Although not a particularly rich world, The Dells from Kristin Cashore’s Fire (Graceling Realm #2) touches on many world-building elements that give it a realistic feel. The Dells, set apart from the Graceling Realm by nigh-impassable mountains, has its own unique magic system that comes simply in the form of its so-called monsters.
The novel is rather political in nature, discussing the struggles of womanhood and the terrifying corruptible nature of power. Its main world-building element is quite definitively its magic system, as the main character, Fire, struggles with her own identity while being capable of abusing her monster powers. Warning: spoilers abound.
Magic of Monsters
The Dells’ sole magic system lies in the concept of its “monsters.” They are mesmerizing creatures who can ensnare the weak-minded and, in the case of the predator monsters, do so to catch their prey. Any animal can have a monster version, though the text really only names rats, wolves, and cats, and implies in…either Graceling or Bitterblue, I can’t recall… that fish can also have the colorful scales that mark them as monsters. There are also creatures called “raptors” that are not described–they could either look like a buzzard or a pterodactyl, as those are the two visuals I’ve had to flip-flop between–but there appear to only be raptor monsters, and no regular monsters.
Humans can be monsters too, yet they are considered the most dangerous type of monster, and despite being told that any child with even one monster parent will invariably also be a monster, there are very few in existence at any given time. One of the monster’s main traits is that it mesmerizes and ensnares whether it wants to or not, and for human monsters, this trait can bring out the basest desires in regular humans who are around them. A strong mind can block these desires, but as the book shows, even some who are able to block them out don’t do so fully because it’s almost like a drug. For others, however, it brings out the worst, the perverse and blood-thirsty side of people, and human monsters often have shorter lifespans as a result.
In addition, because of human intellect, human monsters are also able to seize an unguarded mind and essentially control that person to doing whatever they want. The ability is contrasted with the appearance of young Leck, whose Grace is that whatever words he speaks, people believe. There’s the implied contrast between Fire’s reading minds and Leck’s mind-control, because although Fire can use her power to make people do something against their will, it doesn’t have the widespread effect of Leck’s Grace. As she says in the book, “His control was impressive, but it was blind.” (I don’t remember the chapter or page number, as I don’t have my copy with me, but I believe it was while she was on the boat after being kidnapped by Leck.)
History, And Economic Consequences
Fire’s father, Cansrel, was described as being “a monster in both senses of the word.” The book does not give a summation of the Dells’ history, but it does not neglect the consequences of careless actions from past figures. Cansrel was cruel and aggressive and had addictive tendencies. His proximity to King Nax led to expensive parties involving drugs. It is said the parties only got more lavish and dangerous as time went on.
Cansrel’s actions have multiple consequences on the state of the Dells. The nation does not seem to be particularly poor, but many people have lost faith in the royal bloodline, and young King Nash and his brother, Brigan, have to put a lot of money towards their armies in order to fight against bands of brigands as well as stave off Lords Mydogg and Gentian from rebelling. In order to afford the number of soldiers they need, Brigan’s siblings discuss the potential need to cut pay, though they somehow figure out how to afford the cost, because, as Brigan says, war is not the time to be cutting soldiers’ pay.
The Dells does not have a particularly extensive political environment. Other than the royal family, the only named nobles are Fire, her surrogate father, Brocker, who has his own estates, and then the rebel lords, Mydogg and Gentian. In addition, the Dells have a rocky relationship with the northern country of Pikkia, a country with an impressive navy who for a large chunk of the novel are presumably siding with the rebel army over the royal family. It’s worth noting that, as a book whose external plot revolves around the rebels, it is not a book full of political intrigue. However, because the novel focuses more on Fire’s self-discovery, the lack of political intrigue does not feel as lacking as it otherwise might have.
The series’s geography plays a rather large role in character abilities and overall conflicts. Fire takes place in the same world as Graceling and Bitterblue, yet the entire land is riddled with mountain ranges. For the purposes of discussion with the Dells, the important mountain ranges are the Little Grays and the Great Grays. The Little Grays do not serve as a boundary line between Pikkia and the Dells, but it is near enough. The Great Grays, on the other hand, do serve as a boundary between this half of the continent and that of the Graceling Realm.
Due to narrative perspective, overall character demographics are not heavily detailed. However, it is noted in the text that Pikkians are lighter-skinned than their southern neighbors, suggesting that the Dells have dark skin. In addition, Pikkians are not mentioned with having any monster creatures, and neither land has Gracelings.
The lack of Gracelings in the Dells, as well as the lack of monsters in the Graceling realm, is a bit odd, but the lack of both can at least be explained away by the presence of the Great Grays. Everyone believed they were impassable until Leck and his father, running from Monsea, fell into a hole in the ground and discovered a network of tunnels that eventually brought them to the Dells. On the other hand, it is a little strange that there are no reported monsters, or even Gracelings, in Pikkia, because the Little Grays are passable, and because the country is reported to having a very strong navy. How Pikkia did not find the countries to the west is unexplained, although they may have had a hand in the quiet explorations that are mentioned in Bitterblue after Fire and her entourage make an appearance in Monsea.
The Dellian language is not touched on at all in Fire, yet in an attempt to decipher her father’s journals in Bitterblue, Bitterblue discovered the journals are not only ciphered, but also written in the Dellian language. As a result, we do get a few snippets of the language there, including their word for monster, “oozaleeg.” (The spelling might be a little off, since I can’t reference my book, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate.) Whether or not Pikkia has its own language is not mentioned as far as I can recall, but the fact that the Great Grays separates the two halves of the continent linguistically adds another layer of realism that is often overlooked in other fantasy novels.
Knowledge and Education
The advancements of knowledge and technology have been halted as a result of political turmoil in the Dells, but they are described as having made huge medical advancements in the past. In comparison to the Graceling relam, the Dells is so medically advanced that a one-eyed Dellian woman is able to infiltrate the Monsean court and be a sort of spy on the kingdoms by pretending to be Graced with healing.
Other advancements are unclear, as the only weapons improvements that Brigan is noted to be making is mounting the entire army. His daughter, too, has her schooling, but the only ones we hear about are in passing, and they are obvious lessons: history, fighting, horse-riding, and the like.
Women’s Roles in the Dellian Culture
Unlike the Graceling realm, the Dells is not a particularly mysogenistic culture. Queen Roen is shown to still hold the respect of her sons, Lady Fire herself has political freedom, and the army has extended recruitment opportunities to women ever since Brigan became commander. Marriage between commoners and nobility are a new development, but Brigan formerly fell in love and had a child with a woman who worked in the stables, and by the end of the book, one of Fire’s personal guards, Mila, has had a baby by Archer, a noble, and then eventually fell in love with and then later married King Nash.
On the other hand, it’s still dangerous for women to a certain extent. Many of the men shown in the story do have some mysogenistic tendencies at the very least. Archer, Fire’s lover and best friend, can be heatedly jealous and controlling, although Fire is in a position to put him back in his place. With Fire’s monster beauty, it likewise attracts less savory attention, making some people go straight to the more vile thoughts. And the previous king, Nax, and Cansrel both abused their power completely in order to get whatever they want.
And yet, despite Cansrel’s abusive nature, the one he was said to not be abusive to was Fire herself. (He was certainly controlling in some respects and absent in others, however.) His strange relationship with Fire brings out the very last, and perhaps one of the more wholesome, elements of the world-building: its music. The gift of the fiddle was a careless one; Cansrel gave it to Fire in a fit of kindness, knowing nothing about fiddles besides the fact that Fire loved to play. We get to see Fire play these reels with a guard who knows the flute in a sort of fun competition. And later, when her fiddle gets smashed by an angry soldier en route to the capital, Brigan is thoughtful enough to find her a replacement, so that the world-building also ties into the romantic subplot in a very neat way.
Despite its lack of details when it comes to the world-building, the Dells provides enough balance between conflict and presence of setting that the lack is less noticeable than it might have otherwise been. Fire’s monster powers generate the more poignant internal conflicts, and even play a role in the external conflicts as well, yet the remaining elements of world-building give Fire free reign to become the best form of person she could be.