There’s something pleasingly demure about Fire (2010) by Kristen Cashore. The cover and title promise an independent fiery woman who you presume will be tamed and tame in return some handsome strapping lad. You may imagine quite bit of bodice-ripping, all nicely set in a quasi-medieval world where magic exists. But your imagination will have overtaken the reality of the book by a good few miles – to the book’s credit.
Fire doesn’t do anything new; rather, it twists on clichés and trends in many epic fantasy/romance novels without having that twist be the entire point of the book. The titular character is indeed beautiful, able to bend men and women to her will by her very presence and with a powerful telepathy. But with beauty comes a price, and in this book, it’s a real price – she is a monster (something that I feel should be capitalised but isn’t) and monsters are reviled, mistrusted and often attacked. Indeed, throughout the book, her beauty is shown at a detriment to her and to others, and it’s only her humility that makes people warm to her, reminding the reader of the central concept of the dichotomy between inner beauty and outer attractiveness.
It’s this dichotomy that Fire is trying to overcome as she battles against the reputation of her beautiful, cruel and whimsical father, who used to control the old King and thereby the kingdom. Now, the kingdom is on the brink of war as the new king and his brother, the Commander of the Army, are trying to keep their people safe against the opportunistic aggression of two old enemies. Again, nothing new, but instead of building on the clichés, the book doesn’t go further than stating them. While the characters of the Nash, the King, and Brigan, his brother, are sketched sympathetically and fully, I never managed to comprehend why war is about to occur nor who these sketchy enemies really are. A little more world building in terms of the history and politics would have served the book better, and this is probably the biggest issue I have with Fire. The characters are nicely realised but the world remains problematically vague. There is a distinct lack of tension and vulnerability from the outside world, as opposed to Fire’s inner conflict, and the book would have benefitted from added political tension.
The one other sour note of the book involves a child: the opening prologue depicts a ‘Graceling’, a child with odd eyes who also has the power to control people’s minds. Popping up again towards the end of the book, I couldn’t help but feel that this character is there presumably only to become the big bad for the series. While he succeeds in hurting Fire, she is obviously much stronger than he is, so it seems strange that Fire doesn’t kill him on sight. Given that a good portion of the book centres on her decision to use her powers for good, which somehow involves assassination (history is written by the victors – I found myself thinking that while this makes Fire less monstrous to her friends, her enemies’ people now surely hate her), this seems like an awkward plot point generated just to further the next instalment.
However, one of the things about this book that I really appreciated was Cashore’s use of sex, sexual violence and progeny. There’s a particularly nice passage where Cashore acknowledges that because Fire is female, much of the violence used against her is sexual in nature, and this is an issue facing all women, not just beautiful ones - but don’t think that Fire is full of rape. Fire’s sex, consensual or otherwise, is off-screen or in the past and so this book never squicked me in the way, say, George R.R. Martin can through his repetitive use of rape as a weapon against women. And the romance was neither forced nor off-putting – in fact, it did the excellent job of making me want the main characters to hurry up and declare their love for each other because I firmly wanted fire to be happy – something which to me is the mark of a good romance. One of the strongest character developments for Fire is her growing longing for children which clashes with her determination never to bring another monster into the world. It’s heart-breaking; the battle between practical and emotional, and the fear and hope inherent in the promise of children is wonderfully realised.
The entire book is elegantly paced, and there’s something refreshing about Fire as a character that sets her apart from other beautiful, talented characters. There are themes of identity, paternity, family and inheritance that are allowed to grow to fruition without feeling forced, and when the twists occur, they shed light on the character in a way that makes you reassess what you thought of them previously – in short, they do what a good twist should do.
If you are looking for your next epic fantasy with romance and a female protagonist, I would heartily recommend Fire, despite the obligatory cover quote comparing it to Twilight. This is a far more mature book than I expected, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Lizzie is the current publicity officer for the British Fantasy Society and lives in London with her fiancé and three cats. She prefers fantasy books and sci-fi films, which you can argue with her about on Twitter at @alittlebriton. She believes books to be a viable form of currency.