Graceling was a surprisingly wonderful book and when Fire came out, I immediately got it and started reading. For some reason that I can’t put my finger on, I didn’t take to it as much as I expected. I put it aside. Finally, I picked it up again (if only because the publication of Bitterblue reminded me) and was disappointed and hooked at the same time.
published: Gollancz, 2009
series: Graceling Realm #2
my rating: 5/10
first sentence: Larch often thought that if it hadn’t been for his newborn son, he never would have survived his wife Mikra’s death.
It is not a peaceful time in the Dells. The young King Nash clings to his throne while rebel lords in the north and south build armies to unseat him. The mountains and forests are filled with spies and thieves and lawless men. This is where Fire lives. With a wild, irresistible appearance and hair the color of flame, Fire is the last remaining human monster. Equally hated and adored, she has the unique ability to control minds, but she guards her power, unwilling to steal the secrets of innocent people. Especially when she has so many of her own. Then Prince Brigan comes to bring her to King City. The royal family needs her help to uncover the plot against the king. Far away from home, Fire begins to realize there’s more to her power than she ever dreamed. Her power could save the kingdom. If only she weren’t afraid of becoming the monster her father was.
Theres not much plot to speak of. Cashore spends half the book setting up Fire’s situation and the chaos in the kingdom. However, this we learn by what Fire thinks of through memories and conversations, not by actually witnessing the impeding war and the two rebel armies that are gathering on each end of the kingdom.
What drives the plot forward is solely the budding romance that starts about a third into the book. In the second half, a plan slowly evolves that needs Fire’s cooperation and offers some moments of suspense. These are few and short ones, though, which makes this a slow and for the most part a very quiet book.
I have to mention the very strong prologue. In fact, it was such powerful writing that I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more chapters with that utterly creepy kid Immiker. The whole prologue reads like a vignette and makes you want more. I came to care for Immiker’s father Larch very quickly and followed the story with dread and enthusiasm (because I like good writing, not creepy kids).
Fire is a great protagonist. The author spends a long time setting her up and making us see what ails her. I don’t mind a heavy focus on characters in novels because characters are what I value the most and what gets the most points in a review. The good writing and Fire’s interesting conflict kept me reading despite the lack of drive. I found it interesting that in both of Cashore’s novels the strong female protagonist has a good deal of self-loathing going on. Katsa because her Grace was killing and she didn’t want to be a killer machine under somebody else’s rule. And Fire because of what she was born and what her father did. Being a fan of good and complicated characters, I think both of these girls’ inner turmoil makes an excellent read. Rather than your standard beautiful and flawless heroine, we have somebody who is facing conflict every moment of every day – without having to run into an army of enemies. And yes, she is still stunningly beautiful but in this case, I forgive the author because it’s actually important for the plot that Fire is of unnatural beauty.
Fire is what they call a monster. Monsters in these books are animals with unnaturally colored coats or fur. Fire is the only human monster left and she looks normal, for the most part. She is, however, extremely beautiful – so much so that she is stunned whenever she catches sight of herself in a mirror – and has hair the color of flame and fire and sunset. Animal monsters come in all sorts of striking colors and color combinations. They also have one other thing in common: They are unusually aggressive, especially when it comes to killing (and eating) other monsters, be they animal or human.
What I found most interesting, apart from all the beauty and uniqueness, was Fire’s ability (and that of all monsters) to penetrate the mind of others and, depending on how strongly they are guarded, implant thoughts and feelings into them. Predator monsters will make the weak of mind think that they have nothing to fear, that they want to come closer – so the monster can tear their throats out. They are still animals so the range of reason for which they use this power is limited to killing and feeding. But humans with that ability are a whole different species and the possibilites are endless.
Fire is already guilt-ridden about her father and confused about her own “talent”. Now she is also handling moral questions every single day, questioning whether she should manipulated somebody’s mind when it’s not to save her own life. She is a likeable and honorable character and we spend a lot of time in her mind, witnessing her struggles. Maybe a little too much.
Her guard Neel however, seems to exist only to reach her handkerchiefs when appropriate and the rest of her guards, which surround her at all times and would have been a great opportunity to give this novel more life, were cardboard creatures with names attached to them. The author’s attempt to make one or two of them into proper people failed as we never get to see their motivations or, indeed, their actions.
The few other characters, namely the king and his brothers as well as Fire’s best friend Archer and her neighbors, are mostly just as bland. Brigan has some personality, though we don’t get to see nearly enough of it. Archer, who I found very intersting and three-dimensional, loses over time. The others are simply there for certain dialogues to take place or to draw the focus from Fire – and we’re still painfully close to her at all times.
The most interesting, and most disturbing, character was by far Immicker from the prologue. Those who have read Graceling will recognise him easily enough. What a creep!
One thing I’ve noticed with Kristin Cashore – and this does not diminish the pleasure I feel reading her books – is that I find most of her fantasy names poorly chosen. We had Po in Graceling and “Po” as a German word means butt. So you can imagine how I struggled to keep a straight face. Also, isn’t there a tellytubby called Po, as well? Definitely two things I do not want to associate with Po’s character, as I found him quite charming and swoon-worthy.
Here we have Archer – which is a good name in and of itself. But in the beginning of the book, there is talk of a mysterious archer who kills silently from a distance with never failing arrows and needs to be found. When Archer talks about that archer, the flow of the prose feels a little silly at times. As for Brigan, whenever I read his name, my mind felt the need to insert that missing “g” at the end. Again, not a good choice. All of that does not make the book any worse, but it does make my mind stop for just long enough to take me out of the reading flow. Which I can’t imagine was the author’s intent. A simple Jack or Joe would have worked just as well. Macke it Jak, to sound more alien, if you like…
(Slightly off topic here: George R.R. Martin does a fantastic job with names, taking known names and altering them just enough to give them that outlandish feel but not so much that we can’t pronounce them or stumble when we come across them. I’m thinking Petyr, Jaime, Rickard, Benjen, etc.)
At this point, I must also bow to Krisin Cashore for incorporating a wonderful relationship between friends – Archer and Fire are what we would call friends with benefits. It is so well done that it feels quite natural. The love they feel for each other is, at least on Fire’s side, that of a very close friendship. So what if they console each other in a sexual way every now and then? I already liked the way love and sex were viewed in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books and I’m happy to report that Kristin Cashore has managed something similar (if more shallow).
The Dells can be found on the map east of the Seven Kingdoms we know from Graceling. In the prologue, this geographic setting is nicely explained but after that, we don’t get to see much of the country. Fire’s home is in the north and apart from finding out that there are forests and mountains, the place didn’t really feel alive to me. The same thing goes for any area Fire sees on her travels and the King’s City as well. None of the settings felt interesting or were described in much detail. The novel would have benefited from a bit more focus on that instead of endlessly staying inside Fire’s head.
What also bothered me a lot was the use of our names for months. Fire’s birthday is in July… but July was named July because of things and people from our real world history. So why would months have the same names in a fantasy universe? If you don’t want to invent names for them, just call it high summer or something. I didn’t expect to mind this detail so much but it really took me out of the flow – yet again.
I have little to say about the style. Despite all my misgivings, this was a fairly quick read and except for a few names here and there, I didn’t want to stop reading. Cashore knows her craft and her style is fluid and easy to read.
There is a double threat on a kingdom already chaos and our fiery protagonist gets thrown into the middle of it. But the book still missed an overlying story arc and no matter how intriguing Fire, the character, may be, in this case it wasn’t enough to make the whole novel interesting. At times, it dragged so much that only the hope of some action or at least new information to come up kept me going. And, of course, the budding, if very subdued, romance between Fire and a certain dashing gentleman.
Young adult books don’t have to be shallow, as many authors try to prove to us over and over. I love that Kristin Cashore stayed true to that in her second novel, even if I wasn’t a big fan of the story. I hope Bitterblue will prove that the author doesn’t just know how to write great girl protagonists, and write them well, but that she also hasn’t run out of ideas yet.
THE GOOD: Compelling protagonist, interesting inner conflict, a romance subtle enough to be to my liking.
THE BAD: A book of many flaws, namely lack of plot, strange pacing, use of names and too much repetition. Anticlimactic ending.
THE VERDICT: Not nearly as good as Graceling, though based on great ideas. I hope the author shows some growth in Bitterblue.
RATING: 5/10 Really good + really bad = a fiery meh