashore addresses the question of what a heroine can look like by going in completely the opposite direction. Her heroine, Fire, isn’t average or merely exceptional: she is the embodiment of utter physical perfection.
Fire lives in The Dells, a land infested with monsters. Monsters, in this context, are creatures that are extraordinary versions of normal creatures. For example, a monster kitten might be bright blue, much cuter than the average kitten, and have superior mouse catching abilities. A monster tiger would be some fantastic color, be fiercer and more enthralling than the average tiger, and probably enjoy human prey. Monsters are beautiful, alluring, and dangerous. They also have some degree of mind-control power. Weak minded people might find themselves opening the window to let in a monster mosquito, giving up their lunch to a monster mouse, or walking into the den of a monster tiger without realizing what they’re doing. With me so far?
Fire is a human monster. The same rules apply: she looks like a human, except that she’s like a dream of a human, with vivid green eyes and multi-hued red hair. She avoids mirrors because she’s uncomfortable with how enthralling she finds her own reflection. More significant than that, she radiates allure. Men (and women) start fights and go to great lengths to be near her. Some want to impress her, some want to posses her, some want to kill her. She embodies society’s dreams for a young women (attractive beyond all imagining) and it’s terrible. She has almost no true friends, she can’t go outside without a guard, and she is utterly alone: human monsters are considered to be so dangerous that she’s the last one left alive.
The impetus of the plot of the book is the events that unfold as Fire leaves her isolated home to travel to the capitol and see if she can use her monster powers to assist her country in an impending war. There’s a hefty element of self-discovery, as Fire interacts with a much larger number of people than she’s used to and also comes face-to-face with the brutal legacy of her monster father, who used his powers to corrupt the previous king.
Fire must learn how to live her life with the reality of who and what she is, rather than just hiding from the world. She must overcome her physical appearance by accepting it and learning to live with it and the problems it brings, just like any woman must do. Her problems are not solved by the fact that she’s an embodiment of perfect beauty. She’s an extremely complex, strong, empathetic, and fascinating character.
In Fire, sexual freedom is a reality for the female characters (for all of the characters, really, but that’s pretty standard for the men). There is premarital sex, friends-with-benefits, accidental pregnancies, and more. Characters make sexual choices and then face consequences. Not in an if-you-have-sex-you-will-get-pregnant-and-die-way but in an I-had-casual-sex-with-my-friend-and-it-was-great-at-first-but-now-our-friendship-has-changed way. I think this is great. Sex is part of life, and the more opportunities young women have to think intelligently about the sexual choices they’re going to have to make in life, the better.
Cashore touches on briefly on the nature of sexual violence, and I think she deals with it exceptionally well. Fire is assaulted a number of times in the book – groped, grabbed, etc. As a human monster, Fire has some degree of insight into the minds around her. She can hear and see the horrible things that some of these attackers are thinking about doing to her, often far worse than what they actually manage to do. It’s in this context that Cashore manages to slip in a detail: Fire observes that the men who want to rape her are the ones with hate in their hearts, the ones prone to violence, the ones likely to cause harm and pain in the world in other ways. For a YA book to characterize rape as an act of power, violence, and hate rather than an act of lust is both impressive and significant.
I read this book twice before buying it and Graceling, and I plan on reading them both again (I’m a rereader, if you couldn’t tell). Actually, I read Fire and Daughter of Smoke and Bone in the same week and I was on such a YA fantasy high. Fire is a wonderful book and I hope Kristen Cashore keeps writing.