Kristin Cashore's FIRE is a feminist fantasy masterwork


Fire doesn’t get as much attention as its sequel, Graceling, a more adventure-full romp set in the same fantasy world. Fire is a quieter story, light on plot, and suffused with the melancholy of a protagonist who is utterly alone. As the last human monster, Fire has the power to manipulate and control the minds of regular humans. Although “monster” is not used pejoratively in the book, the word is chosen advisedly. Human beings in Fire’s world fear and worship monsters in equal measure. They are drawn to the monsters’ exquisite beauty, feel the urge to touch and love and even own monsters, and live in perpetual fear of what monsters might do with their power.

In other words, monsters are women.

The kingdom of the Dells is a perfect fantasy metaphor for our own patriarchy. Fire is repeatedly assaulted, hated, pursued, and judged for the simple act of existing. The humans blame her for their own attraction to her. And Fire deeply internalizes their condemnation. She hates and fears her own powers. She sees herself as a danger to the world and feels guilt over how others react to her. It is the miraculous, only partially-completed journey of the novel that Fire learns to find value in her own abilities, to stop hating herself, and to no longer accept the actions of other people as her own responsibility.

Spoilers ahead…..

Archer & Brigan

The two quasi-love interests are perfect examples of toxic masculinity. Archer’s story is ultimately tragic because he can’t find his way out of that mindset, and it kills him. Brigan becomes a lovable hero because he does escape his screwed-up perceptions.

Archer is Fire’s best friend. They grew up side by side. He loves and respects Fire and knows her intimately as an individual. Yet he can’t look past his attraction to her. Try as he might, Archer never stops being susceptible to Fire’s “monster” appeal. In the context of the fantasy universe, Fire sees him as weak-minded, without the discipline to block out her magic. In a feminist reading, Archer can’t stop objectifying her. He’s so locked into physically desiring Fire as a prize to be won that it spoils their friendship. Archer runs away, seeking distance to achieve this on his own, but dies in the attempt.

Brigan starts off mired in a different sort of toxicity. Not knowing Fire personally, he hates her when they first meet. He assumes that, as a monster, she will intentionally use her wily lures to manipulate the men in his circle. He blames her for his own and his brother’s reactions to her, and so viciously resents her that he physically attacks and injures her in their first encounter. Brigan is toxic masculinity at its most violent.

I’ll be honest, this introduction of Brigan soured me on him as a hero, though he always wins me over by book’s end. Brigan is a successful fantasy-world exemplar of a man raised in patriarchy who eventually throws off his backwards thinking. He gets to know Fire and sees that she isn’t the conniving vixen he expected. More powerfully, in the context of the Dells, he strengthens his mind to the point that he’s hardly affected by Fire the “monster” at all. He engages with her as a human being whom he deeply loves, and helps his brother do the same. Brigan comes to love Fire romantically without seeing her as an object to possess, fear, or destroy.


A quick note about Fire and Cansrel. Their father-daughter dynamic is, by a wide margin, my favorite part of this novel. The slow unfolding of their backstory is a masterpiece of pacing and storytelling — and it’s heartbreaking. I think it’s Cashore’s greatest achievement in the novel.

I don’t have much to say about it here, however. Fire and Cansrel don’t fit neatly into a feminist analysis. Certainly the contrast between these two monsters supports the reading — Fire, as a woman monster, is subject to assault and scorn, while Cansrel, a male monster, receives deference and freedom. But the crux of their relationship is about filial love in the face of fatal flaws, about defining yourself against your parent’s example, and about competing moral obligations. All of which has little to do with patriarchy.

But if I’m missing an obvious interpretation here, please share!


Fire is a brave, cautious, and above all empathetic heroine. It’s her empathy that holds her back from exploring her own abilities and from better protecting herself. But it’s also that same empathy that keeps her from turning into the wretched villain her father became. The way she gains confidence and a sense of self-worth over the course of the story is the great victory of the novel.

Which complicates one of the actions in the book that is traditionally praised as a feminist act — Fire’s decision to sterilize herself against ever having children. In Graceling, as I recall, Katsa doesn’t have children due to simple preference. I frankly find that a more powerful choice than Fire’s dread of bringing more monsters into the world. It makes sense in the context of the story. But it is underscored by a remnant of self-hatred that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Fire’s journey is one of self-acceptance, and her decision not to have children when she longs to so much muddies her victory.

The Call


The email came on a Tuesday: a literary agent wanted to talk to me. And not just any agent - Andrea Somberg, who’d repped Dana Mele’s People Like Us, was into 20th century fiction and YA historical fiction in general, and worked for the super-esteemed Harvey Klinger Agency.

First, I screamed. Next, I went to my office bathroom and jumped up and down for about two minutes straight. Third, I tried to talk myself down: it could be a Revise & Resubmit call. Or, I’d even read horror stories about agents scheduling a call with writers just to decline them gently! It was dangerous to get my hopes up too much.

You see, I had a lot of energy invested in this book. I started writing it in May 2014 after spending a year obsessed with and immersed in Russian Revolutionary history. After two years I had a 500-page, incredibly messy first draft. I spent another year revising it, and then started querying.

17 queries sent. 1 partial request, ultimately ghosted.

Concerned with my lack of success, I turned to the YA Writers subreddit for help. I shared my query for critique. And on that thread, a moderator named Alexa Donne messaged me to encourage me to apply for Author Mentor Match, a mentorship program for unpublished writers. They were short on YA historical fiction entries, and she thought my book sounded fun.

So I applied, and was accepted! In December 2017 I was matched with J. Albert Mann, a smart and sharp-eyed historical fiction author, and beautiful human being. Jen read my book. She got it. She even liked it. She also flagged big character issues for me, and talked me through my angst over plot holes. Above all, she believed in me.

Jen gave me the courage to rewrite the whole book in dual-POV. My initial 500-page draft had been split into part 1: Evgenia, part 2: Anna. But in revising down to one story, I’d cut out one of the POVs. With Jen’s help I went back and rewrote the now 275-page book in alternating POV chapters.

The book needed that change. Desperately.

I started querying again in September 2018. My query letter wasn’t all that different, but the book was. This time around I ended up querying 50 agents (including a few re-queries from the first round), had seventeen full requests, and two offers of representation.

Oh, that’s right — because that call with Andrea? It wasn’t a Revise & Resubmit, and it wasn’t a gentle rejection. It was The Call.

Andrea was enthusiastic about the story and the characters. She had a ton of editors in mind who might be interested, and a methodical approach for the submissions process. She connected me to two of her clients who raved about her, and she was incredibly patient in giving me time to talk to them, ask her questions, and dig into the business side of her rates, contract details and agency practices.

We met for lunch to celebrate signing with each other, at a quiet restaurant overlooking Central Park. Andrea was even warmer and more adorable in person. She clearly knew everything there was to know about agenting. She was even encouraging about my other book ideas, even though we talked about how they might be challenging to market.

I wish I’d taken a picture at that lunch, or recorded my first phone call with her. They are now dear memories to me. Not only did I meet my new business partner, but it was the first time my writing was recognized as something more than a hobby. The first time my lifelong dream of being published actually touched my reality.

Someone whose job it was to know good writing thought my writing was good. That call changed everything.

Back to the blog.

The Revolution: A Bibliography


Starting in spring of 2013 I became a little obsessed with the Russian Revolution. All my life I’d heard America’s rhetoric about the evils of communism, and always sort of wondered how something so idealistic could be so wrong.

I decided to finally educate myself, and picked up Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. Whew. This 1,000-page tome took me two months to read… and I enjoyed every second of it. Talk about your epic stories: tragic heroes and cartoonish villains. Wars overlapping with wars, spanning countries and continents. Popular uprisings. Violent coups. Political shenanigans. Also, did you know that there were actually two Russian Revolutions, within the span of 8 months, followed by a 5-year Civil War?

And through it all, the people of Russia kept striving for something better. For peace. For representative government. For equality. As we know now, they didn’t get any of that. Instead they got Stalin. In this book, Orlando Figes walks you through the end of Tsar Alexander III’s brutal reign, the many missteps of his ill-prepared son Nicholas II, the crucible effect of WWI, the calamitous role of heir Alexei’s hemophilia, the corrupting influence of Rasputin, the February Revolution, the short-lived quasi-democratic Provisional Government, the return of Lenin, the October Revolution, and the subsequent civil war.

While covering the politics, Figes never loses sight of their impact on the people, and in fact the book focuses on it — the soldiers fighting on the front lines without boots or guns or respect; the women dealing with food shortages and upheaval on the home front; the peasants repeatedly beset by political activists trying to organize them for someone else’s gain; the children who were finally, slowly gaining access to education; and of course the workers, at the dawn of unionization, reading the words of Marx and Engels and awakening to their own exploitation.

As you can probably tell from my inability to resist rambling, I gobbled it all up. And at the end of the 1,000 pages, I was desperate to learn more. Luckily Figes wrote something of a sequel in The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.

And by that point, I was hooked but good. I read everything I could get my hands on — which, given how pivotal and how well-documented the Revolution was, there was plenty to find. Here are some of the books that were most influential to my research:

These are just some of the books I read for fun before and during the writing of Daughters of a Dead Empire. There were many more not mentioned here, and then additional books I looked up once I started revising, to do spot-on research. I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to include a proper bibliography in a published book.

It’s probably also worth mentioning some of the novels I read that influenced my mindset/approach. While writing DDE, I was part of a Russian literature book club so I got to read a ton of classics, but the most relevant here are probably:

  • The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov

  • A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

  • Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

  • The Inspector General, Nikolai Gogol

  • Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (which features heavily in my book!)

Now, there’s a very heavy anti-Soviet bias to just about everything I read, especially the nonfiction — as I’m only reading histories written in English, that bias is pervasive in our literature about the Revolution. For example: many of these books allude to earlier historians “naive acceptance” of the idea that October was a legitimate revolution. Yet ALL of the books I read concurred that it was a semi-violent and unpopular coup. I haven’t been able to find any alternative English-language theories.

I did spend 3 months trying to learn Russian, towards a faint hope of someday being fluent enough to read it. :-) When that didn’t work out, I figured that my own liberal tendencies probably balanced out the conservative inclinations of Pipes and the like, to allow me a somewhat realistic impression of both the perks of the Revolution (increased literacy and access to education, slightly more representative government [than Tsarism], greater gender equality, more tolerance towards Jews), and its failings (mass murder, repression, totalitarianism).

December 2018


I'm a fan of the annual holiday letter. I know they're sometimes mocked for being sugar-coated and braggadocious, but I love receiving them. I have a few friends and family members who still send a holiday letter out. They're a snapshot into someone's life, a way to catch up on the big events I missed, and insight into what matters most to the writer. In that spirit, I thought I'd share my own end-of-year letter on this blog.

Major Takeaways

For the first time since age 13 I found myself unemployed this year. From July through November I lived off savings and job-hunted, after leaving a job I enjoyed because of an erratic boss. Those five months were....great. Every weekday I packed up my notebooks, laptop, lunch, and a thermos of green tea, and Citibiked across town to Columbia's Butler library. I holed up in a beautiful little cubicle that looked like this:


And I spent the whole day writing. 10-4, 5, or 6pm each day, depending on how in the flow I got.

For the first month I finished revising The Devil's Wall. Starting in August I began a brand new novel, Stardwellers. And in September I began querying agents for TDW. I'll remember 2018 as the year of full-time writing, my taste of that life I'd always dreamed of. It turns out I don't particularly need to see or interact with other people on a daily basis. I didn't miss it at all. What I really want from an occupation is just a sense of purpose and a reason to leave the house every day. That, and money. All of which is why I very, very happily accepted the new job I was offered and began this month!


In July my mother and I spent a week in my favorite town in America, Milford, PA. We stayed at an Airbnb, a compact house on an acre or two of lush green woods. We ate every meal outside on the covered porch. We hiked and saw gorgeous vistas. We kayaked down the Delaware River (kind of a glorious disaster). We saw deer, eagles, rabbits. My favorite memory from the trip is us sitting on the porch as a rainstorm came in. As it grew cloudy, we watched gusts of wind wrench distant trees, muss the tall grass in a nearby field, and finally tear through the trees in our yard. The rain followed the same route. For a long time we stayed outside, enjoying the noise and the cool mist that reached under our awning, a treat after a long, scorching day.

Good Things

I keep a jar on my bookshelf that's filled with "Good Things": a few words apiece on scraps of folded paper. I write down beautiful sights, funny conversations, dear memories, and accomplishments of all sizes, and save them in the jar. At the end of each year, usually on New Year's Eve, I pour them out and reread them, and am filled with joy from remembering so many things I'd already forgotten.This year the jar was full of the new job, writing achievements, time spent with family, fun volunteer days, my writing groups, and new friends made (I was shocked to remember that I only met my amazing mentor just this year!).

So while it was hard to leave a job I liked, to live in a country periodically losing its mind, to watch my grandmother's health weaken, and to have my brother decide to join his fiancee in Chile because of the US's impenetrable visa system, it's the good things I want to keep with me. Those are the events I want to shape my personal narrative. It's the small joys along the way that make everything else worth it.

<3 Carolyn



For the month of November I'm going to track my progress in typing up my Stardwellers manuscript! Because you know there's nothing I love more than ticking things off a list or tracking my progress towards a goal.Btw, what is NaNoTyMo? National Novel Typing Month, of course! :-DMy total word count is just an estimate, but I think I've got around 95,000 100,000 words of draft 1. So eight days into the month, I'm a third of the way there! :-DHere's the bar I'll use to track my progress, with updated date below:

104192 / 100000 words. 104% done! Finished on 11/19!!

I did it!!!!


Oh, beautiful checklist of chapters. Look at you now:IMG_2770I did it, I did it!!!!So, yeah. Draft 1 of Stardwellers complete. Even though I plotted very carefully in advance, I still feel as if I have a big ol' mess on my hands. But not as messy as The Devil's Wall draft 1 was. This one's messy in a different way. It lacks strong protagonists. That's work I didn't do in advance - sketching out my characters enough. Live and learn! I'll do that between drafts 1 and 2, and then find out if it's fixable.Also, I decided that it should be multi-POV. Because why write from 2 POVs when you can write from 5?! Aren't I full of great ideas!? To be honest, I'm looking forward to writing those new POV chapters. I didn't get to explore the secondary cast nearly as much as I wanted; I didn't have the room. So now I'm going to let them elbow their way in.But for now, my next step is to type up the manuscript. That's my NaNoWriMo goal. I'm calling it NaNoTyMo. Maybe I'll track my progress here, or on Twitter. Or...on my wall! Checklist #2, coming up!Go, me! :-D

Nearly 3/4 of the way there


I've had this checklist on my wall since mid-August. Steadily marking my progress has brought me so much joy:IMG_2729On the one hand, I thought I'd be further along by now. OTOH, I realize how ridiculous that is, and am SO PLEASED WITH MYSELF. Look at all those chapters I've drafted!!! Even better: look how few I have left to go!!!!!I've written about 250 pages in 2 months. That is thanks to writing full-time, of course. I missed a couple of weeks here and there, but overall, I've devoted most of my sabbatical to writing. And it's been so much fun.The amazing thing is that I wasn't sure if I could write this novel at all. I approached Stardwellers with a very new process. I'm a lifelong pantser, but this time, I plotted everything out in advance -- every single scene. It's felt a little mechanical at times. And I haven't connected with the characters deeply. Most of my edits will have to focus on character -- but at least, 15 chapters in, I think I've figured out their key arcs.Here's the other surprise: I wasn't sure if I could write full-time. I worried that 8 hours of writing on one day would leave me too drained to write the next. That hasn't been the case at all. Oh, it happens sometimes -- but I've pretty consistently been able to write day in and day out. Great practice for if I ever am able to afford living as a full-time writer. :-DOverall, the point is: I did it. I haven't finished yet, but I'm nearly there. Just look at that checklist!! I am totally pulling. It. Off.PS: Because I've been dying to share this with the world but not really ready to, here is the aesthetic I created for Stardwellers!! :-DStardwellers Aesthetic 2

Lord have mercy


I found a story I wrote when I was 11.

It is amazing. I am just about dead from laughing. It's called "A New Life for Me," about a 12-yr-old girl named Edith Collins. In the span of one day, she:

  • learns her family is moving to NYC

  • is thrown a goodbye/birthday party, in which her friends gift her with large amounts of money

  • legally changes her name to Denise

  • flies to NYC

  • departs the plane moments before it explodes, killing everyone else onboard

  • meets a whole new crowd of kids her age

  • is asked out on dates by every boy she meets

  • and more!

For your enjoyment, here are 5 HILARIOUS pages from the 60-page story. You'll note that by the second page I got sick of 3rd person and switched to 1st. Also note the 5-minute move on page 4, and the highly accurate depiction of her plane ride on page 5.