Last year at DragonCon, I sat in on a panel run by the Young Adult Literature track that focused on strong female protagonists in YA lit, and I came out of it with a list of authors and novels to check out. Among them was Kristin Cashore’s debut novel, Graceling. Months later, when I finally remembered that list of recommended reads and gave Graceling a chance, I kicked myself for not reading it immediately. I fell in love with the world Cashore created, with the strength and vulnerability of her protagonist, and with her writing in general. I was delighted when I learned that Cashore had written a companion story titled Fire, and immediately bought a copy. Fire shares with Graceling the larger world, though it is set in a kingdom that is separate from those featured in the previous novel. Fire also shares one character–who I won’t spoil–with the other novel. Set before the events of Graceling, Fire stands alone as its own story, so you can read either book first.
In The Dells, it is dangerous for anyone to travel the roads without an armed escort of at least six, rebels are building armies against the king, and monsters–terribly beautiful creatures that can capture a human’s mind–roam the wilds. It is in this place that Fire, the protagonist, lives. She is the last of her kind, a human monster. Being a monster means that her mere presence can overwhelm a weak human mind, and she can, with concentration, control the minds of those around her. She is loved, feared, and hated because of what she is. The populace of The Dells know well the damage she is capable of: her father had been the monster advisor of the late King, and the two men had driven the kingdom into the ground, both men known for their excesses and her father especially known for his cruelty. When we meet Fire she is living in the shadow of her father’s brutal and frightening legacy, maintaining a quiet life in the remote holding where she has grown up.
Fire is desperate not to become her father. She keeps herself covered to avoid influencing others with her appearance, lives in relative isolation, and uses her ability to affect and control the minds of others sparingly. Fire’s desire to stay out of the politics of the realm, to remain out of the public eye, is pushed aside when King Nash sends his brother, Lord Brigan, to bring her to the royal family. They want her to use her ability to help them uncover plots against the king. Fire must make a choice. Does she embrace the power she inherited from her father, who had so horribly abused it?
It is for Fire as it for many of us: only in leaving the comfort of home, in taking a risk in moving forward, and stretching her ability as she never has before, can she grow into herself. As she spends time with the royal family, four siblings who also live in the shadow of their father’s dark legacy, she begins to understand that she is not required to follow in the footsteps of her father. She sees them struggle to keep the kingdom in one piece, to work past the damage their father the king and her father the monster advisor inflicted. “Not all daughters were like their fathers,” she realizes. “A daughter monster chose the monster she would be.” It is a turning point for Fire and, of course, for those around her.
Reading Fire is reading the best kind of coming-of-age story. The world is richly described, the characters are accessible, and Fire is a complex and mutli-faceted protagonist who at turns made me cheer and made me cry, and I quite literally chewed my nails in anxiety at points in Fire’s journey. It’s a beautiful tale, one I’m glad to have read. Now go read it.
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