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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Girl who Played with Fire

Stieg Larsson

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To purchase The Girl who Played with Fire

Title: The Girl who Played with Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Genre: Novel
Written: (2006) Eng. 2009
Length: 503 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Girl who Played with Fire - US
The Girl who Played with Fire - UK
The Girl who Played with Fire - Canada
The Girl who Played with Fire - India
La fille qui rêvait d'un bidon d'essence et d'une allumette - France
Verdammnis - Deutschland
La ragazza che giocava con il fuoco - Italia
La chica que soñaba con una cerilla y un bidón de gasolina - España
  • Swedish title: Flickan som lekte med elden
  • Translated by Reg Keeland
  • Volume 2 in the Millennium-trilogy
  • Flickan som lekte med elden was made into a film in 2009, directed by Daniel Alfredson and starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist

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Our Assessment:

B : intense but a bit too simplistic thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B+ 21/7/2009 Rob Brunner
The Guardian . 10/1/2009 Mark Lawson
The Independent . 31/7/2009 Boyd Tonkin
Independent on Sunday . 6/9/2009 Brandon Robshaw
The LA Times A 27/7/2009 Daniel Mallory
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/6/2011 Tim Parks
The NY Times . 17/7/2009 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/8/2009 Marilyn Stasio
The Observer A 15/2/2009 Louise France
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/7/2009 Alan Cheuse
Sunday Times A+ 11/1/2009 Joan Smith
Svenska Dagbladet . 5/6/2006 Magnus Persson
The Times A- 31/12/2008 Marcel Berlins
USA Today . 27/7/2009 Deirdre Donahue
The Washington Post A- 27/7/2009 Dennis Drabelle

  Review Consensus:

  Very good -- and better than the first one

  From the Reviews:
  • "Fire soon proves to be another gripping, stay-up-all-night read, but it's also a bit sloppy, too often falling back on annoying devices. Characters repeatedly turn up at key events through sheer coincidence, and Larsson clumsily foreshadows big events" - Rob Brunner, Entertainment Weekly

  • "On the basis of the central character and mystery narrative, the success is justified, although some aficionados of detective fiction will be surprised by the level of detail about what happens in bedrooms and supermarkets." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "Generally suspicious of publishing phenomena, I approached this novel with caution -- but within a few pages it won me over. The prose is colourless, the storytelling overly direct -- but it just gets more and more exciting as you go along." - Brandon Robshaw, Independent on Sunday

  • "While The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo read like a Nordic Silence of the Lambs, its dynamic, brawny sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, reanimates the tropes of the political thriller. (...) Formally, at least, The Girl Who Played With Fire is a muscle car. But a European engine purrs beneath its hood. (...) Imagine that -- a thriller with moral freight." - Daniel Mallory, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Though this novel lacks the sexual and romantic tension that helped spark Dragon Tattoo -- Salander and Blomkvist share few scenes here ó it boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larssonís improved plotting abilities, a story line that simultaneously moves backward into Salanderís traumatic past, even as it accelerates toward its startling and violent conclusion. (...) Like many thriller writers, Mr. Larsson (...) is overly fond of coincidence, and this is certainly the case here." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Larsson tosses in everything from a hurricane in Grenada to a shopping spree in Sweden. But unless you take a voyeurís intense interest in which tattoo Salander had removed or how her breast implants turned out, itís more gratifying when the plot finally kicks in." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In this compelling thriller, currently riding high in the bestseller charts, Stieg Larsson brilliantly reinvents the Nordic detective. (...) What follows is a combination of urgent, multilayered thriller, traditional police procedural and articulate examination of the way a supposedly open-minded country like Sweden treats both its vulnerable women and children in care. (...) The Girl Who Played With Fire is that rare thing -- a sequel that is even better than the book that went before." - Louise France, The Observer

  • "The books are so good, in fact, that I have to keep reminding myself that they are genre novels, not mainstream fiction, so I shouldn't think about Salander as if she were a figure out of fiction with a larger vision and grander heights. But, move over, Tony Soprano, I do." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "This second novel (translated by Reg Keeland) is even more gripping and astonishing than the first. (...) What makes it outstanding is the author's ability to handle dozens of characters and parallel narratives without ever losing tension. Larsson was as vexed by misogyny as any author I've come across, but he was also a fantastic storyteller. This novel will leave readers on the edge of their seats." - Joan Smith, Sunday Times

  • "Allt som imponerade i debuten är intakt också i uppföljaren: den skickliga personskildringen, den vassa dialogen, samhällskritiken, humorn och den sanslöst spännande intrigen. Vad gäller det sistnämnda tycker jag till och med att den nya är strået vassare, eftersom den helt saknar de longörer som trots allt tenderade att smyga sig in i förstlingsverket. (...) Allt är utfört med en så lekfull men samtidigt disciplinerad hand att det snarast förhöjer läsandets njutning." - Magnus Persson, Svenska Dagbladet

  • "The novel is complex in plot and characterisation, perhaps unnecessarily so. But the urgency of Larsson's prose prevents boredom in reading a book that would otherwise be regarded as over-long and over-crammed. Somehow, Larsson has managed to write a riveting read." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "Fire is a more coherently plotted tale than Tattoo. Although a terrific read, Tattoo's ending hurriedly jumbled together serial killers and secret Nazis. But to fully enjoy Fire, you must read Tattoo first." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "The Girl Who Played With Fire confirms the impression left by Dragon Tattoo. Here is a writer with two skills useful in entertaining readers royally: creating characters who are complex, believable and appealing even when they act against their own best interest; and parceling out information in a consistently enthralling way. The sharp-eyed may catch Larsson leaning on coincidence a bit too often in the new book, but overall his storytelling is so assured that he can get away with these peccadilloes. Less forgivable, perhaps, is a climactic episode that seems too obviously contrived to make readers gasp." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Girl who Played with Fire continues the story from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A year has passed since Lisbeth Salander saved journalist Mikael Blomkvist's life, and he hasn't really seen her since. They've both moved on: Salander has been travelling around the world, while Blomkvist is working on the next big thing at his magazine, Millennium.
       The next big thing at Millennium is a themed issue about the sex trade, and that brings Dag Svensson to the magazine's offices, as he wants them to publish his exposé -- in book form --, naming names and revealing how ineffective Sweden's supposedly tough sex-trade laws are. Conveniently, his girlfriend, Mia Johansson, is working on her dissertation on the subject. Together, they are sitting on piles of explosive material -- just the thing for Millennium.
       Meanwhile, Salander has finally come back to town, ready to settle down in Stockholm. Technically she is still under state guardianship, but she has an 'arrangement' with her appointed guardian, the sadistic creep Nils Erik Bjurman: he dutifully fills out his official reports and she won't make public the video of him raping his ward. She makes sure he sticks to his side of the bargain (to which there are also some other conditions), but Bjurman is getting fed up and has his own plans for escaping this trap.
       Salander was a fascinating character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but she wasn't in the spotlight for most of it; in The Girl who Played with Fire she is front and center, and that becomes more problematic. She was already a super-girl, with a photographic memory and unparalleled computer-hacking skills. The events covered in the previous novel have now also left her incredibly wealthy. Among the few things she bought herself over the past year was a pair of breasts, so that she didn't look quite so much like a young tomboy, but she remains a disturbing fantasy figure: "a strange girl -- fully grown but with an appearance that made her easily mistaken for a child". (She also got those tattoos removed: so much for that dragon tattoo .....).
       Back in Stockholm, she buys an incredibly expensive and huge apartment (leaving eighteen (!) of its rooms unfurnished) and tries to settle in. Larsson enjoys describing every aspect of Salander's new life, but when he gets right down to bothering with what she buys the movers for lunch it can get to be a bit much: he's too enamored of this character he's created, which is all the more problematic since she is such an unrealistic figure. But it's Salander's past that continues to play an important part in the present; it defines her, and it still can add to the damage it has already caused her.
       Larsson is a tease and only very slowly reveals what Salander's past involved. In drips and drabs he offers one horror after another -- but central, obviously, is something that happened when she was twelve, something referred to as "All The Evil". It is some mysterious event which few know about and no official report about it can be readily found; it is even missing from the police files. Larsson refers to it repeatedly throughout the book -- but, in a transparent effort to maintain a sense of tension, gives little clue as to what was involved. He does this very badly: the effort is so transparent -- the mentions are obviously for teasing, tension-maintaining effect -- that it only serves to annoy the reader.
       Things come to a head sooner rather than later when, shortly after Salander drops by sex-trade experts Dag and Mia's place (she's been keeping tabs -- via computer hacks -- on everyone from her former employer to Millennium, which is how she learned about the couple), the two are found shot. Oh, and then Bjurman is, too.
       Salander is the obvious prime suspect, and soon is on the run (not that she had announced her presence very publicly before -- no one even knows about her new apartment, and few are aware that she is back in Stockholm). Her story is plastered all over the Swedish media -- she is: "public enemy number one". Meanwhile, the fact that Dag and Mia's exposé of the sex trade might be a good motive for murder takes a while to catch on, even for the likes of Blomkvist.
       Because she is a cartoon supergirl-figure, Salander can, of course, stay a step ahead of both the authorities and the bad guys. The fact that she has a couple of people in her corner -- Blomkvist, her former (now invalid) guardian, her former employer, a boxer ... -- is a bit of a help, but since she has these trust issues that make it hard for her to let anyone help her putting all the pieces together is not as simple or straightforward as it might be. And, for example, her former employer's well-intentioned attempt to help actually causes more harm than good.
       Ever-teasing, Larsson certainly doesn't let Salander come right out and proclaim her innocence; outrageously, also, after the focus had been on her so long, he abruptly shifts away from her when the murders go down, and it is many pages before Salander resurfaces -- and even longer before the nature of her interaction with Dag and Mia is cleared up (i.e. what, if any, was her role in their shooting ?).
       The basic idea of the grand conspiracy that has set all this into motion -- and, in fact, that has made Salander into the screwed-up young woman she is -- is decent enough, but Larsson's roundabout way of revealing what is going on is rather awkward. Yes, there's compelling suspense, but this is no master of the genre at work here, as quite a bit of this is rather ham-fisted. And, as if unlikely supergirl Salander -- at 4'11''and 90 pounds a cartoon stick figure -- weren't enough, Larsson tosses another superhuman figure into the mix, a giant with rather remarkable physical qualities himself (and a surprise identity -- revealed, of course, only in one of the climactic end-scenes).
       Then there are the convenient coincidences, of people being at places at just the right moment, and the inconvenient ones (telephone batteries dying out, etc.) .....
       A too-good-to-be-true finale (in which Salander demonstrates yet more essentially superhuman qualities) at least does the right thing and reunites Salander and Blomkvist ("Kalle Fucking Blomkvist", as Salander affectionately refers to him) and sets the stage for volume three in their adventures, but ends unsatisfyingly abruptly. But, for the most part, there's not much left to tie up (killing people off is an efficient way of dispensing with that), and at least Salander's horrible past has now been revealed and Bjurman is gone from the scene. A few threads dangle -- what will happen to Millennium (as there is to be a change in administration) ? what's up with Salander's sister (who gets several mentions but remains unseen) ? -- but at least it looks like the characters can truly move on in the next installment. (Well, maybe not: Larsson makes a point of mentioning repeatedly how Salander was memorizing the names of those (journalists, interview-subjects, etc.) who were saying and writing things about her she did not like .....)
       Larsson unleashes a fairly compelling story, but the writing is workmanlike at best (yes, this is a book which includes descriptions such as: "His hands were big as frying pans" ...) and the way in which information is revealed highly annoying. With its focus on Blomkvist and what he was uncovering, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo worked much better: here Salander is the central figure, and yet information she has is withheld by Larsson, for no reasonable reason. It's easy to see why Larsson is so enamored of Salander -- throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, after all, one constantly wished to know more about her -- but, with her billions and her computing skills, she is a far less convincing figure here.
       As in the first installment of the series, Larsson is eager to show what scum men often are in how they treat women -- through both the abuse Salander (and her mother) suffered, and the sex trade -- and he is especially keen to indict the government for not doing the right thing(s). It's a muddled message, here, however: what happened to Salander was, of course, criminal, but the circumstances are unusual, to say the least -- and the fact that she fell into the hands of the pathologically perverse also makes it seem more like an extraordinary situation than an everyday one. Meanwhile, the whole sex-trade business gets very short shrift, and ultimately feels like a topic-of-convenience (for the story) -- even though Larsson obviously feels very strongly about the issue.
       The Girl who Played with Fire is a very readable thriller, but also a very flawed one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 August 2009

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The Girl who Played with Fire: Reviews: Flickan som lekte med elden - the film: Stieg Larsson: Other books by Stieg Larsson under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Stieg Larsson lived 1954 to 2004.

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© 2009-2021 the complete review

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