Series: Graceling Realm #2
Published: 2009 by Dial
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
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Kristin Cashore’s Graceling series is singularly responsible for making me stop dismissing YA as something that’s just for teenagers and making me realize that YA fantasy can be just as amazingly beautiful and thought-provoking as fantasy that’s written for adults. I read the series in completely the wrong order, starting with the third book, then jumping to the first, and now finally reading Fire. This is the kind of series where that can work, because even though the books are all interrelated, they each tell such a different part of the complete story that they can stand on their own.
Graceling and Bitterblue are both set in the kingdom of Monsea, but Fire is a bit different. It’s set in an unknown country across an impassible mountain range, and because of the geographic divide, this kingdom has a slightly different system of magic. Some people and animals are monsters. They have strange powers and are vividly colored, as opposed to the more ordinary people and animals. Fire is a monster. She has the ability to read people’s minds and to control them. And yet, Fire is a genuinely good person who struggles to do the right thing. She hesitates to use her abilities, because she doesn’t think it’s right to invade people’s minds like that. As she grows up, she comes to realize that the fact that she can also prevent a lot of pain and suffering by using her powers for the good of her country. This leads to the more philosophical question of whether the ends justify the means and whether it’s okay to do something that out of context can be immoral in the service of a greater good. There’s a balance, and Fire has to find it. She also has to come to terms with the legacy of her father, who had similar powers and used them to do terrible things. Cashore isn’t afraid to take on dark themes, and I love it.
One of the things that I enjoy about Cashore’s writing is the way that she handles teenage relationships. Fire has a boyfriend/lover in the book, and yes, she has sex with him. She uses protection. She recognizes when a relationship becomes unhealthy and needs to end, and the end of a relationship, even a sexual one, isn’t the end of the world. She isn’t damaged goods, but an independent and rational young woman who makes her own decisions and can move on with her life. That’s a good message for teenagers to hear, and it’s a lot more realistic than the way that teen sex is treated either in sex ed or in fiction. And even though the book has romance, Fire has an identity that goes beyond her status as a party in a relationship. It’s treated as one component of her life and nothing more.
And then there’s the eloquence of the writing itself, which takes on a fairy-tale atmosphere that reminds me a bit of Robin McKinley. Kristin Cashore respects her readers’ intelligence and doesn’t talk down, but rather creates a vivid and imaginative world that operates by different rules than our own. Actions have consequences, and the forms of magic that are laws of nature within this world can and do cause a lot of problems.
I loved this book for so many reasons, and can’t recommend it highly enough.