I don’t think my expectations could have been higher for this book, so I’m not at all surprised that it didn’t live up to them. Frankly, few books could. Graceling was one of my top reads of last year, though it wasn’t without its acknowledged and ignored shortcomings. I had so much hope that this would have everything that made Graceling great and more as Cashore’s sophomore effort in the series. And it was a better book overall. Better written, anyway, but not exactly what I expected or wanted (insert “it’s me not you” spiel here). This isn’t necessarily a bad omen for the reading experience, but the letdown feeling which resulted from my plunging sky-high hopes made it impossible for me to ignore aspects of the story that wouldn’t have otherwise been so off-putting.
In the gray and rocky Dells east of the seven Kingdoms, Fire is the last living being of her kind. Part human and part monster, she is aptly named. Because in the Dells human and animal monsters aren’t only gruesome and ferocious. They are also beautiful beyond belief, with vibrantly colored scales and feathers, eyes and hair. They are also powerful beyond imagination, with the ability to control the human minds around them. So strong that each person within Fire’s range is either head-over-heels infatuated or ruthlessly jealous of her beauty and more than willing to turn total control over to her or kill her on the spot respectively. Not surprisingly, the attention Fire draws has forced her to live in seclusion in the north. There she is mostly content with her peaceful existence until strange archers begin showing up. Compounded with the coming war between the rebel lords in the north and south, Fire’s changing relationship with childhood friend Archer, and her inability to hide from her late father’s mistakes, Fire is suddenly stir-crazy despite her better judgment. Although leaving home puts her at greater risk of monster attack, capture, and death she can’t but hope that there is more than her quiet life. So when young King Nash and his war commander brother Brigan request her political service in King’s City, Fire jumps at the opportunity with the smallest, secret hope that her un-human capacity for abuse and her human capacity for love can be reconciled. What she finds startles her as the eventual war tears and brings new and old friends together and apart.
Without seeking and failing to condense this intricate story any further, that is essentially what Fire is about. A steady and gradual building of reconciliation and pain and growth for the characters. A slow-forming and simmering development of familial, romantic, and friend relationships. It’s pretty mature stuff for a YA fantasy, and Graceling fans may not prefer it. Now if I’d had no expectations, things may have been different. (Wait! That seems like my type of book…) But besides the intriguing world, Katsa and Po’s relationship was what made Graceling for me, and the pairings in Fire were just … different. The romance isn’t as prevalent and the secondary characters not as developed. Without spoiling I can say that I hated one of Fire’s relationships, and loved others – particularly the one with King Nash – and merely liked others I wanted to love. And it was because of my slight disappointment in this respect throughout the read that the modern sexuality blindsided me and stood out all the more. Don’t get me wrong; I do admire strong, feminist heroines and puritanical as I am, can usually stomach the liberal sexuality just fine (as in Graceling). I did eventually begin to become semi-comfortable with it, but in the end it didn’t let up and I tired of playing who sired who and who’s sleeping with whom and who got whom pregnant and whose father is whose. I kept waiting and hoping that there would be some unexpected twist there or some surprising unpredictability here. And there were some, just not the plot turns I wanted or found compelling.
Fortunately, the characterization of Fire and the controlled, gorgeous writing were much better than I could have ever imagined. Cashore is tighter and more confident here. Even now I can recall the lovely imagery the book conjured. Fuchsia raptors against dried yellow grass and gray rock. Purples kittens with bronze toes. Fire’s flame-colored hair, which brought up an unavoidable Run Lola Run comparison. All was simply breathtaking. Drab Dells is the perfect backdrop for such stunning colors. And the subtle, layered psychological development of Fire? Excellent. Fire’s fears and insecurities are atypical yet just as valid admissions of the strong heroine, allowing me to connect with her even more than I did with Katsa. Those last few pages of realization were killer and got an immediate re-read. There was also a rather bleak period in Fire’s life where I was caught unaware by tears streaming down my face. Now that is something only the best books do. Next time I’ll just try to come in with a cleaner slate.