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.
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.