The second novel in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realms series – in publishing order – Fire is actually a prequel/companion of sorts to Graceling. It takes place the other side of the mountains, in a country called the Dells where there are no Graced people, but there are monsters: unnaturally coloured creatures who inspire fascination in all who see them. Our eponymous heroine, Fire, is the last human monster: her flaming red hair puts her in constant danger from predatory men, as well as other monsters. She can also control minds. She’s the daughter of another monster, a decidedly unpleasant man who until his death had great power over the weak king – and thus great power over the Dells. Fire is in part about how its heroine grows out of that shadow and comes to terms with her own power.
It is, in truth, very similar to Graceling, and I have very similar things to say about it. In aesthetic and mood it’s Generic Fantasy: the Dells are a cod-medieval-Europe analogue so conventional that the world doesn’t really need building. But its conventionality is a feature, not a bug: it’s integral to Cashore’s feminist project in Fire, which is about writing female experiences into a setting where they’re often ignored.
Cashore’s only fantastical innovation, the monsters, focus anxieties about mind control and also female agency. Like Graceling, Fire can be read as a primer for young adults on abusive relationships, as Fire deals with the legacy of her controlling father, who used his power to manipulate and harm those around him, and attempts to come to terms with her own power and how she can use it ethically. Cashore also makes the point that Fire is treated very differently to her father: whereas his monstrous powers of attraction won him admiration and subservience, her own otherworldly beauty attracts lust, jealousy and the threat of sexual violence from the men around her. Here Cashore is putting the cliché of the supernaturally attractive woman to work to examine contemporary rape culture and the gendered double standard. Her work here carries reflections of the grimdark convention whereby every fantasy woman is ever at risk of rape; except that rape in Fire isn’t a constant and thus normalised background reality as it is in, say, A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s a major violation of personal sovereignty, a devastating and exceptional crime. This is rape culture as seen by the women who live at its mercy, not the men who use it for set-dressing.
What else? There’s a bunch of angry reviewers on Goodreads condemning Fire for having too much (extra-marital) sex in it for a YA book. Think of the children! How will they cope!!!! Any author who manages to attract the opprobrium of reviewers like this gets a win in my book: the reality is that most teens have sex, or at least think about having sex, and yet there are so few YA fantasy novels that deal with sex in a meaningful way. In any case Fire’s more interested in relationships than in sex per se: there are no on-page sex scenes, and much of the casual sex is actually frowned upon. Fire’s friend-with-benefits Archer (yes, really) has an unpleasant habit of seducing women, breaking their hearts and leaving them pregnant; Cashore sees this as another example of male entitlement. Fire’s own sexual relationship with Archer is pretty refreshing for a fantasy novel: they are friends as well as lovers, and Fire genuinely doesn’t care about exclusivity. And unlike a great number of YA heroines, she’s not interested in putting up with jealousy: when Archer’s behaviour becomes controlling, she dumps him, and later on finds a healthier relationship with someone who doesn’t try to tell her who she can talk to.
Fire also has reproductive decisions to deal with, as well as inconvenient menstruation (the smell of Fire’s blood attracts monsters, some of them deadly), both of which are again rare territory for YA fantasy. I suppose a valid criticism of Fire might be that it confines its heroine to traditionally female concerns like relationships and periods and pregnancy; she’s not a fighter like Graceling‘s Katsa, although she does have her moments. But if she’s confined to such concerns, it’s because those are the concerns we assign to medieval/cod-medieval women in Western culture. It’s the way that Fire deals with them that’s important: by asserting her agency and working ethically. Fire is a corrective to the morass of grimdark fantasy epics that depict worlds designed around men; it’s a story in which women’s concerns take centre stage.