Graceling (2008) and Fire (2009) by Kristin Cashore

January 26, 2010 at 7:37 pm (fantasy, teen) (, , )

If you really, really don’t like Romance mixed into your Fantasy, I suggest you turn away now.

For the rest of you, I have good news:  These are fun and excellent books!  According to the author’s blog, they don’t really need a plug from little old me, but then again, you may not have heard of them yet.

Apparently they are classed as YA, though I’m not entirely sure why.  Books about 18-year-old women are for girls?  Pfft.

Anyway, these books are very strong on character and creative ideas, slightly less so on plot and world-building.  Capsule summaries:

Graceling: Katsa, 18, has been used by her uncle King Randa as a semi-official assassin and torturer for quite a few years, because she has a supernatural skill (a “Grace”) for killing.  Or so everyone thinks.  The story follows the last stages of her growth toward breaking with Randa, as well as her romance with Prince Po of Leinid and their efforts to find out who was responsible for the kidnapping of Po’s grandfather.  I am still quite fascinated by the unfolding of that last plot point, which was full of surprises.  Not to mention drama, and a marvelously evil villain.

Fire:  On the other side of some very high mountains from Katsa’s Seven Kingdoms, the Dells have monsters instead of Graces.   Monsters are creatures that are fantastically colored and able to affect humans’ minds – often without intending to.  Fire, so named for her hair’s color, is the only living human monster in the Dells.  Her ability to touch and manipulate human minds becomes key to saving the Dells from civil war; her long-term relationship with her best friend Archer, and her growing attraction to Prince Brigan, are only part of her complex relationships with the human world.

I have quibbles.  Katsa spends a considerable chunk of her book convinced that she can’t possibly break with Randa; I think this phase doesn’t last too long, but others might disagree.  She also manages to cross an unmarked, snowy, and never-used mountain pass based on what has to be a medieval map.  This I could not believe even as I was reading it, probably because I know too much about maps and mountaineering.  On the other hand, the narrative succeeded in carrying me along despite this, which is pretty impressive.  And the near-tragic event in the romance plot thread was perhaps a bit too much, but not quite (for me).

Fire’s story has more, and more complicated, relationships in it, which overall is a good thing.  But I started wondering, towards the end, if any of the characters had ever stayed faithful to their spouses, or ever intended to get married.  And also why nobody seemed to care all that much.  The stories do have that handy imaginary birth-control herb, which helps to liberate female fantasy characters from certain concerns, but it was getting to be a bit much.  Along the same lines, I felt the key characters did not agonize enough about their decision to take extreme, tradition-shattering action to put an end to that civil war (I mean, they managed to keep it secret, but it’s still a dangerous precedent).  Some may also feel that Fire agonized too much about using her powers, but I think the level was just about right.

And I also felt that in Fire the author was trying to pack too many neat ideas into the narrative; Graceling didn’t have that problem.  Did it really need the whole long backstory about the villain from Graceling, and his involvement with Fire, which had nothing to do with the main plot?  I’m dubious.  And why add in the horse?  It’s an interesting touch, but fits oddly with the rest.

Overall the worldbuilding is long on creative and interesting ideas, and short on cohesion.  In my humble opinion.  Yes, it’s an imaginary world and all, but I’m not convinced that a very high mountain range is enough to explain the radical difference between the magical nature of the Seven Kingdoms and that of the Dells.  Neither book makes any gestures, that I could detect, toward explaining this.  Though it’s possible the next book, currently titled Bitterblue, will tackle that, I don’t understand why there couldn’t just be two entirely separate worlds, one with Gracelings and one with Monsters.    Trilogy-itis again?

Still, I really enjoyed both books.  I am, after all, an inveterate nit-picker, so other readers may not even notice what I see as problems.  My summary opinion is that if Cashore continues to grow as a writer, and manages to avoid falling into the trap of writing histories instead of novels (Bitterblue is an important character from Graceling), there are a whole bunch of even better books in our future.


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