I was so excited when this book came in for me at the library, but I found myself a little reluctant to pick it up after I'd brought it home. I loved Cashore's first book, Graceling, and I was a little bit worried that my expectations for this second one might be a little too high. Also, I had learned that this book is a prequel and does not feature any of the characters I'd come to adore in the first novel. I am happy to say that my worries were completely unfounded.
This fantasy novel is set in the same world as Graceling, quite a few years before that story takes place; and with one notable exception, the characters are completely different. The setting is the Dells, a country on the edge of the impassable mountains that separate it from Katsa's Seven Kingdoms. The Dells are beset by peculiar creatures called, simply, monsters. They are dangerous because they possess a mesmerizing beauty that bespells people, leaving them at their mercy - and many of the monsters are carnivorous. Some are relatively harmless, thought, and some are human in appearance and able to produce offspring with humans.
Fire, our heroine, is one such being. Her father was a monster, a glorious one, companion to a king, and he nearly destroyed the kingdom with his sociopathic, self-serving ways. Her mother was human, but as Fire was taken from her as an infant and raised far from the castle, she never knew her. Having witnessed firsthand the damage that her powerful father wrought, Fire is unwilling to use her powers, which enable her to control people's minds and read their thoughts. Humans find her irresistible, particularly when they see her glorious, fire-red hair, which she tends to keep covered in order to minimize her impact on them.
The Dells are beset by political upheaval, which eventually reaches Fire's remote home in the form of mysterious assassination attempts. She agrees to travel to the capital with the inscrutable Prince Brigan, angeringher childhood friend and sometime lover Archer, who knows she will be in even more danger there. The royal family wishes her to use her talents to obtain intelligence from prisoners - but that goes against everything she believes, and she fears the doing so will make her become like her father. As she grows to understand the political situation and to care about the royal family, she comes to realize exactly how important her abilities are, and that her talents might help the kingdom avoid a bloody civil war.
It is safe to say that I loved this one every bit as much as the first. I was immediately drawn into the story and came to care a great deal about Fire and her companions, as well as the fate of the Dells. Cashore is brilliant with her characterization - she creates real, believable, lovable (and hate-able) characters that I become very attached to. The pacing is tight, the plot complex, and Cashore is amazingly skillful at creating not just a good romance, with just-right romantic tension, but characters who are clearly so very perfect for each other that the reader has no choice but to root for them every step of the way.
I'm very much looking forward to the next installment in this magical series, Bitterblue, which is currently in progress and will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers. Cashore has a wonderful blog and website, too - be sure to check them out for more information on her books, her writing process, and all kinds of other interesting things.
Books in the Graceling series:
Fire (#2 in the Graceling series) by Kristin Cashore (Dial Books, 2009)
Also reviewed at:
Angieville: "This book made short work of me. There was just so much hope inside me wrapped around how good it would be and when it turned out to be approximately ten times better than all that wrapped up hope....well....I was a goner."
At Home with Books: "Fortunately, once I got used to the idea of this book being almost entirely unrelated to Graceling, I was already captivated by the story of Fire, her life, and her desire to rise above the legacy of her evil father."
The Book Nest: "An excellent fantasy, full of all the good stuff: magical creatures, magical abilities, battles with handsome soldiers and enough of a gray area between "right" and "wrong" to keep it from being trite."
Em's Bookshelf: "Cashore deftly blends heart stopping action with multi-faceted characters and the result is some of the best fantasy being written today."
Sleep. Eat. Read: "Cashore's writing, for me, is the perfect balance between plot and character driven. Fire is both lovely and heart wrenching at times, but always captivating."