Graceling. You could read them out of order, but my advice is to read them all, and to do it in the order they were published. Once you read them all, you will see how three books that stand alone well, are actually quite cohesive.
The story takes place in the Dells, a land geographically separated from the original kingdoms by a set of mountains. As a result, the people from the Dells don’t know about the kingdoms and there are no gracelings. Instead, they have monsters. These creatures resemble regular animals, but have colorful appearances and are unnaturally appealing, in fact, they use that appeal to enthrall and lure their victims. Monsters crave other monsters and become ravenous in their presence, especially if they can smell blood. Worse, animals are not the only creatures that have a monster equivalent, humans also come in that form --albeit rarely-- and Fire, our heroine, is the last one of them.
Fire’s father, another monster, used to be the king’s advisor and right hand. Because human monsters can read and manipulate minds, he had control over everything and everyone, the king included. He died a few years ago, but what he did remains fresh in collective memory of the Dells, not to mention that the kingdom is in chaos in part because of his terrible influence. To Fire, being a monster is a curse, and the memory of a father who was absent most of the time, but loving a caring when he was with her, is a burden and a terrible source of guilt, because it clashes with all the evil things he did. So she hides, and lives an unassuming, quiet life, never using her powers. That is, until the new King asks (more like demands) her help. And so Fire’s adventure begins.
The type of events that develop in this book are more about political intrigue to prevent war and chaos, than about the main character’s journey, which is a bit secondary to everything else. It’s not supposed to be like that, and Fire’s story is complex enough to warrant our full attention, but the overall plot overshadows her, something that reflects poorly on her. Fire is a bit adrift throughout the story, and as much as I enjoyed the book, the fact that everything seemed to happen to her instead of making things happen, left me with a sense of missed opportunities.
Fire spends the whole time being passive, and sacrificing herself out of the same sense of guilt that plagues her. I didn’t like her that much, but I loved her relationship with her father. He found her fascinating (and how much of it was love or monster appeal, is never clear), and in the few moments they shared, he was loving and caring. But early on, Fire became aware of his true self, so she both loved and hated him. That love gives her an almost unbearable guilt, because how can she feel that way for someone who was truly a monster?
Perhaps one of the reasons why I’m tempted to nitpick is because I couldn’t help but compare it to Graceling (which I probably shouldn’t do). Both books are quite different, but Katsa and Fire share the same feeling of being cursed by their unwanted graces and powers. But Katsa comes to terms with her situation, embraces her grace and uses it to make a difference. Whereas Fire does nothing but regret her fate. Of course, Katsa didn’t have the same baggage, yet it was impossible for me not to feel like Katsa was a better heroine.
I feel like Ms. Cashore was trying to portray a fairytale princess with a twist. So instead of being rescued by the prince, or in this case the general, Fire rescues herself. And in some ways she does succeed, but overall falls short.
Then there’s a secondary storyline featuring a character whose only purpose was to tie the books in the series together. At first I thought it was only a wink to certain developments in Graceling, but having read Bitterblue, I now understand why the plot was included. The problem is that it does nothing in this book, and because I’m judging it individually and not the series as a whole, I thought it was the one element in which Ms. Cashore missed her mark.
However, Ms. Cashore at her worst is still pretty good, and the fascinating world she has created continues to amaze me. The secondary characters were interesting, and the different relationship that developed between them and Fire, were nuanced. The story also has plenty of twist and turns that ultimately kept me glued to my seat. And because I know you’re wondering, there’s a sweet romance, a bit predictable, but appealing nonetheless. The book is far from perfect, but it has plenty of elements that make it worth reading, the most important being how wonderful a storyteller the author is, and that you would be missing out on something great if you decided to bypass it.
Review by Brie
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 had 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.
Fire (A Companion to Graceling) by Kristin Cashore
Dial. October 5, 2009