Summer Reading, part 3

or old worlds made new…

I ignored everyone after a certain hour yesterday and read my way through the rest of Bitterblue and then I realized there was no more. Bitterblue, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Kristin Cashore‘s series, is part of the Graceling/Fire realms, and I say realms because each of these novels can be read as a standalone, though they all share some common elements, including characters and settings. Bitterblue brings these two realms together, but can be read on its own (though why would you do that to yourself? Read them all!).

*Warning! Slight spoilers for Graceling and Fire*

bitterblueIn the realm of Bitterblue, there are people with certain powers known as Graces, these are marked by their mismatched eyes. Some of these abilities are overt, like strength or fighting abilities, others are more subtle, like mind-reading and coercion. Not all the Graces are bad, and most are happy enough to shuffle along doing what they will. But there are those who use their powers to achieve their own ends and control others. Such is the case of Leck, whose influence leaves a stain in both the Kingdoms of Graceling and the Dells of Fire.

Bitterblue is Leck’s daughter, Queen of all Monsea, and heiress to a damaged kingdom. Leck’s Grace destroyed the idea of truth and reality in his Kingdom, so that no one can be certain what truly happened during his reign, or just how many atrocities were committed under his power. It is Bitterblue’s most desperate need to make these things right, but being a true Queen means uncovering truths that threaten the well-being of her closest allies, and learning things about her father that she never imagined.

*Spoilers done*

Phew! I try to keep those to a minimum, but some can’t be helped, especially when Leck’s doings are one of the elements that most closely binds these three novels. Bitterblue is a dark story, emotionally harrowing at times, almost in the same way that Robin McKinley’s Deerskin can just tear you apart. Leck is a nasty piece, but there is a method to his madness that is just as harrowing as Bitterblue’s wish to see her world made right because, in his own misguided way, that is what Leck also wanted–to see Monsea and its people turned into his notion of what they should be.

At the same time, there is a thread of hope that keeps Bitterblue from becoming unbearably sad. There are dreams and there is love–a sweet, companionate kind of love that Cashore always gets just right. There are also mysteries that keep you guessing, and a lot of to do about ciphers that are often beyond my ability to follow, but are fun to read about.

This is a young adult novel, but it’s one of those young adult novels that doesn’t pander to teenage daydreams about perfect happy endings. Bitterblue doesn’t expect a perfect happy ending, there’s no marriage and a happily ever after to this fairy tale, but there is an ever after.

Spirit and Fire

As far as strong female characters go, Kristin Cashore’s Fire is pretty near perfect. After reading Graceling a few months ago, I was eager to read Fire but I was unsure what to expect. A companion to Graceling rather than a prequel, Fire takes place in a land beyond the seven kingdoms known as the Dells. The Dellians have no knowledge of their neighbors beyond the frozen mountains until a strange boy, a Graceling, appears in the kingdom. But that is another story.

Unlike the world of the Gracelings, the Dells are marked by the vibrantly colored “monsters” that roam the land–beautiful animals with exotic, multi-colored pelts and the ability to telepathically connect with their prey. The beauty of the monsters is their weapon; their allure too powerful for those who are weak-minded and easily drawn. Fire is a monster, the only one of her kind left in the Dells; her beauty a source of reverence and scorn for those who meet and fear her.

Growing up in the company of Lord Brocker and his son Archer, Fire learned to respect the will of others and to fear her power. Strong and willful, she learned to hunt and hide her presence from the monsters that would have her blood, but had little to do with society. Her father was the one exception. Cansrel, beautiful and monstrous companion of the then King Nax, instructed his daughter in the nuances of cruelty, inadvertently instilling in Fire an awareness of the ethical implications of her unique ability.

When the young Dellian king, Nash, faces the threat of civil war, Fire is brought before him, her ability to sway the will of others making her a prime choice for the position of royal interrogator. When Fire travels to King’s City and reluctantly agrees to take on the job, she does not realize how much her life is about to change.

I enjoyed Graceling, but I loved Fire. Fire stands out as a female character who is incredibly aware of her self, her flaws, strengths, and her
potential to be cruel and kind at the same time. In Fire, Cashore takes those elements that made Katsa’s story so wonderful in its portrayal of female heroism and takes it up a notch. I would definitely call Fire a feminist heroine (she-ro) the likes of which I am always searching for in fantasy. Many of the themes explored in the novel–female sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, the decision to have or refrain from having children–also stand out as themes that are not widely discussed in fantasy literature (especially YA fantasy), but which are definitely important to a feminist understanding of the female as hero. While reading the novel, I found myself drawing comparisons between Fire and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna; they are not the same, but their characters are equally self-aware and independent.

This is one of the best YA fantasies I have read in a while.