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April 03, 2010

Reading Update w/ Thylacine

Kinda like a dog, kinda like a cat, but it's a marsupial! With a big mouth!

I posted the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine) above in honor of my reading updates today:

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

The thylacine shows up in Westerfeld's Leviathan, where it is the only "natural" (i.e. non DNA-manipulated) creature around. I really wanted to see one after reading the book and there it is. What an awesome animal! What a terrible pity they're extinct!

The book is fun! My no-review rule holds here, though.

Fire was very different in a lot of ways from Graceling. It is a good, solid, adventure fantasy with strong wish fulfillment and romance elements in it. But the female hero's power isn't ass-kicking. It's (basically) beauty, with a bunch of telepathy thrown in. This was very interestingly handled, since Cashore didn't make it either a dream-job-type deal, like the beautiful princesses in fairy tales, who are purely loved, or a simplistic my-life-is-so-hard-pity-me deal. But she did show that beauty is a very mixed blessing, especially this kind of magical beauty, which forces people to behave in extreme ways.

The protag, Fire, is a "monster," a brightly-colored version of her species (in this case, human, although there are monsters of every animal species as well) which possesses a mesmerizing beauty, telepathic powers, and a strong lust for the flesh of other monsters. (Note: Cashore seems to forget this last part when dealing with Fire, so that we never actually get to see Fire chowing down monsterly on other monsters. Boo.) Fire is the last human monster, daughter of a monster father who was really a monster: he controlled the king and brought the kingdom to ruin. Now, with her father and the king he controlled dead for a couple of years, and the kingdom on the brink of ruin, Fire has to help the new king and his brother, a military prodigy who commands the kingdom's army and Fire's love interest, prevent the kingdom from splitting up.

In the meantime, Fire has to fend off (usually not by herself) predatory monsters who want to eat her, and (mostly male) humans who love her too much, or hate her. And she has to decide how best to use her telepathic powers without becoming a true monster like her father.

I have to say, this was great in the first half of the book, but then when we got into the second half, where all of Fire's principles are compromised, it kinda fell apart. SPOILERS FOLLOW! For example: she never trusts any of the men who fall in love with her -- including her best friend Archer, who truly loves her, but is also controlled by her magical beauty. Yet she never questions Brigan's (the king's brother) admittedly reluctant love. This isn't satisfying. In Graceling, Cashore is careful to set up a romance in which each of the two lovers is able to protect themselves against the other's power. This doesn't happen here, so Cashore should have had some sort of reckoning with Fire's beauty and how it affected Brigan ... but we never get there.

Fire also struggles with using her telepathy to control other people for the good of the kingdom. But when she finally gives in and starts using it -- struggle over. She (and we) never see the slippery slope, even though we know it's there. Too simplistic. And finally, she is essentially treated (by the author) as physically helpless. She never really kicks ass, even though she has the power to protect herself from any attacking individual. She never loses her temper, never strikes back against any of the men who throw themselves at her. It makes her unsympathetic, that she never takes charge of protecting herself, even though she does eventually agree to use her powers for the good of the kingdom. There's a lot of potential complexity in her that was left sitting around.

I really wanted to love this book, but I just didn't. It didn't have the perfection -- the matching of means to end -- that Graceling did. Maybe because it was a little more ambitious, and was trying something very tricky. There's a lesson right there: give the more ambitious books more time.

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