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[personal profile] valtyr posting in [community profile] fantasy
These two novels are the first two by Kristin Cashore. They're young adult fantasy, and while Fire is set in the same world as Graceling, they only have a slight connection - they're set in neighbouring countries that don't really interact, and only share one character. (These reviews do not contain plot spoilers, but have some information about the world-building, so if you like to come to novels completely cold, don't click the cut!)

There are two main things I enjoy about these books. One, they take a lot of fantasy cliches and pick them apart, from the 'noble lady who is kind to her inferiors' to the 'mesmerizingly beautiful woman with tumbling red hair' to 'inborn gift'. Two, the attitudes towards women and their fertility are a delightful novelty in a medieval fantasy setting - there is contraeceptive, and it is used. There are abortifacients, and while they are less commonly known, at least one pregnant woman expresses disgust at having missed her chance, and her friend assures her that if she'd known of it, she would have fetched her some. When women accidentally get pregnant out of wedlock, it's not treated as shameful; a man arranges payment for the support of his illegitimate child, and it's societally regarded as the least he could do, rather than an act of particular generosity. One heroine does not want children at all; the other does, but fears passing on her power to them. They are both shown as having every right to control their own fertility. This is so rare in fantasy, and I was ridiculously pleased to see it.

Graceling is about Katsa, who is the niece of the King, and his most feared thug, due to her inborn Grace - that of killing. Certain people have Graces, areas in which they are incredibly skilled, ranging from telepathy to baking, and these are signified by mismatched eyes. Gracelings, in this society, are automatically property of the King. Most monarchs will have a few Graced fighters in their guard, Graced cooks in their kitchen, Graced riders in their stables. Gracelings are not universally loved or reviled; only those dangerously Graced, like Katsa, are treated with caution and fear, and this is partly due to the efforts of Katsa's uncle, the King, to have her surrounded by mystique.

Katsa isn't totally isolated; she has several friends, who she cares for. Her colleagues, who accompany her on missions, her cousin, the crown prince, her servant. All are depicted as independent characters, whose lives do not entirely centre on the heroine.

Further, unlike many fantasy novels, the protagonist is not just waiting for the plot to happen. We join Katsa mid-mission, a secret mission, because Katsa long ago realised her uncle the King is not a nice man, and his country is far from perfect, and she's actually taken action about this. She is a character who actively engages with things, who doesn't just react to events. When, for example, she protects a inn serving girl from a predatory customer, she doesn't dismiss the matter from her mind, but considers the dangers that exist for women who lack her Grace and her rank to defend themselves, and later decides to start teaching young women basic fighting skills.

There is a romance in the book, and it's nicely done. The hero is respectful of the heroine's skills, and supportive of her; he also has his own plans and skills, and while he doesn't subordinate them to hers, Katsa doesn't subordinate hers to his. They compromise, and work things out, and trust each other.

The writing of Graceling is a bit clunky in some places, and I thought some plot twists were a bit obvious; it's a first novel, though, and the writing smooths out a bit in Fire.

Fire is about a woman who is a monster. Monsters happen in most species; they have lurid colouring and some ability to mind control. Fire, the heroine, has stunning red hair and is well-nigh irresistible. This fantasy cliche, again, is pulled apart and poked at; there's a nice scene where a woman walks up to Fire, besotted, and tries to embrace her, and Fire thinks how much she would like to be comforted; and then the woman sees a monster-raptor lurking outside the window, and holds out her arms to it just as she did to Fire.

It's a much more elaborate plot than Graceling, far more political, and while it sags a little in places, the characters pull you along. The heroine has a love story, again, and it's well done; she has more than one lover, and asserts her right to love as she pleases, without jealousy or possessiveness.

This book, more than the previous one, addresses power and the abuse of it. While Katsa had to come to terms with her powers of killing, and how to use them responsibly, Fire has the far trickier task of working out the ethics of her ability to control and influence minds. Her father, also a monster, abused his power horrendously, and tried to teach her to do the same; she's been left with a great fear of becoming like him.

The writing is smoother than Graceling, but still serviceable rather than inspired. The plot is kind of sketched in in places, as is the world - it has rather a stage-set feeling, just a backdrop. But the characters are nicely done, vivid and complex, with real human feelings towards each other. This one knocks the Bechdel test out of the park, too. And at every step there were women taking control of their lives. Also one of the secondary character was paraplegic, and it is mentioned that some characters are homosexual - when the female lead has personal guards it's mentioned that they're mostly women and men who prefer men, and it's implied that the female lead has had female lovers in the past, although this is unclear. There were no characters of colour that I noticed, though. This is possibly a side-effect of the limited world-building, so I hope as the author goes on her skills in this area will expand and there will be some racial diversity.

Anyway, I really enjoyed both these book, I am eagerly awaiting the third, and I totally recommend them, for adults or young adults. (Fire does have a fair bit of discussion of rape, but there's nothing explicit and no rape is committed within the timeframe of the book.)
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