The short answer? Kristin Cashore.
I’d been getting slightly fed up with the recent wave of Young Adult ‘dystopian’ literature, which took very interesting premises, and used them to cover up basic, boring Twilight-esque romances (I’m looking at you, Divergent, Delirium and Uglies). While these were entertaining enough, they made me feel like I was far too old to be bothering with this sort of stuff. Maybe I am, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think that a book being labelled YA necessarily makes it a poor read; in fact, they can be incredible (here, I’m looking at you, Hunger Games, Poison Study, and especially Daughter of Smoke and Bone). It took reading Graceling in May 2012 to make me recognise that I should try again with YA, and finishing Fire last night made me want to talk about why I love these books so much.
Kristin Cashore’s novels definitely fit into the BRILLIANT category of YA fiction, in part because they never feel like they’re talking down. There’s a girl with unusual power and a feisty, liberal outlook, yes. There’s a love triangle, yes (more so in Fire than Graceling). But the difference is that these heroines are flawed, likeable, and utterly human (even when superhuman) and the descriptions of romance raw and real and breath-stealing. Both these books made me cry, but not from deaths or obvious sadness, just from the frustration and resignation of the characters to a realistic life: the good guys don’t always win, and they often have to sacrifice their happiness to reach the ‘happy ending’.
Cashore’s writing is tight, and the dialogue is good, never forced. Even in Fire, which uses italics to signify telepathic speech, the conversations felt smooth and nuanced. While there are some more two-dimensional characters, as would be expected from books under 400 pages long, the reader really gets a sense that the world in which Katsa and Fire live has been fully fleshed out, from the politics to the landscape to the flora and fauna. My one bugbear is that her naming is sometimes a little awkward: a Prince named Po (admittedly a nickname, but the one he uses throughout the book)? Another prince whose name is Brigandell (not horrible sounding, until you realise that it contains the word ‘brigand’, surely not a good association)? Characters named Hannah, Clara and Tess mix with the more exotic Immiker, Cansrel, Katsa and Tealiff.
I adore Katsa and Fire. They are very mature for 18 and 17 respectively, and react like real people to all kinds of situations. Neither of them ever feels overpowered, despite their talents, because Cashore makes it plain that using their talents has enormous consequences mentally, physically and even politically. I love the fact that neither girl is silly about romance: they are both cynical, but (that word again) realistic, placing romance below safety in their priorities, but also being open and sensible about what they want. It is clear that Cashore does not fetishise marriage as many YA romance authors are keen to do, which is wonderful to read. These are strong, go-getting girls. Why should they only strive for marriage to a prince? The relationships themselves are also realistic, with both heroines having sexual relationships before marriage – I found this extremely refreshing, as the relationships are shown developing and being considered by both parties, and sex is shown to be an important and bonding part of these relationships.
Wow, I love these books. The plots are twisty and exciting, the characters are refreshingly, engagingly real, the setting is beautifully tuned, and both books cry out to be read in one sitting. Okay, they’re not as intricate as, say, Game of Thrones, but I love them because of that, because of the power behind these character-driven stories. They are still not simple, and they do not deserve the libel of being compared to Twilight on the front cover. Weedy, submissive Bella could not be further from the incredible, powerful, believable Katsa and Fire. I can’t wait to pick up Bitterblue when it comes out in regular-sized paperback.
Have you read these (or indeed, Bitterblue)? As always, any recommendations?