Fire is a monster, and in the Dells, monster means beauty. Monster raptors, monster kittens, monster bugs — they are all beautiful, mesmerizing versions of their “natural” counterparts, with strange pelts and feathers of brilliant colors. They crave the blood of other monsters, and possess the power to sense and manipulate minds. Fire, our protagonist, is the last human monster — and more specifically, a female monster, which brings her even more reverence and hatred in equal measure.
This is a great book… For every girl who can’t jog outside without being whistled at; for every woman who feels disgust as she’s sized up by a stranger’s drooling eyes. What is it about me, she wonders… What compels these men to treat me this way — what is this perversity connected to how delicious I look?
Cashore makes a point of highlighting the problems specific to a female monster. Because monsters crave monster blood, menstruation is a particular danger, and she has to go everywhere with an armed guard lest she be vulnerable to attack. She must cover her fiery red hair, lest the sight of it attract beasts as well. But perhaps the most deadly danger of all is the men who hurt her in pursuit of their desire, the true monster of the story.
Monster-humans inspire sexual desire in the opposite sex (or the gender that is attracted to theirs), and Fire’s problems seem to arise from the more violent way that men react to disappointment. “For every peaceful man,” she writes, “there was a man who wanted to hurt her, even kill her, because she was a gorgeous thing he could not have” (25); later, she asks “Why did hatred so often make men think of rape? … There was a flaw in her monster power. As often as the power of her beauty made one man easy to control, it made another uncontrollable and mad… A monster drew out all that was vile, especially a female monster, because of the desire, and the endless perverted channels for the expression of malice” (107).
Fire, so often the target of the particular violence of male sexual desire, is an incredibly sympathetic protagonist; she is in many ways a victim, but her critical acumen is sharp — cutting into the character of the men who salivate at the very sight of her, even if she is forced to hide because of it. “It was humiliating to have to retreat to a smelly old closet. The blacksmith should be the one to feel humiliated, for he was the dunce who chose to give-up his self control. What if while he gaped at her and imagined whatever his small mind cared to imagine, she convinced him to draw his knife and take out his own eye?” (33). Ha. This is a girl after my own heart, seriously.
What I love about Kristin Cashore is that unlike, say, Stephanie Meyer — who seems to imply in her books that male violence in desire is something inevitable and natural, that cannot be helped, and might even be sexy — Cashore condemns it for what it is. Violence. And though the men in her book seem to be more susceptible to aggression because of their gender, they are not resigned to it as part of their biology. The narrator doesn’t throw up her hands and say, “Well, he’s a man, that’s his nature” (or “he’s a vampire, that’s just how he’s wired”). In fact, a character asserts towards the end of the book that “nature is terrifying” (277).
Take this scene, where Fire insists on talking to a man through the oak door of her bedchamber because his overwhelming desire to possess her resulted in previous assault. Fire’s philosophy here is a good representation of the philosophy of the book at large:
” ‘If you’ll bear with me, Lady, I’ve only two things to say.’
” ‘Go on, Lord King,’ Fire said quietly, her forehead resting against the door.
” ‘The first is an apology, for my entire self.’
“Fire closed her eyes. ‘It’s not your entire self that needs to apologize. Only the part that wants to be taken by my power.’
” ‘I can’t change that part, Lady.’
” ‘You can. If you’re too strong for me to control, then you’re strong enough to control yourself.’
” ‘I can’t, Lady, I swear to it.”
“You don’t want to, she corrected silently. You don’t want to give up the feeling of me, and that is your problem.”
Cashore implies that a man with character masters himself with a self control that comes from maturity and understanding and self knowledge, not mere abstinence and self-denial. The male character in the scene above ends up learning to control his desire, to be in her presence normally and develop a platonic love and respect for her, more deep than any desire. The men in this book don’t just put their desire into a muzzle — they learn to deal with it, really, by controlling their minds and not just their actions. They learn that… It’s just desire, and they move on to other things.
And, because the men are held accountable for controlling their desire in the values of this book, Fire is finally free to appreciate her beauty as a positive aspect of herself! Concept. She realizes that it isn’t the fault of herself, or her monster-beauty (or her delicious smell?) if a man behaves badly to her or does her violence. She isn’t obligated to hide or oppress herself because there are people with poor character who lack self control; furthermore, she can use her powers for good, unashamed — and not only her physical powers.
I think it’s telling that Cashore uses the word “monster” to describe these beautified creatures with psychic insight. Just for fun, I looked up the etymology of the word online. “Monster” comes from the Latin verb monere, “to warn.” Not only is monsterness defined as beauty, but also the capacity to manipulate minds, or more passively — to look into minds. It’s a kind of empathic sight, which Fire learns is not inherently evil, but ultimately neutral depending on how you use it. “A daughter monster chose the monster she would be” (161).
Overall I was really gratified to read a book that celebrated this kind of vision of femininity: a kind of mixture of beauty, empathy, conscience and assertiveness. I think it’s great that young girls have this book to read, and I’ll encourage more girls and women I meet to read it! Next I’d like to read Cashore’s other book, Graceling, to which Fire is supposed to be somewhat of a prequel. Anywho, happy reading!