by Kristin Cashore
I hadn't picked this one up right away, because I heard that Katsa, the star of Graceling, was not in it... and I loved Katsa so much, I couldn't picture the Seven Kingdoms without her. What a mistake! This was a fabulous book, and almost more of a companion novel, rather than a true prequel. On the other side of the mountains, completely cut off from the Gracelings, we get a glimpse of a parallel world. To be honest, it nearly could have been a different series altogether if it weren't for the brief inclusion of creepy Leck, who possesses the "Grace" of mind-control.
The titular character of this novel, Fire, grew up in an isolated mountain retreat with her best friend and sometime lover Archer and foster father Lord Brocker. In this world, technicolored super-versions of every species are referred to as "monsters." Fire is a human monster, with telepathic powers. She can influence others thoughts, read minds, and communicate through telepathy. Her mere presence is usually enough to provoke strong feelings in other humans and in the monster-creatures around her. Fire's father Cansrel was the advisor of King Nax, who led the kingdom into ruin with his penchant for drugs and parties. Cansrel was an exceptionally cruel person who delighted in torturing others, and reveled in the stupefying effect he had on ordinary humans. Fire wants, more than anything, to be different than him.
Prince Brigan approaches Fire to ask for her help with a delicate political situation in the capitol, which she initially refuses to do, until his thoughtfulness and kindness finally win her over. He is less susceptible to her magical aura, and provides her with a group of female bodyguards to escort her. At the climax of the story, Fire stretches her mental powers to the utmost, by keeping track of an entire castle-full of occupants during an evening of espionage at a state dinner and carefully nudging players to be in the right place, at the right time.
I wondered whether most teens would be interested in reading about Fire's intense conflicts on whether it would be right for her to have children, and her ultimate decision not to have children, not wanting to create more "monsters" like herself. This was a powerful and engaging story, however. The writing is lyrical and vibrant and the world-building is incredible. Many of the themes verge on the adult, including patricide, making this a more appropriate choice for older teens.
I borrowed this book from the library.