Sit down. Buckle up. Brace yourself. Full Disclosure: what you are about to read is decidedly chauvinist, sexist, racist (concerning monsters and humans) bigoted and--worst of all--occasionally whiny. Gale force winds and hurricane strength destructive powers BEHOLD! I bring the fucking rain; thunder storms and floods; no scattered showers here!
I have no idea what this book is about. I read all of it. I even took notes, only I'm not sure anything actually happened with enough regularity to be collectively put together and called a plot. The novel's title character lives in The Dells a continent east of the seven kingdoms setting seen in Graceling, Cashore's exceptional first novel, and--rather inexplicably--there are humans but no gracelings in The Dells. Additionally there are monsters. There is a monster counterpart to every part of animal life, even humans. Monster birds of prey, fish, insects and Fire herself--the last known human monster--are marked by color. Whereas a regular ass falcon may be brown a monstrous one would be bright yellow or mauve. Fire is marked by her hair which is blood red; not regular ass red, ginger, auburn or orange, but straight up monstrous fire-engine red with an occasional streak of pink and some other unnatural coloration.
Other than color what makes monsters different is the allure they have to all other life. They are beautiful to look at and an unwary mind would yearn to view a monstrous lion for its color and attraction completely ignorant to the fact that said lion is about to tear them a new asshole. Monsters, to varying degrees of mental capacity, have the power of mind control over anyone weaker than them. Human monsters are extremely dangerous. This monster power was a bit of a let down for me as it so closely mirror powers that had already been developed in Graceling, furthermore, as the novel progresses we see that one doesn't even have to be a monster to possess this power; almost as if regular ass people can train for it.
The story consist of the three primary powers in The Dells and their attempts to gain complete control of the land. There are lots of armies, horses with terrible names, (Big, Small, and Horse; and no I'm not making those up) and some nearly insufferable to read politicking for power and assassination attempts that would make the Corleone and Soprano families laugh themselves to death. Military fiction and intrigue aren't particular strengths; that said they weren't dwelt on too much. There is gonna be a throw down by these three powers but my saying that is about as tense as matters ever get. Fire, with her ability to read peoples minds, is wanted for the war effort to influence the enemies choices and extract information that could prove valuable. That's it for the story.
There is nothing wrong with novels that work with little to no material, the author elevates the level of difficulty in doing so, but it's certainly been done many times before. (Earlier this year I read and loved John Fowles Daniel Martin, and I'm not sure it had any plot at all.) If current events are stagnant then the characters need to be super interesting, in conflict with each other and make me care about them as the setting in Fire is as interesting as a railroad tie. Setting being what it is the characters have a lot of weight to pull: they scored a -1.6 with a bellyflop from the platform diving board of fail.
Fire's casual sexmate--she would never have you believe him a boyfriend--is a whore; I don't say this as a bad thing, Cashore doesn't belittle him in his lifestyle choices either. His name is Archer. For the sake of nomenclature alone I was very pleased he didn't own a horse... Fire doesn't mind that Archer gets around and apparently can knock up anyone with one shot. She is a ho too but isn't worried about pregnancy because as we saw in Graceling there is a morning after milkshake in this world to take care of that. Later we see there is also a 'Oh shit I'm into my first trimester pill' as well as the ultimate SHABOOM the 'take-once-by-mouth-in-the-course-of-your-life-infertility-drug.' Pretty hardcore for secondary world medieval-ish fantasy. Considering all the contraceptives it's a bit funny the frequency that people get pregnant and are genuinely surprised. In short there are no consequences of any sort for having sex; at any age (Fire is sixteen or seventeen or somewhere around there); with anyone. If you've read both Fire and Graceling we can begin to piece together some of what are probably views of the author concerning marriage, relationships, and pregnancy. All of which make me scratch my head and hope my supposition is wrong.
While the landscape is potentially set for epic sexual exploits there is no romantic intrigue either: it's easy to tell who will hook up with who and that if Archer stares at a woman too long she'll sneeze and on the next page there will be twins.
Fire's primary personality trait--her defining characteristic--is her period. Monsters hold an allure over all other life and predatory monsters love nothing more than monster flesh and like a shark detecting blood in the water Fire's period has mountain lions jumping off cliffs to get a piece of her ass. Raptors dive bomb her routinely and nearly fall out of the sky to risk a piece of her goodies. Her period, excuse me, the author never says, period, cycle, or "Aunt Flo in town for a visit" Fire's 'bleeding,' for this is the only way it is ever referenced, somewhat heightens her powers of attraction and allure, which--at least to me--was all kinds a creepy. Added to which, Fire is cursed with the most frequent and epochally awful 'bleeding' that any woman ever has ever been subjected to since the history of ever. Considering the poor girl is 'bleeding' on damn near every page we have to assume that her period takes up a week out of every month (possible), or that she bleeds once a week for at least three days (this is Cashore's world not mine). Whatever the case may be I was having headaches, anticipating anxiety, and stomach cramps watching the character--who by the way, I never did care for--near hemorrhage to death every page.
The real problem with Fire's monster powers isn't them being heightened by her incessant bleeding (I've resisted using so many awful, classless metaphors in this sentence that I'm proud of myself) rather it's the fact that her presence can incite a riot and move one to rape her at any time. Fire can be out taking a walk and if her hair is uncovered--this is apparently the only way one knows she's a monster--people will approach her with strong feelings. Some just want to touch her in some undefined state of awe, others want to do her harm, for reasons I was never made to understand, others still were moved toward the most heinous acts of sexual assault. To be blunt, some wanted to say, 'You're beautiful' and nothing more. Some wanted to stab her in the neck with a cookie. Some wanted to rape her in broad day light even if their mother was in the room. Fire is supposed to have to carry the burden of being able to induce the full range of all human emotions with her at all times, but it was more communicated as 'All men are asshats.' Not to say that's not true but damn...
"Why did hatred so often make men think of rape? And there was the flaw in her monster power. As often as the power of her beauty made one man easy to control, it made another man uncontrollable and mad.
A monster drew out all that was vile, especially a female monster, because of the desire, and the endless perverted channels for the expression of malice. With all weak men, the sight of her was a drug to their minds. What man could use hate or love well when he was drugged?' Page 145
What the hell does any of that mean? If you replace 'monster' with 'super hot chick' does it read the same? If so can we get a stronger premise for this book? Sorry for the repetition but again, What does the above mean?
The status of women being elevated over men was anything but subtle. We learn about Fire's father, also a monster. He had depth. He had expression. In short he was interesting and in possession of conflict. But we quickly see that all life--human or monster--is harder for a women because Fire is a woman and her life is hard, and she is the last of her kind, and she's supermodel hot, and has these colossal bleeding sessions and there was so much hollow, vapid testosterone suppression that I wanted to inject the book with HGH, TRT packets, and whatever Lance Armstrong has been doping with. Strong male influence is the worst idea ever in this book. Don't get me started on Fire's guard that helps keep the rapist, would-be lovers, and raptors away. Women, and girls (some as old as fifteen) hold every position that men do. In politics, professions, military... testosterone doesn't exist in this world. A military fantasy world.... (it sure as hell did exist in Graceling) So we've got girls who want to fight, and protect and die for their country and they're fifteen and been trained to handle a weapon. The enemy has thirty-five year old men who are known as 'Grown-ass Adults' and have received equal or possibly even less training but it's gonna be a totally fair fist fight because Andre the Giant is a wuss and Miley Cyrus could totally take him. I know I'm complaining as if someone forced me to read this book but is it too much to ask for a little realism in my escapist fantasy? The only difference in soldiers is that women can get pregnant--if they are ignorant to the fact there are two million and eighteen of ways out of having a child in this world--and that makes them more sympathetic or something.
While there are plenty of other characters in the book none of them come to center stage. Not Archer, not Brigan, Fire's other man (told you she was a ho) not Nash, Brigan's brother who is hardcore wanting to hit that monster-ho, not even the memory of Fire's father. Leck--Mad King Leck from Graceling is in this book--can't get fifteen minutes of shine. LECK! The most obscenely awesome bad guy I've ever come across and he never gets a moment. He feels tacked on and forced; as if the editors said, 'Work Leck into this so we can say the book is related to Graceling in our advertising.' A quick few pages in the beginning and a blah mention in the end: done. I'm actually glad Leck was relegated to 'nobody' statues. I think it's awesome the author didn't want to tell the same story twice. I'm even more excited to read Bitterblue knowing that the title implies it won't be about a graceling, or a monster, rather just a regular ass person, but no matter the nature of your character they have to have some strong sense of conflict. Katsa wasn't awesome because she was graced and could whup ass; she was interesting because she had problems, flaws and real conflicts people could identify with; not to mention Po to play off of. Daniel Martin was a douchebag for more pages than I can remember. That's why I had to know what happened next! Fire is... she's... she's about as insubstantial as air stapled to dirt and only twice as interesting; which is to say she don't have much going for her. She doesn't only need someone else to play off of (ah... let's see... Leck would have been too perfect of a choice...) she needs more to her person to capture and hold reader interest.
So we've got this super hot monster who can read minds and influence people's decision and a three way war brewing that seems to be about as intense as that middle school hand-slapping game and the only thing Fire can bring herself to do with her powers is ease the mental suffering, and to some degree the physical suffering, of wounded soldiers. This is all very useful and noble but in storytelling terms kinda felt like a missed opportunity. Her version of easing the dyeing's suffering is a lot more boring than Jack Kevorkian's story.
A bunch of people have sex, there's a playground scuffle masquerading as a war, and by the book's end a lot of people are dead and everyone else is crying. Only it's very difficult to get wrapped up in any of these matters as there was never an infrastructure in place to support my getting attached to story events let alone attachment strong enough to merit anything but tears of frustration. I was so hopelessly lost in the middle of this book in trying to figure out what was going on and why I was supposed to care that I started hoping that Beetlejuice would pop out of nowhere, start cracking bad jokes, and curb-stomping people into dust because at that specific moment Beetlejuice's wrath was the only thing that would have made sense to me.
If I had to guess Graceling, felt like it were written by the author and for the author and it was awesome then she shared it with a bunch of people who told her she was awesome and in writing Fire that awareness of how awesome she is changed the nature of her writing. While I only wish I could be that fortunate in this case the different state of mind did nothing to enhance Fire. Fire was a hot mess: a wet, bleeding morass; an uncomfortable quagmire of what's going on here and why is it happening to me. In reading the book I felt a conscious effort on the author's part perhaps not to impress but to come across as more sophisticated or somehow more polished since her first novel. The best example of inflicting pain while trying to impress came early in the novel and set the tone for everything to come after. "She stretched onto her toes to kiss his cheek, but he intercepted her and began to kiss her mouth, gently. She let him, for just a moment. Then she extricated herself and left the room." Page 60 I winced at 'intercepted' and closed the book at 'extricated.' Pull away; break away; stop kissing the guy. Anything, but please don't extricate yourself from a kiss.
Cashore is a bit of hottie and I can admit after reading Graceling and liking it as much as I did that I'm more than a bit in love with her. Don't let the proceeding alter how you perceive my feelings for Graceling: it's just that good. With my biases feelings in mind apply ardent weight to my thoughts on Fire: Pass on this one. Sorry for being so long winded but I couldn't just say I was angry when reading this book because 'horse' was used as a name for a horse and the word extricate almost brought about a seizure. As far as my therapy goes, I feel better in getting all this out of my system. Wait for it...