I had been pushing off reading this book because as much as I enjoyed Graceling, the first novel in this trilogy, I had heard less than positive things about Fire. The great thing about this trilogy, however, is the fact that the novels are more companion novels than a straight up trilogy so I didn't need to read this to see where the story went due to any unresolved questions. I was happy with where Katsa was at the end of Graceling, and this novel does nothing to mess with that. In fact, while it is the second one written and published, it actually takes place prior to Graceling, in a realm that is mentioned in passing in Graceling as mysterious and unknown. The novel provides a bit more context for a character from Graceling but it isn't necessary - I think Cashore mostly added it for the readers to enjoy the connection between her two novels, not because she necessarily felt that this person needed more exploration.
On the one hand, I was very interested in this world, and the kingdom that is still dealing with the aftermath of a corrupt ruler. While the old king is dead, there has not been enough time to heal all wounds that he has caused, and the new king, Nash, faces threats from outside kingdoms and internal forces. Cashore also introduces "monsters," which are basically mutations of existing species that display incredible colors, produce a pheromone (I don't think it was quite explained that way but that's how it makes sense to me) that make them attractive to other creatures and even have the ability to exert a certain amount of mind control on non-monsters. Some of these animals are incredibly vicious and threatening while others are kept as pets and luxury items. Fire is the last known human monster, her deceased father being the corrupting influence that caused the previous king to lead his people into a precarious position. Given her father's actions, Fire is incredibly afraid to use her powers, even when they could be of use, and refuses to use her mind to influence others unless absolutely necessary, such as under threat of death.
Unfortunately, Fire is the weak part of the novel. I actually understand Cashore's decision to have a different type of heroine than Katsa, and portray someone whose power is less physical, and more due to her caring and emotions, but I think she went to the extreme with Fire. Additionally, talking about Fire's beauty and the attraction men feel for her, sometimes attempting to act on it forcefully, could all lead to discussions about rape culture and issues regular women face every day in a much less obvious or intense manner. However, I feel like the novel went too far in this focus, and Fire's seeming passivity got annoying. I also got tired of hearing about her beauty, and how men and monsters were constantly in pursuit of her, especially the parts about how it was worse when she was on her period. Once again, I think there are parallels to be drawn to modern day, such as Fire feeling like she has to cover herself up to avoid unwanted attentions rather than expecting men (and animals) to control themselves). I would also say this novel was slightly more focused on the love story aspect, and while I could see the appeal of Brigan, Fire's love interest, but their attraction wasn't as convincingly developed as in the case of Katsa and Po.
Still, the story is good, and while Fire is often annoying, even she has her moments. It just seems to take her forever to realize certain things about herself, and the thing that haunts her was obvious from two or three chapters in. I also enjoy that Cashore tries to show different attitudes about sex in her novels, showing that it doesn't have to only be inside marriage, that things can be complicated, even giving Fire a sexual past and history before meeting Brigan. I did get annoyed with everyone's obsession with Fire (which is part of the plot due to her being a monster), and the focus on sex in that perspective but I can also see where it could be used as a conversation starter and parallel to current attitudes about women and sex. Overall, I would say this is closer to 2.5 for me than 3, but I rounded up because of the strength of the plotting and because Graceling was so good.