Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Review: Fire by Kristen Cashore

Finished: October 11, 2011

Synopsis: Beautiful creatures called monsters live in the Dells. Monsters have the shape of normal animals: mountain lions, dragonflies, horses, fish. But the hair or scales or feathers of monsters are gorgeously colored— fuchsia, turquoise, sparkly bronze, iridescent green— and their minds have the power to control the minds of humans. Seventeen-year-old Fire is the last remaining human-shaped monster in the Dells. Gorgeously monstrous in body and mind but with a human appreciation of right and wrong, she is hated and mistrusted by just about everyone, and this book is her story. [via goodreads]

Thoughts: “Very old and very kind and the very, very last.”

Let me start by saying how much I really adored Fire as a character, and prepare you for my fierce determination to protect her character from all of those who might miss the big picture and call her weak. Above all other things Fire is very much one thing, and this one thing is more important than all other things, Fire is kind. Even when she has to do things she’d prefer not to, that may hurt people who need hurting, she is capable of unending compassion. This is all made rather more important when you consider the fact that Fire is actually a human “monster” capable of bending the minds of others to her will, and with a beauty that ensnares all creatures.

But first, before I get too deep into thoughts about her character, let’s talk about the story.

Unlike Graceling, Fire’s companion novel, this story gripped me from the very start. It was filled with twists and turns but nothing felt forced. The pacing may have been a little weird, which is something I noticed in Graceling as well. Cashore tends to start up slowly, get to the “big” scenes too quickly, and the story does tend to lag a little bit after that point. That wasn’t much of a problem for me with this book, because I’d grown attached to Fire, and didn’t want it to end. The scenes of her in the purple dress were some of my particular favorites. I don’t agree that this story is all that much slower than Graceling’s. In the end the books had a similar pace. For those of you who didn’t like Leck in Graceling (aka: me) and were put off by the possibility that he might be a major focus in this book: don’t worry! He’s not. There is just enough Leck in this story, in my opinion, and it was a very neat tie-in to Graceling.

I really loved all of the underlying issues Cashore has managed to throw into this story. The fact that some men do not even attempt to control themselves or their minds when viewing Fire, is pretty much something women all over have to face every day, even if it’s on a lesser scale. We are too often seen as meat put out for appraisal. Some days I just want to pump my gas at the gas station or go to the store for paper towels, without being stared at and treated to a chorus of “Hey girl! HEY GIRL! HEY GIRL! C’mon girl, look at me, what’s your number?” The problem is that people come to see beauty as something offered to them, as a sign that something is owed to them. It’s not. Fire experiences this in her story as well, on a much worse, and larger scale.

The romance in this book was perfection. It developed slowly and felt entirely real because of this. The romance in a book is something authors so often get wrong for me, which is one reason I liked this book so much. The characters were not always saving each other but relied upon each other for understanding and emotional support, that felt entirely genuine. The love that slowly developed did not keep either character from developing individually, or prevent them from playing parts in the story outside of their romance.

Now for some discussion on Fire’s character and the endless comparisons of Fire to Katsa that I’ve seen in several other reviews.

The general consensus of those that disliked this book seems to be that Katsa was tough while Fire was considerably less so. Why is Katsa’s outer strength valued higher than Fire’s inner strength? When did displaying emotion become a sign of weakness? Fire doesn’t rely on anyone to save her. Sometimes she breaks and needs a helping hand. Don’t we all? But ultimately she does what needs to be done; she is brave, despite not being graced with survival. She has the courage for kindness and compassion. She is fiercely loyal and relies upon her inner strength much of the time. She’s had to do terrible things in the name of her Kingdom and for the greater good and carries that weight with her always. Sometimes she struggles under that weight; isn’t that just so infuriatingly human of her?

Fire may not be able to wrestle a mountain lion and kill it with her bare hands - but she’d certainly try if it were going to save someone’s life. I’m tired of kindness being undervalued. I’m tired of too much compassion being seen as weak. I’m tired of protagonists being looked down upon as “whiny” for daring to express emotion about anything. I’m tired of the fact that to be respected as a woman in books these days you must shrug off emotion and appear always tough and composed. Sometimes you also must reject motherhood and never rely too much on another human being; especially if that human being happens to be a male love interest. Sure, no one likes a perpetual damsel in distress, but that is so far from what Fire is and represents that I have a hard time comprehending any argument choosing to call her such.

Fire does not reject femininity as much as Katsa. She also longs for a child. Again, this is not weak. I respect Fire’s desire to have a child the same as I respected Katsa’s desire not to; neither is less of a character in my eyes for their choice. It grows tiring to see women saying things like:

“Not that there’s anything wrong with a woman choosing _____ but I feel that if the author were going to write an empowered female she would have written her differently.”

The above is nothing but implying that what one woman chooses to be in life is less of an example of a strong woman than the other option, and trying to hide the fact of what you’re really saying, which is that your opinion of what a woman is and should be is superior even if you claim to believe in us all having a choice.

Where Katsa ran her horses into the ground without a second thought; Fire is kind to animals and cries when she’s caused her horse to be injured. She sleeps in the barn with her horse and treats him as a true companion. This was a relief to me because my only major complaint with Katsa was her treatment of her horses. Yet another sign of kindness and a willingness to care that in no way makes Fire a weak character. Quite the opposite actually.

Another thing that has really bugged me in other reviews is that people seem to be pushing their own personal beliefs on to a character who was never going to share their views. Fire isn’t running around having casual sex with everyone she meets, but so what if she was? It’s her body and not anyone’s to police. I think people need to take their own narrow world views out of the picture when they read a book. The sexual bits of this book were hardly explicit and I don’t see why this would not be considered acceptable for a YA audience. You know that teaching abstinence only education and pretending that teenagers cannot possibly be mature enough to read details about sex is quite likely the reason that so many young adults end up pregnant, right? I wish people would stop policing other woman’s bodies and choices; both in the real world and in the fictional.

And for those angry about certain things that may have been alluded to in Fire’s past. You can say you don’t have a problem with lesbians all that you want but when you call an author’s choice to use a character, who is perhaps not heteronormative, in their writing a problem; then you are a bigot. Plain and simple. There need to be more positive LBGT role models in fiction, not less.

I will just end this review by saying that I think Fire is a Hufflepuff if I ever saw one. Helga would be proud.


Five out of Five Coffees


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