Word Play: The uneasy territory between girls and men

Is there anything more provocative than a teenage girl’s sexuality? Who has not looked at a 14-year-old girl and wondered: Does she know how much invitation is in that look? Or, from the teenage girl’s point of view: I’m like a snake charmer to this guy. If I shift, his eyes follow. How can I resist the temptation to test that power?

In “Fire” (Dial: $17.99, ages 14 and up), Kristin Cashore has dreamed up a breathtaking metaphor for that power.

Cashore is that rare gifted writer who can give a fantasy novel real depth. In her previous novel, “Graceling” (to which “Fire” is a prequel), certain children are born with extreme talents, called “graces.” Katsa, the heroine of “Graceling,” has an uncanny ability to fight and kill, which from an early age gains her an uncomfortable job as the king’s enforcer and assassin. In developing her power, she discovers that her talent is more subtle than sheer brutality. As Katsa deepens her knowledge of herself, she learns to use her power in accord with her own conscience rather than in the service of the king’s schemes. It’s a powerful metaphor for a young person’s discovery of strength and independence -- and above all, responsibility.

With “Fire” -- which can easily be read on its own, though it shares threads with “Graceling” that will thrill fans -- the author has narrowed and sharpened the metaphor as it relates to girls. The story of the character known as Lady Fire is set a generation earlier in a neighboring kingdom, the Dells. In addition to the usual birds and animals, the Dells is also home to “monsters”: wolves, hawks, rabbits, even mice and insects, all of such dazzling beauty that they arouse the passions of those around them. While monster creatures are avidly hunted for their feathers and pelts, monster predators are unusually dangerous because their mesmerizing looks draw their prey to them.

Fire is the last remaining human monster. Her life is an unending gauntlet of attacks by people -- mainly men -- who desire her, either to be close to her or to hurt her because they can’t have her. As a lady of the court, she goes about under constant protection from guards carefully chosen for their ability to withstand her monstrous charms.

In addition to their provocative looks, monsters are also graced (or cursed?) with the ability to see into the minds of those around them and manipulate their thoughts. One of Fire’s tricks for moving through her world unmolested is to shift the focus of people she meets -- “You don’t want to look in my direction” -- but it is exhausting to do so. The world is just too full of people who can’t control their thoughts and actions. Although Fire tries not to exercise this power, after one particularly humiliating late-night fumble with the king, she loses her temper: Apologize to me, she thought to him fiercely. I’ve had enough of this. Apologize. Instantly the king kneeled at her feet, gracious, gentlemanly, black eyes swimming with penitence. ‘Forgive me, Lady, for my insult to your person. Go safely to your bed.’ ”

Imagine being able to force apologies out of wolf-whistlers, or groping guys on elevators! Any girl would want that power.

One of the things Cashore does beautifully in “Fire” is to examine the workings of desire -- and not always as it relates to sex. A gorgeously plumed monster raptor seeking prey “began to circle, posing shamelessly, intangibly lovely, reaching for their minds, radiating a feeling that was hungry, primitive, and oddly soothing.”

Having created an exaggeration of female experience in Fire’s monster form, Cashore can be brutally honest about the realities of girls’ lives. Never has a teen novel been so open about the inconvenience of menstruation, for Fire must take extra armed guards with her during that time of month. There is also a particularly fraught version of the universally disastrous question: “Can’t we just be friends?”

As in “Graceling,” the heroine learns to exercise her power in a way that brings her happiness. And that rarest of finds -- a worthy partner, one with self-control and a mission of his own -- fuels the romance that is the immediate reason girls devour Cashore’s books.

The heroine of Barry Lyga’s novel, “Goth Girl Rising” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: $16, ages 14 and up), has her own troubles with men. In Lyga’s earlier book, “The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl,” Fanboy discovered his graphic-novel talents while also coming to the realization that his fellow outsider, Goth Girl, was deeply disturbed. In this novel, Goth Girl has her say.

Newly released from the institution where she was confined for supposedly trying to kill herself, Goth Girl -- a.k.a. Kyra -- has to find a way to reconnect with her circle at high school. Her girlfriends have moved into a new phase in which sex rules everything. Jecca has gone squirrelly about who she’s interested in, while Simone has gone entirely the other way. Kyra concludes that the only way to take charge of the mysteriously shifting rules is to opt out altogether. Whereas the character of Fire in Cashore’s book goes about with her spectacular hair uncomfortably bound up in a head scarf (so as to avoid unwittingly seducing weak men), Kyra shaves her head, dresses to hide her body and adopts makeup and facial expressions calculated to repel. Problem solved.

Of course, opting out of the dance of the sexes doesn’t work because she still has relationships with men, notably her old friend Fanboy and her father. Both “Fire” and “Goth Girl Rising” reflect with great honesty on girls and men, even on the ticklish subject of how fathers handle the budding sexuality of their daughters. In the world of these insightful books, the unwanted attention of men is a burden to girls, a force they must learn to deflect or defuse, or they may learn to exploit. Only in the happiest circumstances may they meet a partner with enough power of his own to respect theirs.

Sonja Bolle’s “Word Play” column appears monthly at