Kristin Cashore has this way of taking a rough stereotype of a woman and still talking about her in a full, human, contradictory way that such a stereotype would feel if you lived in it. She simplifies the telling and complexifies heroine. In Graceling, she tells the story of a badass warrior woman, a survivor, an Ellen Ripley. In Fire
, she tells the story of a beautiful trophy girlfriend, an aspiring homemaker, a super model who loves babies, a monster combination of Joan Harris and vampire Bella Swan. Our girl, Fire, is from a race of what the story cleverly calls “monsters,” and I like that both Fire and her society adopt that word as accurate. Her body is exactly what I would think of as a monster. I approve.
Briefly, for if you don't already know, in this story, our people live in a land where monsters are these sort of magical predators who crave blood and flesh, but are so beautiful and colorful that they mesmerize normal humans and animals just by their looks. They have mind-control powers, and when they are in human form, the mind control powers are stronger because, you know, humans are brainy. Fire got her name because she is a ginger, but a monster ginger, so her hair looks like fire, and she has to wrap it up because when dudes see it, they basically try to rape her and when animals monsters see it, they try to eat her. Hair is such a problem.
Now I am going to talk about my ruminations on the conflict between what our bodies are and what our essences, or souls, or whatever, are. Sometimes, I sit around and think about how disconnected I feel as a person from the way my body looks, regardless of the specifics of how I look at that particular moment – fat or thin; white, red, brown, black, or purple hair; strong or weak. Or maybe I feel disconnected from the way people react to my body; it is difficult to say for sure. It makes me think that before we are born, we are floating in the sky as some kind of disembodied essence, and we choose our bodies through a series of escalating dares. I wonder what made me choose this one.
Say, before you were born, your essence had these cards laid out on the poker table of body choices: you could be a gorgeous black woman in the 1950s in the South; the youngest, scrawniest brother in a family full of white coal miners; a rich, white sorority girl; or the son of the first Korean-American President of the United States. You know, say, that you, your essence, is a light, delicate thing, something that hates conflict and loves hot cocoa and hearth fires. Do you go with the safe bet or give yourself a challenge? Does that obnoxious other soul in the corner antagonize you into choosing the black woman in the 1950s just because it doesn’t think you could take it? Or do you go with the possibly safer, but more depressing, sorority girl? Could your delicacy and conflict-aversion handle living inside a man’s body in a society that shames delicate men?
Whatever you decide, you’re all, “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!” and you fly off into the horrors and joys of the body you chose. But, the rules are that once you’re there, you can’t remember how you got there in the first place. You have to fight that battle blind because otherwise the battle isn’t testing your instincts and you’re not as invested in the game.
Or maybe there’s some bureaucrat in the sky with a giant spreadsheet. I don’t know.
Fire made me think about who we are in essence and the way our bodies shape us because I think Cashore articulately describes the powerlessness of beauty and how, while we might aspire to that, it might not be something we really want. Fire's horrifying monster beauty and her horrifying X-Woman skill of mind control, and the shame she felt over those parts of herself were interesting. On the one hand, there is a little bit of a poor-little-rich-girl about the story that I think Graceling
also had to some extent, but it doesn’t really dwell in it. There’s so much straight action and Fire is so heroic that it only nudges against the border of maudlin. I don’t think it really crosses over, or at least not often. But, I think that it illustrates how having a body, whether it is the body of a monster or not, is hard. Dealing with social reactions to a body is hard. But, it is worth it.
I think girls often have a sort of out-of-body experience of someone assuming a lot about our personalities from our appearances. Probably men experience that, too, though I wonder how similar the experiences are. I have dimples, so people often don’t expect me to be as much of an asshole as I am and feel extra betrayed by my bitchiness. Fire is kind of like that, too, in that her personality is not what the stories told people to expect from that body. Regardless of what the false expectation is, because it is probably different for us all, there is still that sense of being out of place in a body. I think it is an identifiable female sentiment, and maybe identifiable because there is so much media propaganda about female bodies being wrong. But, at the same time, I have this instinctual sense that I am lucky to have a body at all, and that I should take care of it, and I get the feeling that most people have at least a sliver of that same instinct.
Anyway, I found this beautiful. I liked these people and animals. I liked Fire and I also liked the use of fire as imagery and its association with mourning and cleansing. At times, I found the light use of somewhat courtly language awkward, but that’s not a big deal when action is going down. I’m bumping this up to a five-star rating because I think it is ballsy to write a sequel that is only loosely connected to the first, and I thought that was a well-executed ballsy move. Addressing the stereotype of a beautiful, affectionate woman was smart after having told the story of a survivor in the first book.
I want to be Kristin Cashore’s friend. She is a bold woman.