Review of FIRE by KRISTIN CASHORE
It blows my mind how much I love this book! Cashore’s approach to her premises seems so simplistic but I consider her works modern masterpieces. She exaggerates her protagonists to the point that the hyperbole could be tacky but her stories are so beautifully written that instead the exaggeration illuminates some of the most frustrating paradoxes of femininity.
In Cashore’s first book GRACELING, Katsa had impossible strength - no man, possibly no army, in the world could physically overcome her. In this book, Fire, the title’s namesake, possesses such phenomenal beauty that it drives bystanders to madness. By crude definition, Fire is the quintessential Mary Sue character, so beautiful and impossibly perfect that every man wants her or wants to kill her for not being able to possess her and every woman wants to be her or at least be her best friend and devote their entire self to her happiness. Of course, most authors use this staple unintentionally, but Cashore’s in-depth exploration of such a character and deconstruction of the Mary Sue myth suggests a deliberate choice rather than a naïve accident.
For starters, there’s an intriguing magical explanation for Fire’s gift/curse. She’s a monster. In this world, the term “monster” refers to creatures that resemble normal animals/humans except for bright, unusual coloring. (For example, a purple lion.) Monsters also possess the ability to control minds, which might tie in to the fact that everyone perceives them as magnificently beautiful and irresistible. Predator monsters can use this to their advantage since weaker minds will happily walk right into their claws/talons/teeth, smiling until their death.
Fire is the last human monster and it’s a painful existence. She lives more or less in hiding since other people turn unpredictable around her. Even her relationships with those she trusts are complicated by her nature. As a sidenote, I admired the complexity of her relationship with Archer, a childhood friend turned lover. If forced at gunpoint to find fault with GRACELING, my one complaint would be that the male love interest, Po, is too perfect and arguably even stuffs men into the same boxes from which Katsa liberates women. So I found Fire’s convoluted, sometimes hurtful relationship with Archer satisfyingly different.
Since I’ve mentioned how everyone reacts to Fire’s beauty, I should add that Cashore doesn’t actually describe Fire’s appearance very much at all. We know she has unnaturally bright red hair that marks her as a monster, hair that she usually covers in the hopes of prolonging the reactions. Other than that, Cashore doesn’t tell us exactly what such an incredibly beautiful woman looks like. It’s not the point of the story. Besides, as I suggested above, it’s possible Fire’s perceived beauty is a side effect of her mind control powers.
As is typical with Mary Sue characters, Fire’s very much the center of attention. It’s amusing to count the number of times men propose to her in this book, especially when you consider the instances when those men are strangers. Fights break out when she walks through a group of men. Even gay men are drawn to her, if not sexually. Women want to serve her, be her friend, look out for her. What lifts this story above egotistical vicarious living is Fire’s reaction. She loathes this attention. How is she to separate the people who care for her - Fire - from the people enchanted by her monster form? Dozens of men may claim to be in love with her, but perhaps none of them are, certainly not the strangers who run up at first sight declaring love. She might have plenty of friends, but she battles the possibility that she has no true friends, only flies in the web she doesn’t mean to spin.
FIRE is loosely set in the same universe as GRACELING, but you can easily read them out of order or read one without the other. The worlds are quite different and honestly my only annoyance with FIRE is the small connection between the two books. They’re linked by a villain who added little to this particular book and by some geography that didn’t make any sense to me. My one grumble aside, FIRE is one of the most amazing books I’ve read in my life and - sorry for the gushing - I’m awed.