Fire is basically Graceling. There’s even a villain named Mydogg. I am not kidding. If you liked Graceling, you’ll like this. If you didn’t, you won’t.
The writing is still amazingly amateur and it’s still female protagonist surrounded by important men, although things aren’t as completely imbalanced this time so we have lots of female characters. (The author is at pains to point out how there are women in the army, as expressed by the main character constantly correcting herself to say “Oh wait, not everyone was a guy.” in the most grating and artificial way.)
Unlike Graceling, it doesn’t have a really interesting setting to ruin. This time, there’s a variant of regular animals that are random impossible colors, have mind-controlling beauty and an additional focused telepathy and mind control and also super strength or something, I think, although no sign of it in the main character, because the author hates consistent magic systems. Also, they love to eat each other. When it’s introduced it sounds like they’d eat their own kind and that’s why they have to breed with regular animals instead, but then later there are huge flocks of raptors that work together, because also they love to eat humans, except that doesn’t seem to be a compulsion it just kind of happens. The whole business will proceed to not really matter. The main character is no exception to the magical being cannibalism thing, and it’s just mentioned for occasional angst about how not human and like her dad she is to enjoy the taste.
The technicolor animals are called monsters because that way we can have dramatic lines about how who’s the REAL monster here?! even though it doesn’t make a bit of sense that people who use the word for something specific would still be using it the way we do the rest of the time. If the book had an ounce of self-control, it could’ve managed something clever by having that be implicit to use rather than outright stated by characters, but there is in fact a who’s the real monster line right there in the book.
The story opens with Leck’s backstory, which is dull and plodding. Apparently he was born in the Graceling kingdoms, then stumbled his way into the sparklemonster kingdoms. This also serves to kill the suspense because Fire’s kingdom is concerned with these weird spies who have blank minds and the reader already knows what that is, and also that it’ll be resolved without their intervention.
The worldbuilding is a mess from the beginning, when Leck’s dad takes him into the mountains and we return to the world of 100% predators living in the frozen wastes. Once he gets to the other side, there’s never the slightest attempt to explain why human monsters aren’t common, especially when from what we see they’re extra fond of other human monsters rather than aggressive and should have easily been able to work together enough to take over.
Fire is the LAST HUMAN MONSTER EVER because her grandfather was great but her dad was a dick therefore she can’t have any babies because the babies will obviously be evil. It seems as if also the kingdom has always had a king and his monster adviser, but somehow none of them ever had lots of kids and produced different lines, and somehow none of them ever managed to just be king. Also, monsters can protect against other monsters, so actually the whole system would be way more stable if there were a lot of them.
We are reminded at several times that Fire’s attractiveness is a double-edged sword because it makes people want to rape her, and how it’s different for guys because apparently guys can’t be raped. Again, this is not subtext, the book just flat out says it. This goes well with how Fire has to spend her whole life under constant guard because monsters will attack her, and also being female fucks her over yet again because they have a wide variety of birth control herbs but not a single one that stops periods and period = bleeding therefore the monsters will tear her apart from the smell. If you are a girl, your life will just inherently be worse than if you are a boy. Sorry, girls!
As in Graceling, Fire spends her time hating her power until she realizes it can be used for good, despite manifestly doing that all the time already. As in Graceling, she gets a huge upgrade to her power by realizing she needs to be able to do stuff better for a plan to work, so suddenly she can. As in Graceling, we have sex-positivity and birth control but an absolute terror at marriage. This book also has an even more healthy view of how great assassination is. Oh, and in this book she sterilizes herself in a fit of grief with no sign that can be undone, and then loses two fingers to frostbite permanently, so less magic reset button.
Near the end I swear Leck just pops in again from a completely different story to be obsessed with her. (On the other hand, the rest of the story is less like several novellas stitched together, so on balance, maybe more coherent.) Kid Leck, for some reason, thinks she’s the bestest thing ever and wants her to be his friend in taking over the world, even though her powers are scissors to his paper – his powers just make her annoyed, she can undo his mindcontrol by thinking at it, and the afteraffects make it so she can puppet around the people herself with particular ease. Their powers aren’t even particularly complimentary, because they’ve got too much overlap – the only thing his powers do that she can’t is the infectious bit, so he doesn’t have anything much to offer her, and sure, she can offer some things he can’t do, but she can’t be controlled so he has no way of actually making her do it, and all he has to defend himself is that his own mind is so alien she can’t even sense it. I was thinking it was her monster-beauty, but that seems to be a supernatural effect and Kid Leck is immune to the supernatural control and we even see him casually mutilating other monsters.
The bit where he kidnaps her is just infuriating because it really only works because she won’t do anything like just control someone into stabbing him, and then when she’s finally moved to action she slaughters the whole place (???????????????) but for some reason doesn’t just order someone to kill him rather than burning all his poor mind-controlled people, and so he gets out to menace her again.
Then he falls into a cave and presumably that’s how he wanders back into Graceling’s setting, and her horse ex machina saves her over and over, and then it’s back to the main story about armies fighting until the good army wins.