In the fourteenth chapter of Cold Fire, everything falls apart so spectacularly that despite expecting this, I am still left feeling like I’m part of a nightmare. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Circle Opens.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of child abuse/abuse, arson, pyrophobia, terrorism, and murder.
I’M SO FUCKED UP. SO FUCKED UP.
Could there be a more chilling scene from Ben’s perspective? Oh gods, don’t answer that, DON’T TELL ME. Because I honestly cannot imagine one. Pierce writes Bennat with a methodical nature to his depravity, giving him the kind of analytical mind that would be interesting and engaging were this in any other context. But it’s not. We have to read about Bennat Ladradun, the hero of Namorn, setting a bomb within a bathhouse, specifically so that the timing of its explosion will kill scores of people. While Pierce doesn’t outright call it as such (since I imagine that would be anachronistic), this is an act of terrorism. Ben’s entitlement inspired him to sow terror within this community, all so that he could get what he wanted. There’s no mistake here: Bennat truly believes he’s doing something that’s necessary, that will benefit himself and some contingent of society, too. At the same time? During this entire opening sequence, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s not mistaken; he is not accidentally doing anything. He knows that he’s going to kill scores of people, ruin lives, and inject fear and grief into countless people.
But that’s the point, I suppose. Lord, this book is so messed up.
I’m talking about two things here: the discovery of Ben’s act of terror and what happens within Daja during the big reveal. Pierce does a fine job making sure we know just how relentlessly vile and frightening Ben’s act was, and that starts with her revealing that there’s no longer a bathhouse. It’s a fucking crater. It’s not even until later in the chapter that we learn just how devastating his attack was, and even then? Pierce makes sure we know the emotional cost, too:
The next day, Firesday, Daja could not stay still: if she did, the images of rows of the covered dead haunted her. She couldn’t even concentrate on the living metal suit.
Look, the people who died? Their families? The survivors? These people are the primary victims. I think it’s also fascinating to see how these acts have affected other people who aren’t necessarily connected. Daja is involved by nature of her being the protagonist and this being set in Namorn. But she also provides context and understanding. She’s haunted by the dead, by this act of terror. Who else was? Who else was irrevocably changed because of what Bennat did to everyone? I want those answers, and I think it would help build this world further.
However, there’ s not time for this, especially since Tamora Pierce quickly transitions into an immediate waking nightmare. I had hoped that Heluda Salt’s appearance meant that they’d found a lead. No, that’s not quite what happened. I mean, yes, Heluda found a clue. A big one, rather! Except that insinuates that it’s just one clue that’s part of a larger puzzle. I DID NOT EXPECT THIS ALL TO HAPPEN AT ONCE AND TO BE SO TERRIBLE:
“The thing is, I’ve had a chance to go over the area. Most traces of the crime – of the criminal – are destroyed in explosions and fires, of course. But some traces are too strong to be wiped clean by fire. I found traces of your magic.”
This was it. I knew it. There was no way this wasn’t going to unravel right before my eyes. There was only one explanation for that, and it wasn’t because Daja was at the crime scene. OH GOD, HOW BAD WAS THIS GOING TO BE? I wondered. Did I think that Daja would enter the memory of the iron bar that was on the door to the bathhouses furnace??? NOT IN A MILLION YEARS BECAUSE I DIDN’T EVEN REALIZE YOU COULD DO THAT. It’s an awe-inspiring passage, one of Pierce’s best-written moments. It’s a combination between grisly violence and dread. It was only a matter of time before Daja’s vision revealed who had touched that iron bar right before the explosion. IT’S SO HEARTBREAKING.
Her face was numb. A chasm had opened in her belly; she swayed on its edge. In her mind she saw Ben as he knelt before the stove, sifting embers in a gloved hand. She saw a black bone hand with a gold ring, and a half-melted figure of a local goddess.
I simply didn’t want this for Daja. I didn’t want her to go through something as awful as this, you know? She fights it, but not for that long. If it weren’t for Heluda Salt, I don’t know that Daja would have been convinced as easily as she was. Still, I’m hoping that in the future there’s a bigger gap between the acts of an abusive parent and the acts of the abused child. This line in particular hit a little too close to home.
“Killers like Bennat, they’re sad when they’re little, when someone knocks them about like toys, but not when they grow up. The only way we learn how adults act is from the adults who raise us. The children of monsters become monstrous, too.”
I get what Pierce is trying to say here, but it doesn’t leave any room for someone like me, who had a monstrous upbringing but did not turn out to be a monster themselves. I get that abuse is a cycle and often, you do have abused people turning into abusers, too. But there’s no leeway in a statement like this. Granted, Pierce does quickly begin to name Ben’s sins while assigning blame and responsibility to him for what he did. That doesn’t necessarily make this less uncomfortable in ANY context, of course, so I’m hoping in the remaining chapters, there’s less of this and more nuance in this exploration of Bennat’s mindset.
At the very least, we do get Daja admitting that Bennat is guilty, and she does so without blaming Morrachane, who is still awful, by the way. Heluda does, but then follows that up with:
“And blame him. He knows what he does is wrong, or he’d just burn the first thing he sees. He picks, he works out a plan, and he goes to a lot of trouble not to get caught. He could stop. He doesn’t want to.”
And that’s the truth. This is Ben’s doing and Ben’s choice.
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