Kristin Cashore's Fire is a prequel (or perhaps more accurately a companion novel set 30 years earlier) to last year's Graceling. Graceling was one of my favorite titles of 2008. When I say that Fire more than lives up to the bar set by Graceling, well, that should tell you that Fire is something special. Fire is set in a country called The Dells. The Dells are separated from the seven kingdoms described in Graceling by a virtually impassible range of mountains. One character, however, someone who plays a key part in Graceling, travels to the Dells at the start of Fire. That's the only direct connection between the books, a fact that may initially disappoint fans looking for more about Katsa and Po. But not to worry. In The Dells, and the new characters in Fire, Cashore creates something new and wonderful.
The Dells is a country beset by looters, warring neighbors, and monsters. The monsters are multi-colored creatures who resemble other animals (e.g. monster kittens and monster bugs), but who also have the capacity to prey on people's minds. The title character, Fire, is a teenage girl who is a human monster, complete with brilliantly colored hair and the ability to enter and control people's minds. The only child of the deceased, power-mad monster Cansrel, Fire is determined not to use her power for evil. She is the last of her kind. As this novel progresses, Fire finds herself a key player in royal intrigue and war.
Fire is a fabulous character. She's this amazing mix of vulnerable young woman and powerful supernatural creature. She fights for survival in a world where monsters crave her blood, and her appearance drives most men mad. She is haunted by the evils committed by her father, and has scarcely anyone in her life she can trust. And yet ... she meets a particular young man, and her life changes forever.
I don't want to say too much more, because I would hate to spoil this book for anyone. The plot features many twists and turns. I'll just summarize the high points: The characterization is phenomenal. The setting is unique and compelling. The story is a delightful mix of romance, fantasy, and adventure. I especially enjoyed the romance, which Cashore builds oh-so-gradually over time. Fire did get off to a bit of a slow start for me (the prologue is pretty bleak), but within a few chapters I was hooked, and read the rest of the book in a single, blissful sitting.
Here are a favorite of my favorite passages:
"From the warmth of her fondness for her horse she constructed a fragile and changeable thing that almost resembled courage. She hoped it would be enough." (Chapter 13)
"Fire was spectacularly good at not thinking about a thing when she chose, if the thing was hurtful, or just plain stupid. She manhandled, pummeled, packed this thing away." (Chapter 16)
"How odd it was, how dangerously dear, to find him so out of his element, so much a man, and wanting her advice on this thing." (Chapter 17)
"How absolutely the look of a thing could differ from its feel. If Fire had not had such an intense need to concentrate, if she hadn't been so far from humor, she might have laughed. Fore she knew herself to be standing above a microcosm of the kingdom itself, a web of traitors, spies, and allies in fancy costumes, representing every side, watching each other with calculation, trying to hear each other's conversations, and keenly aware of everyone who entered or exited. (Chapter 23)
I love that "dangerously dear". One other thing that I think Cashore is particularly good at is balancing tension and pathos with humor. I couldn't come up with a spoiler-free example, but it's one of the things that makes Fire so engaging.
A couple of other quick notes. First, I think that Fire is more a high school book than a middle school book. There are sexual relationships (though nothing too descriptive) and associated consequences. The characters are mainly older teens and above. I think that Fire will work as well for adults as for teens (though there's definitely a classic YA theme of self-discovery). Also, although Fire takes place before Graceling in time, it also contains a major spoiler about Graceling. I would definitely read Graceling first. (See some thoughts about this on the author's blog). The two books together have my highest recommendation. My only grievance now is that the next book in the series, Bitterblue, doesn't have a publication date yet.
All in all, Fire is going to stand as of my very favorite books of the year. I think that I'll remember the characters, particularly Fire, Archer, and Brigan, forever.
Publication Date: October 5, 2009
Source of Book: Advanced review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final printed book.
Other Blog Reviews: Off the Shelf, Tynga's Urban Fantasy Reviews, The Written World, Everyday Reading, Book Nut, Angieville, Kids Lit, Bib-Laura-Graphy, and a teaser from Shelf Elf
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.