Fire by Kristin Cashore
Publication date: October 2009
Hardcover: 9780803734616, $17.99
Also counts for Chunkster Challenge, Book 2.
First of all, let me just say that, particularly as first novels, Graceling and Fire (and Kristin Cashore, for writing them) are an inspiration.
I really enjoyed Graceling, and despite the fact that I'm apparently reviewing primarily fantasy books recently, I don't read much fantasy (honest!), so this is saying a lot. The premise - that there are these beings called Gracelings, who have eyes of two different colors, and who are gifted with some sort of enhanced ability - struck me as intriguing. Katsa and Po, the two main characters, were compelling in their development as individuals, as was the plot as it twisted its way through the world of the seven kingdoms.
In Fire, the companion prequel to Graceling, Cashore has created an equally original world of beautiful "monsters": animals, plants, and occasionally people who are irresistably beautiful and extremely dangerous. Fire, the last living human monster, lives in near-isolation, protecting herself from those who want to harm her because of the way her father, also a monster, harmed them. Her father was the advisor to the previous king in the land of the Dells - a land over the mountains from the seven kingdoms in Graceling, a land on the brink of war. He was a cruel and twisted man who could control people's minds and make them suffer in unimaginable ways. While Fire has inherited his abilities, but not his cruelty, sadly there are many people who would rather condemn or kill her first, and ask questions later. When her abilities are needed to help fight to keep the rightful rulers on the thrown, Fire has to face her own inner monsters in order to make the best use of her gift. She is afraid of the way people's minds open to her; all except for the mind of Prince Brigan, the commander of the royal army, and an increasingly fascinating man. By exploring the depths of her abilities, and how far she is willing to go for this kingdom she is beginning to love, Fire carves a place for herself. Much like a phoenix (sorry, the metaphor had to be used), Fire rises from the ashes of her father's universal betrayal to form her own solid reputation of self-discipline, courage, and love.
How is this a prequel to Graceling? The bad guy, Leck, in Graceling is introduced as a boy in Fire. Clearly rotten from the beginning, he plays a deceptively minor role until a pivotal moment of the book. Though it was nice to see some sort of connection between Graceling and Fire, I actually thought that the connection hindering on Leck was the weakest part of the plot. His apperance as a character didn't add much (in my opinion) to my pre-existing knowledge of him, based on Graceling. There was no deeper understanding of him, or explanation as to how he got to be the evil man he was. He was apparently born that way. So, it was a connection, but not a meaningful one, for me. I hope to read more of Fire and Prince Brigan in Cashore's third work, Bitterblue.
Though the stories of both books offer (relatively) resolved endings, Cashore doesn't hold her punches, writing difficult (as in, sad) story developments with sensitivity and grace, making them understandable and necessary, despite being hard to read. Her strong female leads discover their own strengths and weaknesses. They are matched by the men in their lives, but not sheltered, led, or protected by them.
This is a good series to give to that difficult group of 10-13 year-old-readers, the ones who read above their level, but who may not be ready for scenes of graphic sex or violence. There are some references to sex, particularly in Graceling, and of course some violence, but it is never gratuitious, and the sexual references alluded-to, more than shown.
I wish you all had early copies of the book, too, because I can't wait to gush about it with other people who have read it!