The fire becomes herRosiee Thor (Scholastic 978-1-33867-911-3, $18.99, 368pp, hc) February 2022.
At Rosiee Thor’s The fire becomes her, Candesce, a nation similar to the United States in the 1920s, is on the cusp of a historic presidential election. Gwendolyn Brooks, a former artist, challenges Senator Holt, an excessively wealthy man whom everyone considers a shoemaker. When she was a child, Ingrid Ellis’ father was thrown in prison for smuggling flares, the magic of this world. After earning a scholarship to a hoity-toity academy, Ingrid vowed to never allow herself to be defined by her father’s actions. Over the years, she has climbed the social ladder, in part by becoming attached to Senator Holt’s son, Linden, who the press says will one day run for president himself.
Now, with the election looming, it’s time for Ingrid to get moving. To prove herself to the senator, she embarks on the opposition campaign as a spy. However, the more she learns about Gwendolyn’s policies and plans for Candesce, the less comfortable she feels with the prospect of a Holt presidency. Alex, one of Gwendolyn’s assistants, takes Ingrid under his wing, and something happens between them, not a romance but something bigger and deeper and less easily understood by Ingrid. Soon Ingrid will have to choose between a future where she can never be herself and a future where she will have to sacrifice her dreams.
If you like flawed main characters, you’ll love Ingrid. She’s a smart young woman who could become a smart adult if she ever figured out how to get out of her own way. Ingrid is a hot mess of epic proportions. Each time she is offered a choice, she inevitably chooses the worst, the most chaotic. She does this under the guise of trying to get ahead, but every time she takes a step forward, she immediately shoots herself in the foot. Yet throughout it all, Rosiee Thor carefully manages Ingrid’s identity. Not fully understanding her homosexuality leads her down difficult paths, but Thor never makes it seem like being a bisexual aromantic is in itself a flaw.
It is unfortunately not uncommon for queer people and alloromantics to see those on the spectrum of asexuality or aromantism as lacking a valid identity, as in need of correction. The same goes for cis writers who attempt trans and non-binary/genderfluid/genderqueer stories. Even those who claim to be allies often fall into allo- or cisnormative language and tropes, and may unwittingly perpetuate harmful stereotypes while trying to write differently. Over the past few years, fans of speculative fiction, both young adult and adult, have been blessed with an ever-increasing number of works featuring characters across the asexual, aromantic, and of gender. (For those who follow, among all the characters of The fire becomes her, only two are heterosexual; the rest are gay, including lesbian, bisexual, aromantic, asexual, non-binary, and transmasc.)
As an ace/aro genderqueer person, this new series of articles on expanding the way homosexuality is written about has made reading less of a minefield, as I now have many more OwnVoices options among which ones to choose. I try not to get too attached to OwnVoices as a label – my main concern is that the writing feels authentic without trying to be overarching – but often you can see the experience in the seams: the thrill private that Ingrid feels when she meets someone who is also queer but more open and confident in their identity, the fear that because you don’t view relationships like most people, you’re doing it wrong or that there’s something wrong with you, that the way you feel in your body doesn’t match how you feel in regards to your body or the way others interpret your body. Thanks to Alex and Ingrid, cis and allo readers get a nuanced look at some less commonly represented queer identities, while non-binary and arospec readers can see the truth of our big-picture experiences.
The novel’s only real weak point is its world-building. Thor keeps the focus on Ingrid, so much so that we explore little of the world around her. Although the characters travel to different cities and neighborhoods, the reader has no idea of the layout or socio-cultural makeup of the areas. Flare and flicker (the watered down, hand-crafted version of flare) are explained just enough to make sense for the plot, but that’s about it. At first, that’s not much of a problem, but later, as Ingrid’s use of lens flare turns into something more unique, it gets a little confusing.
More information on Candesce’s history and the roles reflections and shimmer played in its development would also have gone a long way. Obviously the election battle between Gwendolyn and Holt is pivotal, but historical context would have given it even more weight. The parallels to the real 1920s are both good and insufficient. We see much of the gilded wealth of the Jazz Age and the consequences of Prohibition, but little of the thrust and backlash of social progress or mass migration from rural areas to the metropolises. I don’t mean to criticize a fictional book for not being more historically accurate, but these social issues were the source of the flair and fury of the 1920s.
Structurally, the novel is more like a political thriller with a fantasy twist than a standard historical fantasy. The pace is a bit slower than expected, but it worked for me. Bursts of intense action help break up the calmer, more personal moments. Where Thor shines is in his descriptions. She immerses us in the mind of Ingrid and gives us an evocative and detailed look at her little slice of the world. She can also write the hell out of action scenes, filling them with warmth and intensity, movement and flow. The premise of fire-based magic is not lost when it comes to combat.
Overall, Rosiee Thor The fire becomes her is entertaining and moving. It’s the kind of standalone that makes you want more while enjoying what you have. There are so many supporting characters that are so well developed that they could easily run their own novels in that same world. The book is everything I love about young adult fantasy fiction.
Alex Brown is a queer black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of marginalized communities in Napa County, California. They write about science fiction, fantasy, and horror for adults and young adults, as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion and access are the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-growing piles of books.
This review and others like it in the April 2022 issue of Place.
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