Girl on Fire (not THAT one)! (by Ellen Jensen Abbott)
Excuse me while I go all fan girl. While I absolutely agree with Amy Nichols when she said that “books are a bit like fingerprints or eye color…two authors may write about the same subject …but write two completely different books,” I really do wish that I’d written Kristin Cashore’s Fire.
Fire was the first title that came to mind when I heard about this month’s theme so I went back and re-read it (for about the fourth or fifth time—see what I mean about fangirl?) to see if I could articulate what I love about this book. There are lots of things—as a fantasy writer, I love the world, the magic, the creatures. I like a little romance in my books, and the love interest here hits all the right notes. The characters are well drawn, complicated, contradictory—just like characters should be.
But what I think makes me the most fan-girly is the premise. Plot comes from conflict and conflict comes from the author doing whatever he/she can to “unsettle, or move or stress or stretch” a character, as Alice LaPlante says in her book The Making of Story. In Cashore’s novel, everything the character most wants is prevented by what the main character is—and this makes for electrifying plot.
You see the main character, Fire, is a human monster. But what makes her monstrous is her beauty. Right off, I love the contradiction here. Deep down, don’t we all want to be beautiful? But for Fire, it is truly a curse. Her beauty is so intense, people either want to give themselves to her body and soul, or they want to possess her, sometimes in violent ways. In addition, her beauty opens people’s minds to her and she can enter their thoughts. She could make anyone be her friend or lover, but Fire understands that this kind of possession is fundamentally unsatisfying. All of her relationships become suspect. Does her best friend and lover Archer love her or her beauty? So her beauty makes her both extraordinarily powerful and extraordinarily lonely.
The fact of Fire’s monstrous beauty/power drives all the “stretching” of Fire in the novel. First there’s Fire’s father. Cansrel is the only other human monster in existence, but he uses his power very differently than Fire. While Fire only enters others’ minds in self-defense, Cansrel enters minds to control, hurt, even kill. Fire hates her father’s misuse of power, but she loves him. And he’s the one being on the planet who understands what it’s like to have a monstrous beauty. When she realizes that Cansrel is destroying the kingdom, Fire is faced with a dilemma: she has the power to stop Cansrel, but to stop him is to lose him and deepen her loneliness.
Fire’s moral code around her power causes further conflict. As a rebellion in the kingdom builds, she is begged by the royal family to use her power to save the kingdom. She loves her kingdom and wants to help, but to do so she will just have to wield her power in the one way she has always resisted—entering people’s minds and making them expose their inner thoughts. Should she save her kingdom or stand by her own moral code?
Then there’s the love interest. Prince Brigan’s mind is one of the few minds strong enough to close Fire out. He seems untouched by her beauty. Here at last might be someone who will see Fire for who rather than what she is. But Prince Brigan hates monsters and mistrusts Fire most of all.
I love Fire because Kristin Cashore created a dynamic, conflicted, empathetic character who has a problem—she’s too beautiful. From this one fact, the story flows. Hmmm. I think I’ll go read it again.