Kristin Cashore's debut Graceling (2008) was not the sort of book I would normally pick up off the shelves. (Luckily, it was sent to me for review.) Not least because the UK cover made it look like an uneasy mix of empowerment and exploitation: the heroine is garbed in sleeveless leather (while a frozen lake melts, unstably, around her feet), her impractically loose hair whipping around her face and an improbably long—but apparently not that sharp—sword resting on her shoulder. (Oh, and she's backlit, so that we get a sense of her curves, but not her face.)
Like many readers of my generation, I enjoy a good kick-arse heroine, but all too often the strength of the character seems to disempower everyone around her. Such a heroine is the exception; she is strong because she has been endowed with special powers by an outside agency, and she offers little hope to any woman not similarly blessed. On one level, this is a problem inherent in superheroes of any gender, and one that has not gone undeconstructed over the years: they make every conflict reducible to fists (or magic); they save the day, but in doing so they make the saved dependent upon them, for security and even for morality. Above all, they leave the status quo resolutely untroubled: rarely do they help anyone to help themselves, or to take responsibility for their own lives.
Graceling was a revelation in this regard. It centres on Katsa, a young woman with a superpower—or Grace, in the book's terminology. A Grace, signalled by the differently-coloured eyes of its wielder, is "a particular skill far surpassing the capability of a normal human being" (p. 4), and can take many forms: breadmaking, archery, persuasion, climbing. Katsa's Grace manifests as superior combat reflexes and strength; but she is not uncomplicatedly kick-arse. With remarkable simplicity and lucidity, Graceling explores the intersection between her power and the powerlessness of her social position, as both a woman and a subject of a tyrannical ruler. Far from liberating her, Katsa's Grace only heightens her lack of power over her own life, because it renders her will subservient to her king's, whom she is obliged by the law of the land to serve. She becomes a thug and enforcer for a man she grows up to despise: a "bad guy" under any conventional rubric, but one with the weight of tradition, vast material resources, and political and social capital on his side.
Katsa's story proves to be less about kicking arse, and more about the long-term limitations of kicking arse for forging a path through the world, especially in the absence of qualities like brains and empathy. She learns the value of self-control and self-reliance, to trust others without being entirely dependent on them, and to share her skills and her strength with others rather than always stepping in for them. (In other words, she becomes an adult.) She also has a surprisingly appealing romance founded on mutuality and companionship, which Cashore doesn't feel the need to resolve with a wedding.
It was fun and sweet and smart, and I was completely won over.
Cashore now returns with Fire, a prequel to Graceling set in a different part of the fantasy world, the Dells, dealing with a (mostly) new cast of characters, and with a (slightly) better UK cover. The protagonist this time round is Fire, a young woman with "monster" ancestry. Being a monster, in her isolated land, has some similarities with being Graced, in that it entails a natural quality exaggerated to unnatural levels, and is generally exercised unwittingly long before the individual concerned learns to take control of it. Unlike Graces, however, monsterhood does not strike randomly, but is passed down from parent to offspring. Nor does it take many forms, but rather presents as variations upon a core power: mesmerising attractiveness, so strong it can cause the unprepared to lose all sense and reason. The power appears in animals (notably predators, for obvious reasons) and, much more rarely, in humans; and it makes Fire's life a misery at every turn. It has both a mental dimension—empathy, telepathy, compulsion—and a physical one. She has a degree of control over the mental powers, and thus avoids using them, but her physicality can only ever be imperfectly masked, as exemplified by her hair:
[Fire's] scarf slipped off and released the shimmering prism of her hair: sunrise, poppy, copper, fuchsia, flame. Red, brighter than the blood soaking the pathway. (p. 25)
Monsters are surpassingly beautiful. (They are beautiful even to themselves; we are told of Fire: "Generally she avoided mirrors. It embarrassed her to lose her own breath at the sight of herself" [p. 29]) A monster can exploit the effects of this beauty—as do the maneating raptors that haunt the skies above the Dells, and as Fire's late father, all-powerful royal "adviser" Cansrel, did—but it is also a source of considerable danger to them. A few stray strands of her hair can draw unwanted human attention, and much more than that, in the open air, draws down raptor attacks. Hence the book's cover only being a slight improvement over that of Graceling; it's hard to imagine Fire standing so casually on a hilltop with her hair exposed. Indeed, she lives on a secluded country estate, surrounded by her adoptive family and a small number of carefully chosen guards, and even so she has to swaddle herself in concealing clothes when she rides out, and be constantly on her guard:
She had a dagger scar on one forearm, another on her belly. An arrow gouge from years ago on her back. It was a thing that happened now and then. For every peaceful man, there was a man who wanted to hurt her, even kill her, because she was a gorgeous thing he could not have, or because he'd despised her father. And for every attack that had left a scar there were five or six other attacks she'd managed to stop. (p. 31)
All-pervasive male entitlement reducing women from thinking, feeling human beings to symbols and "things", because their freedom threatens men's egos: the analogy is clear, particularly when we see Fire unable to help blaming herself for the attacks ("I should have known playing it would be provoking," she says, despairingly, after her beloved violin is smashed [p. 143]). Cashore is clear that the problem of monsterhood is more acute for Fire because she is a woman, and—even in an invented world that is relatively egalitarian by the genre's standards—female beauty, or more precisely breathing in and out while being female, is so often viewed as a provocation, and met with aggression. When she travels to the capital, the new king, Nash, repeatedly becomes violent at the sight of her; these scenes are unsettling, but they work as an exaggerated version of the privilege and impunity of male royals when faced with something they feel should be theirs. Others at the court are surprised by Fire's caution:
"Interesting," Clara said. "Cansrel never covered his hair."
Well, and Cansrel had loved attention, Fire thought to herself dryly. More to the point, he had been a man. Cansrel had not had her problems. (p. 181)
But it is also a problem for her, as Fire's thoughts indicate, because Fire is not her father, who used his power with decadent abandon and huge ambition, to dominate a king and exploit a kingdom's resources for his own ends. Fire's attitude to her beauty is conflicted, in large part because of her upbringing. After she was born—to a woman callously seduced—Cansrel had Fire sent away from the royal court so that she would not be a target, or a tool, for his enemies. She is brought up by a disgraced former general, Brocker, who has the mental tenacity to resist Fire's unconscious control, and the moral compass to teach her different values. Cansrel, until his death two years before the story begins, is like the glamorously absent parent after a divorce, visiting occasionally (in "brassy, gorgeous, dissolute invasions of her quiet life" [p. 53]) to undermine Brocker's efforts with presents and offer Fire a licence to misbehave:
Her other father was luminous and brilliant and, in those earlier years, happy almost all the time. […] "What has Brocker been teaching you?" he'd ask in a voice smooth as chocolate. "Have you been practicing using the power of your mind against the servants? The neighbours? The horses and dogs? It's right that you should do so, Fire. It's right and it's your right, because you're my beautiful child, and beauty has rights that plainness never will." (p. 50)
Like Katsa in Graceling, Fire's story is about becoming comfortable with herself and her power, and finding ways to use it constructively, rather than at the expense—whether the intent is positive or negative—of others' autonomy and responsibility. When we first meet her she has a fervent but inchoate sense of this; she refuses even to use her power for anything but the most limited (and often inadequate) self-defence, because she is so appalled by the harm she can do with it: "Taking someone's very mind and changing it is a trespass. A violence. […] I'm capable of so many horrors," she tells one character (p. 218). But it is not until she goes out into the adult world, and begins to test (and refine) the morality of her childhood against the demands of that world, that she truly begins to learn how to use her power without abusing it, and in ways (like easing the suffering of dying soldiers) that seem to her to justify its existence. She discovers that she has something to contribute, and that she can break the mould of her father—"I'm not Cansrel; at every step on this path I create myself" (p. 222). She learns this—once again like Katsa—not because her position as a superhero makes her an arbiter of right and wrong, but because she understands what it is like to be abused, and powerless.
Having people around her whom she trusts and respects—and loves—also helps, of course. At home, she has her adoptive father, and his son Archer, with whom she has a casual relationship that he longs to make more serious. The book's treatment of Archer is a prime example of its emotional maturity and its generosity of spirit towards its characters. It would be easy for Archer to become a one-dimensional minor villain, obsessed as he is with protecting Fire even to the extent of limiting her freedom and looking with aggressive suspicion at every man who comes near her. But Cashore—through Fire's preternatural empathy—acknowledges that Archer's attitude, while so unreasonable and stifling that Fire rightly chooses to end their relationship, stems from his genuine, ever-present fear for her safety ("it was Archer's fear that made his love so hard to bear [… He] always held her too near. Because he was afraid of her dying" [p. 255]).
As she moves into the adult world, however, she meets people who are more willing to treat her like an adult who is capable of making her own decisions: asking for help when she needs it, and refusing it when she chooses to. The main figure here is the king's brother, Brigan, with whom she hits it off so badly on their first meeting that you'd have to be blind not to spot the inevitable romance blossoming in their future. Thanks to mental barriers cultivated in response to her father's reign of terror at court, Brigan is not bowled over by her beauty, or susceptible to her mind-reading. This makes him a mystery to Fire, someone she has to work at understanding: "When had she ever had to judge a person by words alone? She had no formula for understanding a person like him, for he was the only one she'd ever met" (pp. 164-5).
It also means that he—alone of everyone Fire has ever met—gets to know her as a person, rather than as a beautiful object. It ought to be too soppy for words, and yet somehow it all feels earned and uplifting, and fun.
(And once again, I am quite won over.)
Unlike Archer, or indeed anyone else, Brigan does not suffocate Fire for her own protection, trusting her to make her own choices. They discover that they share a desire to escape the poisonous shadows of their late fathers' actions, Brigan's having been the one who let hers run riot as his adviser ("My life is an apology for the life of my father," he tells Fire, in a early moment of confidence [p. 83]).
This exploration of the power of parental influence—for good or ill—and the process of stepping outside it, finds a dark echo in the reappearance of a character from Graceling. In a chilling prologue, we are shown the birth and childhood of Immiker, the future abusive father (and king) Leck, whose Grace is that everything he says is believed, and commands obedience. With all the imperious, selfish neediness of a child, unmediated by parental control—since not even his own father can resist his manipulations—Leck drains dry everyone he encounters. Like Cansrel, he stands for power without conscience, morality, or regard for the fellow human beings that have to share society with him; as he tells Fire:
"There is nothing unnatural in this world," he said. "An unnatural thing is a thing that could never happen in nature. I happened. I am natural, and the things I want are natural. The power of your mind, and your beauty […] your unnatural beauty is natural. Nature is horrifying." (p. 383)
Arguably this is even more ambitious territory than that covered by Graceling. But Fire, in setting up such difficult issues, has to work harder for its happy ending and arguably fudges some of these issues to achieve it. The steady, patient, painful work of Nash to learn self-restraint in Fire's presence, for example, is rather undercut by the cosy prospect of a new romance in his near future. Similarly, there is much concern with the moral ambiguity of Fire's power, particularly in the first half of the book, but this trails away towards the end, and some of her choices—abetting murder, albeit for the sake of saving the kingdom—are let off rather lightly. There is one act in particular that she forgives herself for; but while this act was, on balance, arguably the right thing to do ("Some people were too terrible, no matter if you loved them; no matter that you had to make yourself terrible, too, in order to stop them", she reflects [p. 461]), it is not at all clear to me that it is something she has the right to forgive herself for—only to live with.
But in general, Fire displays similar depths of emotional maturity to its predecessor, and is nearly as perfectly formed a story. There is at least one soap opera-ish twist too many towards the end—for all that it once again plays into the novel's concern with parents, children, and the sins of the past—but Cashore's exploration of what it means to be a young woman growing up in a man's world remains as acute as ever, and every bit as enjoyable to read. And even the caveats above are made possible largely by Cashore's many skills as a writer: a clear-eyed narrative, a knack for creating believable characters, and a robust willingness to engage with the story's themes and problems on many different levels. Just as she treats her characters with understanding and generosity even when they fall short, Cashore makes space in her work for challenging readings; indeed, she creates questions that invite them.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she lectures on medieval Islamic history, and continues her project to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX and Vector, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.