Ugh, this book. Truthfully, I’ve been finished with it for a couple of weeks and have been procrastinating the heck out of the review (a rarity for me) because I just don’t want to revisit it. Fire is the companion to Cashore’s first (very excellent) book, Graceling. Now look, I know that books should stand on their own and not be compared against others, but I tore through Graceling, with its compelling story, great characters, and lively action. I expected a lot from this book based on the strength of the one that preceded it, and that made this book all the more disappointing to me, because good it was not. It should also be noted for anyone that enjoyed Graceling and is looking forward to more Katsa and Po (like me) that this is a prequel not a sequel… hence the word “companion” and not “sequel.” Yeah, I’m slow sometimes.
This book is odd from the start. It begins by introducing the early years of King Leck (a very interesting character from Graceling that I would love more information on) and how he controls the people around him, and then after the opening chapters, switches to the point of view of Fire, a human monster living east of the mountains. There are monsters in every species (cat, lion, dragon, mouse, etc), but Fire is the only remaining human monster. She possess fiery red hair that attract both humans and other monsters alike (the other monsters try to kill her, as monsters feed on the blood of other monsters). She can also enter and control minds, but refuses to do so because of the greedy, sometimes evil way in which her father before her used it. Her old friend Archer loves her but is unable to remain faithful to her, and as she travels the kingdom, she begins to forge another relationship with Prince Brigan, while also trying to stop a war by drawing out traitors and spies.
So let’s review: Protagonist with irresistible beauty? Check. Has two love interests? Check. Has a great power she refuses to use, instead spending much of her time in angst over pressure to use her power and leaning on the men around her? Check, check, and check. Yep, Fire is a Mary Sue. All. Day. Long. This is where the book really frustrated the heck out of me, because in the beginning Fire seems to be independent and assertive. She shows bravery and does what is best for herself, while trying to distinguish herself from her father (who was hated by many). Somewhere along the way, though, she becomes whiny, self-absorbed, and often plays the martyr, even when no one is casting judgment on her. It’s maddening to read.
Cashore also spends a large portion of the book discussing Fire’s monthly bleeding and how it holds everything up because it attracts more monsters. I appreciate that she took the time to address the issue (I think… I don’t know if I would have even thought about it if she didn’t bring it up), but really once is enough. In a story that already meanders like crazy, there’s no need to make the biggest consistency your protagonist’s period. (At this point I’m reminded of the line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer [movie version] “Great. My secret weapon is PMS. That’s just terrific. Thanks for telling me.” I’m sorry you have to see what goes through my head sometimes).
I think my biggest issue with this book is its missed potential. First of all, there are some very telegraphed “surprises” that belong in a telenovela, but do nothing for this story. Many of the plotlines feel stale and overplayed. King Leck’s mind control has the potential to be a riveting story, and yet we only get a glimpse of him here and there. Second, there is supposed to be a war brewing, and indeed many smaller battles break out, but rather than allowing the reader to get a glimpse into any battles, or strategy, or plotting or ANYTHING, we’re stuck with Fire moping about. Thirdly, there are some secondary characters that are probably very interesting. But again, how would we know? Fire gets all the page time, and somehow seems to regress rather than progress throughout the novel. It’s literally like she is spinning her wheels. Move on, already! Also, I can handle a good love story, but the dynamic between Fire, Archer and Brigan feels tacked on and forced; it is nowhere near the relationship developed between Katsa and Po (there I go comparing again, but they’re just better).
I’m not calling this a total wash and will add a star for the sometimes enjoyable side characters, but if you want to read a great novel, go pick up Graceling and do yourself a favor and stop there.