Author: Kristen Cashore
Source: Review Copy from Publisher
In a kingdom called the Dells, there are monsters. Not trolls or giants or many-toothed freaks, but preternaturally beautiful versions of regular animals--turquoise rabbits, glittering gold cats, green raptors--that can bewitch their prey so the helpless victim doesn't even mind being eaten. The most dangerous of these is Fire, the only human monster left.
All her life, Fire has dreaded her own power. With a combination of her stunning looks and psychic coercion, she can make almost anybody do almost anything. She's seen the results in her own father, Cansrel, who played sadistic puppetmaster to a weak-willed king. Fire has gone as far as possible in the other direction, flat-out refusing to exercise her monster gifts. She covers her hair and stays closeted at home. But after the excesses of Cansrel and the previous king, the Dells is rapidly falling to pieces. In the civil war to come, Fire must take control of her powers, and all their capacity for good or evil, in order to save her own homeland and the royal family she has grown to love.
I first read a galley of this in April of last year, and obeyed the strict instructions on the front not to review it or talk about it or even acknowledge by the flicker of an eyelash that it existed. (Not all of those were printed on the cover, by the way.) I probably didn't need to be so coy, or so quick about giving it away. Gah. When it landed on the Cybils finalist list, I went "Whee!" because I'd been wanting an excuse to read it again and review it. Sometimes you read a book, get swept away in the first experience, and gloss over to yourself any flaws in the book. Thankfully that was not the case with Fire.
Fire is terrified of her own power. She has some special skills, some things that make her extraordinary, but it's all genetic. She never asked for nor sought anything that makes her special, yet it's all here and she has to deal with it. The first step toward accepting what she is and owning it comes in a marvelous scene where she deliberately distracts the monster raptors that might otherwise attack the royal party. (Monsters love nothing so much as other monsters' blood.) Where before she's always hidden herself inside, under layers of cloth and stone, she runs outside basically shrieking, "Come and get me!" It's a moment of bad-assery that I didn't expect from our wary and self-contained protagonist, and one that foreshadows her future bad-assery when the occasion calls for it.
As with Graceling, it's impossible not to read this from a feminist viewpoint. It's especially noticeable in the portrayal of how others react to Fire. Either they are helpless before her or they loathe her as a wicked creature. Most refuse to take responsibility for their own response, putting all the blame on her for simply being what she is. Small wonder that Fire is so afraid of herself at the beginning of the novel. Brigan is one of the few who sees the imperfect but courageous young woman beneath the glamor, which is why he works for me as a love interest.
Although Fire is seventeen, this is to me one of an increasing number of true young adult novels--not "YA" meaning 12-18, but books about the experience of moving away from the teen years and into adulthood, maybe 18-24. These are related to teen books in that the main character's identity is often very much in flux, and there are lots of growing pains, but rather than being a teen they are expected to be adults. Subtle but telling difference, that. The political underpinnings of the book--this lord betraying that lord, the heave and ho of a burgeoning civil war--is another factor that ages the target audience, and is probably best suited to previous readers of high fantasy. This isn't just about Fire coming to know herself, it's about the fate of an entire land and people.
Bitterblue, the third in the Dells series, is in the process of being written. Write quick, Kristin Cashore!