The first thing I have to say is that this book deserves a better cover. The Gollancz version (the one I read) is your typical teen-fantasty ‘girl-with-weapon-standing-on-rock-with-mystic-looking-background’ image. And the part that grates with me most is the fact that, if the image is actually trying to reference any part of the book, the dress should be purple, not red.
The Dial YA version of the cover is better, featuring a bow and arrows rather than lady-in-dress, and I really like the understated originality of the Clarsen YA German edition.
Inside, Fire is anything but your average YA fantasy novel. The usual elements are there – insular non-time-specific low-tech kingdoms, magical powers, and so on – but Cashore takes it so much further. The protagonist, Fire, has a complexity to her sexual past which is refreshing compared to the coyness YA novels often have about sex. It helps the reader to see her as a rounded human being, rather than a copy-and-pasted heroine. The intricacy of the relationships between all of the characters in this novel is really well done, and leads to some truly surprising and touching moments.
Naturally, Fire does have special powers – what self-respecting fantasy heroine doesn’t? She was born a ‘monster’, a genetic aberration possible in any species, which gives the individual very bright colouring and unnatural beauty, and the power to influence the minds of those around them. Making your heroine inhumanly beautiful is a tricky thing to pull off without making it all feel like a giant piece of wish-fulfillment, but Cashore manages it. Fire sees her appearance as a disadvantage in most situations, and never truly comes to accept it as an integral part of who she is, not even by the end. Cashore also considers the logistics of Fire’s condition; ‘monsters’ are cannibalistic and lust after each other’s blood, which means that she is constantly attracting ‘monster’ insects and that she can’t leave the house when on her period without being mobbed by raptors.
Another aspect I really liked about this novels is that Fire isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of everything. Of course, as the protagonist, she does lie at the centre of the story, but she is only involved in a very small part of the events taking place. The fact that she recognises her insignificance amid grand political schemes and the war sweeping the kingdom adds a sense of perspective not often found in fantasy novels.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one, and am looking forward to reading the other two in the trilogy, Graceling and Bitterblue.
Next up: Cousin Kate, by Georgette Heyer