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Book Review: Fire by Kristin Cashore

11 Sep

Minimal spoilers and discussion of feminist elements ahead.


FIRE by Kristin Cashore is the story of a young woman (Fire), the only living human monster left in the Dells after the death of her father.

Monsters in the Dells don’t look like hairy, fanged beasts — a monster mouse is a lot like a mouse, except stunningly beautiful in unnatural colors. Monsters also have the striking ability to stun prey with their beauty and mind.

Fire is considered more beautiful than any woman or man. She can enter and alter minds at will. She could be the most powerful person in the Dells if she chose.

But her choice is to keep her power at bay.

King Nash’s kingdom is vulnerable to warring Lords, old feuds, and to Fire, who lives in the blinding light of her father’s legacy — death, pain, and despair to the royal family and kingdom.

Nash is willing to forgive to make Fire his, but his brother is bent on making sure that he, his family, and kingdom never forget what Fire is capable of.

The Dells is a dangerous place to be a human monster.  It is a dangerous place to be a woman. And it is a deadly place to be a female, human monster.

Trigger warning: Discussion of rape and sexual violence.

Cashore doesn’t create a world that is dangerous to women without a bit of reflective commentary.

“For every peaceful man, there was a man who wanted to hurt her, even kill her, because she was a gorgeous thing he could not have.”

It’s a sentence that could be easily overlooked, but it starts weaving a thread in the narrative that highlights one of the worst injustices to women globally — cultural acceptance of violence against women.

Cashore doesn’t shy from the topic of rape and hints that it is the abuser’s control that is complicit in sexual violence. Fire is not raped, but we know of characters that have been. There are many men who would like to assault Fire sexually and outwardly say so. Because they want to dominate her. Because they want to overpower her power.

Fire reminds us that rape is not about the desire to have sex. Rape is about power. Rape is used as punishment. Rape is a form of torture.

“Why did hatred so often make men think of rape?”

Fire muses after a Dellian soldier violently breaks her property and threatens her sexually.

The characters often refer to Fire’s “power” as the reason men can’t control themselves. They mean her mesmerizing appearance and effect her (kind of) supernatural being has on people.

But it is not Fire who controls these men’s actions when they assault her. It is not Fire who thinks these men’s thoughts when they desire her or want to dominate her.

Fire covers her luminous hair and body most of the book because men can’t ‘control’ themselves when they see her. This isn’t just something in fantasy. We routinely police girls and women through slut-shaming so that they will cover themselves.

Boys will be boys, and boys’ precious brains will go into overdrive if a girl shows some skin, you know. They just can’t control themselves, we say, when she’s wearing this or that. Women must cover their bodies. Fire must cover her hair.


The real-life take away is that Fire shouldn’t have to hide herself away and cover herself in order to keep men from their own actions. Cashore doesn’t quite hit this subject hard enough for young readers to fully comprehend this message on a conscious level.

Most of those readers are not exposed to discussions of rape culture. Instead, they see victim-blaming and slut-shaming media that reinforce it and normalize sexual violence.

But it is not Cashore’s job to educate girls (and boys) on rape culture. It is too big a job for one woman to tackle, especially in commercial, Young Adult Fantasy.

There are other, small snapshots of issues real-life girls and women face. A girl of lower rank has sex with a Lord and runs out of contraception. She does not feel comfortable asking for contraception and does not have access to more.

After months of pregnancy, she learns of a drug that ends a pregnancy when it firsts announces itself. The girl is angry because knowledge of the drug is limited to rich members of the kingdom and she learns of it too late.

In real life, it is lower income women and girls without sex education and/or access to contraception that experience the highest rates of unintended pregnancy. It is also these women that have the hardest time accessing clinics to end unwanted pregnancies.

Fire is a wonderful story with feminist elements, but it is not a feminist essay. Her exploration of the nature of sexual violence as an undercurrent to the characters and plot is done with enough nuance that readers can fill in the missing puzzle pieces if informed.

It isn’t fair to blame me for how you’ve chosen to behave.”

Women are not in control of men’s actions, no matter how they look, and no matter how they dress. Not one person wants to be raped or invites rape or sexual assault. Doing so is impossible. Fire does not simply invite violence to her person because she exists.

A person is only ever responsible for their own actions. Fire gradually learns this, even if there is no written ah-ha moment in this regard.

POCs in YA Fantasy

I willingly admit that when I first read Fire in high school that I probably envisioned her as white. I know that I pictured everyone around her as white.

Not only was I misguided in using my imagination to  picture a fantasy world of all white faces, but my eyes skipped over key indicators throughout the text that proved that image textually wrong.

Fire and the Dellians are not white.

King Nash is described as being born a “dark boy,” Fire is mistaken for a deer when dressed in brown, and the neighboring Pikkians are described as “lighter-skinned” in comparison and another group of people as pale.

Fire is comparing these people to herself and her kingdom’s people — meaning Dellians are presumably predominately darker-skinned.

A woman of color is the main character of an increasingly popular Young Adult Fantasy novel. Said woman lives in a kingdom of people who are darker-skinned, as well.

Positively feminist.

fire fanart

This is a stunning fanart illustration of Fire (you can find Minuiko’s other work here and here).

Sharp eyes will notice that the respective covers of Fire throughout the globe depict white women. This is common for book covers — even when characters are described blatantly as women of color, a white woman is shown on the cover. This is especially true if there are only small references to skin color, as in Fire.

Let’s not forget that Rue in The Hunger Games was deliberately described as having dark skin, and many readers expressed outrage when Amandla Stenberg, a lighter-skinned POC, was cast for the role. There are also many (including myself) who will point to textual evidence to support that Katniss is a woman of color, as well.

It’s a fight for POC representation in all forms of media — and especially on our shelves, even in young adult fiction, a place in the bookstore known for explorations of identity and inclusion. We hurt ourselves further when we cannot recognize the few books that do include men and women of color.

It is amazingly progressive to feature an entire kingdom of dark-skinned individuals instead of opting for token POCs. It would be even more progressive if the covers would reflect that. We’ll have to rely on our imaginations and fanart to see Fire as she should be.

More highlights

Thanks to the progressive nature of the military commander, women can be soldiers, and soldiers that are paid well. One female soldier that befriends Fire uses her wages to care for her sister and her sister’s children.

A member of the royal family names his daughter as his heir. Even if he has other children (boys specifically), his daughter will always be heir over them, inheriting his rights, and she is in line to be a ruling queen.

Fire’s living father-figure is disabled after an attack that left his legs shattered years ago. He is the only person in a fantasy book that I have ever known to be in a wheelchair. Cashore brings us a step in the right direction for representation of women and men with disabilities.

Fire is absolutely the best book I have ever read in Young Adult Fantasy (Cashore’s other books are close behind it). In terms of a compelling narrator, character types, world building, and feminist messages, it’s a home run.

Check it out here and Kristin Cashore’s blogspot here.

You won’t regret the journey.