Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits

by Robin McKinley
297 pages, Fantasy
Reviewed by Lily A.

Interesting storytelling, but often morally messy.


Note: Co-written with Peter Dickinson.

Two authors alternate in giving us fantasies about strange and magical creatures of flame, and how they affect the humans around them. An English girl who loves forests, a governess, and a gamekeeper give reverence to the Phoenix of Egypt. The daughter of a family who give horse-riding lessons adopts a reformed hellhound from the local animal shelter. A young caveman, son of a spirit-bear, mounts a campaign against massive, grub-like fireworms. A slave boy gains unusual allies to carry out an ancient vendetta, and a nervous third son confirms his calling when he visits his older brother’s dragon-riding school.


Good characters often protect those around them, and desire or seek to right injustices. In two cases, persons who have been entrapped in miserable situations are set free by a main character’s efforts. Characters often show tenderness to beings who seem vulnerable, even when there appears to be nothing in it for them. Family is valued, and families portrayed are often loving and supportive.

Characters’ means of seeking to right injustices can be quite violent, and arguably misguided. One instance, especially, is coming to mind. Some instances of sex outside of marriage are presented as normal or even good. Spirituality is all over the map, as the titular beings tend to be spiritual in some sense of the word.

Spiritual Content

One being is considered a god, and its friends become its priests.

A dog with unusual physique and abilities is called a “hellhound.” The person who named it as such has an overactive imagination, but in this case, she seems to be right. In the same story, we see what appears to be a demon in what is definitely a haunted graveyard. The hellhound and the demon have differing behaviors and moral compasses, but this seems to be portrayed more as a matter of life choices or personality than as having anything to do with God.

One character is the offspring of a nature spirit, and meets several other nature spirits. Monsters exist simultaneously in the physical and spiritual world, and how monstrous they are becomes arguable. A tribe is led by a kind of half-shaman half-bard.

Some beings are encountered which might be spirits, or might be closer to aliens: you really can’t tell from how they describe themselves. In either case, both they and some humans they meet have magical abilities.

It is said that being a “spiritspeaker” is a common occupation in a fantasy kingdom. What this means is not explored. The same kingdom contains seers (methods of practice are left vague), wizards (whose work is reportedly a mixture of a lot of math and measurements, and intuition), and some very smart or possibly sapient animals who can, by confusing means, enter a kind of warm, bright hyperspace dimension using their “third eye.”


In case of fire, various characters need to be careful to avoid burns. An adopted animal was abused by its previous owners, and another was abandoned after an accident. A horse narrowly avoids a lightning strike. A young man’s spine is snapped, and he is on the ground paralyzed for some time before help can come. A ceremony occurs which is technically a human sacrifice, although the person might not have been killed (it’s complicated). There is some hand-to-hand combat, and there are descriptions of past battles, which can be bloody. Some intelligent beings are drowned, and some are burned. Someone fears that a large bird might peck out their eyes. Characters fall from dangerous heights.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Drunk characters are encountered at a party. A family drinks wine on a special evening. A young man with reason to be nervous was planning on having some beer.

Sexual Content

Two stories involve cultures where arranged marriage is acceptable. In another, a boy has a beautiful girlfriend whom he adores, and a number of schoolchildren who have crushes on him.

A man and woman had a physical relationship prior to their marriage, and the legitimacy of their marriage, when it does occur, is arguable. A man fantasizes briefly about a woman with whom he may not associate.

Humans and non-humans have relations while one is shapeshifted to appear to be the other. Twice this is implied, once it is shown.

There are at least two cases of non-sexualized human nudity.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

No crude language recalled, or found in a skimming review.

Due to tangled spirituality and some loose sexual mores, some behavior may be considered profane.


This book was well-written, the characters often had engaging points of view, and it could be quite interesting for many fantasy fans. However, the content was often quite problematic. I personally found parts of the fourth story, “Fireworm,” to be particularly unnerving.

Fun Score: 3.5
Values Score: 1.5
Written for Age: 13+

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