Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Rating: WORTHY!

I didn't become as hopelessly lost in this as I did in Graceling, but it's keeping my interest so far. Fire is set in the same world as Graceling, but in a different country and features different actors. It also takes place some 30 or 40 years before the events of Graceling. You'd think with a title like that, it would be a prequel to Ash lol! The female protagonist is Fire, a "monster" indeed, the last monster who appears in human form. Apparently these monsters are truly monsters, and while they look rather like creatures with which you may be familiar - wolves, birds - they're colored in amazing hues and they are extremely aggressive. I keep picturing those "wolves" in the Crematoria prison featured in the Chronicles of Riddick movie.

Fire isn't like those monsters, and she begins in this story by getting shot through the arm with an arrow. Fortunately, the hunter did not intend to hit her (she was wearing a deerskin after all!), and she is able to control his mind sufficiently to 'persuade' him to escort her back to her friend Archer, a fellow monster, who imprisons the hunter and takes care of her. Later, the hunter is killed by a skilled archer.

Fire takes a trip to visit a close friend Roen, who inhabits a castle out in the badlands where monster raptors are circling overhead and numbering in the two hundreds. At the castle they meet up with the King's army, commanded by the king's brother who detests Fire because she;s the daughter of Cansrel, who along with the previous king, ran The dells into the ground.

The army takes off on a mission. Once they reach the Mouton tunnel, they will be safe from the raptors, but as Fire sees them heading towards the tunnel, she also sees the raptors start taking an interest and she knows they will never make it there without losing some of the rearguard. At the last minute, she mounts her horse - called 'Small' because he's supposedly small-minded - and charges out of the castle gate before it can close. She heads off away from the army, and when she's in position, she takes off her headscarf, revealing her magnificent mane of monster hair, which is guaranteed to attract raptors. And they come in a swarm. Fire charges back to the castle as fast as poor Small can carry her, and they're both seriously mauled before they can get safely inside the gate, but the entire army is able to make it safely into the tunnels. Archer is pissed but they ride it out.

When the King's brother returns, he requests that Fire accompany him to the capital city where they have captured a man who was discovered spying in the King's rooms. They want Fire to use her mind-reading powers on him. She travels with the army, but is assigned her own personal guard to safeguard her against the resentment some of the army feels towards monsters, and towards her in particular, being the daughter of the man who tried to assassinate their beloved leader.

On the trip, Fire's beautiful "fiddle" is purposefully destroyed by an enraged soldier. Why Cashore terms it thus (fiddle) and then describes the beautiful music Fire plays with it is a mystery to me. If the music is so heart-rendingly wonderful, then it's a violin! If she's stirring up a hoe-down, then it's a fiddle! That just annoyed me. But when they arrive at the King's city, the king himself can't resist Fire, and attacks her. When she refuses him, he hits her. It seems that men must react either in adoration or in hatred of the monster girl. The King's brother is furious. Later, he has four violins delivered to Fire and requests that she choose one to replace what was damaged. She picks one even though she claims it's too good for her meager musical skills.

This story proved itself a lot harder to get lost in than was Graceling. I fell in love with that almost immediately, but as I've pressed on with this one, it has become more engrossing. Fire spends some considerable time at the palace and starts forming a relationship not only with the King, Nash, who is nothing but a nuisance at first, but who goes out of his way to try and block off his mind from Fire so that he does not lose control to her charms.

She slowly builds a relationship with King Nash's other brother, Garrod, who makes it explicitly clear that he does not trust Fire. Here relationship with Brigan, the commander of the army continues to soften and build, and she also becomes friends with the King's sister, Clara. She discovers that Brigan has a daughter, Hanna, with whom she becomes friends. And eventually, she agrees to do what she originally was brought to the palace to accomplish, but against which she has strenuously fought: she agrees to "interrogate" the prisoners, which is a swamp of potential missteps.

One of these interrogations indirectly reveals a traitor in their midst - a trusted captain who is evidently working for Mydogg. In a raid worthy of something the CIA might pull, this rendition is done in a way which makes it look like he was killed by bandits. His information reveals that there's a pincer-movement being planned by Mydogg and Gentian. Gentian's army is supposedly hiding in tunnels south of the royal city, whereas Mydogg's vast army is hiding to the north, but while they have a good idea of where Gentian's forces are, no one can find Mydogg's. The decision is taken to kill three key people at the upcoming royal gala: Gentian, his son Gunner, and Murgda, sister to Mydogg. The only one who can perform these assassinations is Fire, but the royal family doesn't know if it can trust her to carry it through. She could also end up being killed herself if any of the three is resistant to her mind-control and can wield a sword.

There's a really weird sentence on page 298 in the hardback edition, at the beginning of Chapter 22, fourth paragraph in, which starts: "Fire knew herself to be more experienced than anyone in this room save Archer realized." I think that 'realized' shouldn't be there. But I'm frankly a bit more intrigued with Gentian's son's name. Gunner? I wonder if Cashore intended it to be spelled thus, or if she simply doesn't know that it's actually Gunnar?

I know the trope is to 'write what you know' but if we all confined ourselves to that, then there'd be a dearth of interesting stories to be had. Most writers don't write what they know, they write what they imagine, perhaps supported or rooted in what they know. Some people way-overdo writing what they know and end up putting endless boring details into their stories for no other purpose than to show that they know what they're writing about inside out! Cashore sure doesn't know about The Dells or the seven kingdoms: not in the sense of having visited them (except in her imagination, of course), she's never encountered these monsters, yet she writes a great novel about them in this world. Suppose you dream of being a writer but you're a garbage collector or a house painter? Yeah, it's possible to create a story or two around that, but eventually you're going to run out. So what then? Give up your dream because you don't know any more?

This is why I don't subscribe to 'write what you know'; instead I subscribe to write what you love, what you care about, what you're interested in, but with the caveat that if you're going to write outside your immediate sure knowledge, at least do some looking up, or research, depending on how far out of your depth you're swimming. I don't think readers care if you're not writing what you know. They do care if you're writing something which is boring or worse, stupid!

All this really doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to do with 'Gunner' but it does highlight how a question can be raised in the mind of a reader by something which seems out of place, as that name did to me. It also highlights that travel certainly is a good experience to have under your belt as a writer, and knowledge of other cultures will probably kindle some stories which otherwise would have never set alight, and at the same time, give a flavor of authenticity to what you write. All this to say I am quite willing to let Cashore have her way with me literally with an out of place 'realize' and with apparently not knowing or not caring about the difference between Gunner and Gunnar, because even though she isn't honestly writing what she knows, she sure fakes it really well! With regard to authors in general, I have far more respect for someone who tries and fails, than I ever will for someone who doesn't even pretend to try or to care.

Fire's plan to isolate Gentian and Gunner in a room where they can be interrogated and then killed works a treat, but Fire makes a mistake. They end up in a room which is occupied (though not at that moment) by one of their own allies, and Fire is so worn out from directing these people and calming them, and communicating with those who are helping her, and misdirecting others that Brigan has to shore her up with warm feelings from himself. It gets worse as the assassination goes down, with Brigan killing both Gentian and Gunner, who has broken Fire's nose in the fracas.

But the details of the planned attack by Mydogg are out. King Nash and his family know everything, and Brigan rides headlong to join his forces at Fort Flood to taken down Gentian's men. As Fire returns to her room, she senses something very out of place. Hanna is being hurt, no doubt to lure Fire there, and she gullibly falls right in with this plan. She's evidently hit by an arrow tipped with a sleeping potion, and she loses consciousness. Thus endeth Part the Second.

I have to say I was rather disappointed in Cashore here. She's playing these two characters, Gentian and Gunner, enemies of King Nash, as being complete morons who simply blab all of their plans to Fire without any hesitation and without holding back a single thing, when not a one of the lesser players who has been interrogated would tell them anything. I can't buy that. Nor can I buy that she can only get a vague idea of something wrong when what is actually wrong is that Hanna being taken and hurt. This is bullshit which betrays everything we have learned about Fire and her feelings for Hanna. If she can keep track of scores of people who detest her, then she ought to be tightly tuned in to those whom she loves, so I think Cashore failed badly here at the end of part two.

Here's another odd sentence: "...tears seeped down Fire's face from the effort of detracting the attention..." I think Cashore means distracting! The way it's written makes no sense at all. But moving right along - I find it equally as heartening as it is disheartening that Cashore seems as unable to finish a novel as I am! I loved Graceling, but the ending seemed a bit flat. I was less thrilled with Fire, which started out really good but got rather lost in the middle and then came back strong, slipped a little, and finally simply disintegrated at the end. However, it was a decent read overall, and Cashore has enough credit with me after her debut for me to forgive quite a bit!

I had some issues with Fire's behavior and character. She's a significantly less-than-stellar hero for a novel, especially a cashore novel and especially right after Graceling. She is portrayed as stronger in the beginning than she appears to become towards the end when we find her turning into a whimpering mess of Jello, so there's no character growth there. However, overall, she is enough to maintain interest and there are some really strong parts, particularly where Fire ends up being abducted by and then escaping Leck - the guy who causes so much trouble in Graceling. So on balance I do recommend this one, but I was glad to be done with it and moving on to Bitterblue