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Mortal Fire: Bright but Lacking Heat?
Mortal Fire, Elizabeth Knox
Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, June 2013
Reviewed from final copy
I love this book so very very much. I put it on our initial long list based on one read, and I knew there were some flaws in the pacing, but there was so much good — the world, the utterly unusual heroine, even the messed up but utterly inevitable romance.
(I don’t even like most romance these days — too many bad literary love triangles — but Canny and Ghislain made so much sense in the weird and wonderful context of the book that my anti-love bias was put to rest.)
I really really want to spend the rest of the post telling you all the reasons why this one deserves a Printz…
But I can’t.
In the end, it’s just too crowded. So much is going on, some of it deeply nuanced and in service to the themes of the book (more on those in a moment) — but sometimes it’s a bit noisy. And the pacing is all over the place. And sometimes the characters don’t entirely add up, which might be on purpose — there’s a lot here about perspective — but isn’t pulled off seamlessly enough.
So the final assessment is that this will probably fall into the also-ran category. Which means if you’re only here for speculation, you can stop reading now.
But if you’re interested in ambitious, smart, lovely writing, masterful world-building, and ok, maybe a bit of gushing, read on. And who knows, maybe I’ll bring my own opinion around.
Thematically, I’ll posit that this is one of the richest books this year. There’s a deep, multi-faceted exploration of the ideas of identity and selfhood. Now, there are plenty of books this year that look at these ideas — September Girls and The Kingdom of Little Wounds are the two that come immediately to mind as equally literary in their approaches (despite my own issues with Kingdom, I do recognize its potential as a frontrunner. I’m opinionated, not a fool).
The setting is Southland, the almost-New Zealand Knox first brought to life in the Dreamhunter Duet (book 2 of which is one of the few sequels to be recognized by the RealCommittee with a silver in 2008), in 1959. So there’s the first identity being explored: national identity. There’s Southland, a place that for a brief, splendid time had the most spectacular national identity: the Place, the dreamhunters, the Dream Palaces; it was the little island the world wanted to know. But that’s not the Southland of 1959; instead, as Sholto says, Southlanders “were people who had once lived in a beautiful house, which had burned down…. they had that miraculous thing, and they lost it.” And then there’s the identity of a colonial place making peace with its multiple peoples and the deep, problematic questions of race. Canny is a Shackle Islander, Knox’s version of the Pacific Islanders; her mother is a war hero, but they are brown people in a white world, and over and over Canny comes face to face with that in ways subtle and unsubtle — from Iris Zarene’s lack of interest in her heritage, which the reader can see more than Canny can for racism (a brown girl can’t possibly be a Zarene? Or any of the other five families?), to the young Zarene who says straight out “She’s very brown.” Canny is smart enough — and the daughter of Sisema Afa, after all — to understand how complex the race relations of her world are, but Canny’s experience is a microcosm of a world in flux, a theme echoed again in the Zarene Valley and the Lazuli Dam plan: change is happening. The world is modernizing. This may ultimately be good, or not; the point is not to judge but to explore the shifting of a national identity as played out in the small glimpses we get through Canny’s life.
Which is not to dismiss Canny’s experiences; individual identity is also a theme here — there’s something fascinating about the person and the land and how they intertwine that Knox revisits again and again — particularly the discrepancies between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Canny is smart, beautiful, fierce, and capable of rich emotions. But that’s not how she’s seen and thus not how she perceives herself; she’s a maths genius, or a poorly socialized teen, or a girl so incapable of relationships that she clings to poor Marli in her iron lung because no one else would have her; she’s brown and awkward and other. Sholto comes across as warm, supportive, maybe a bit harried but ultimately a wonderfully kind, conscientious, deeply reflective young man. But then there’s the useless Sholto the Professor sees, or the bumbling chauffeur/babysitter Sisema uses at will; there’s Susan’s Sholto, but then Susan can also see how he can’t stand up to authority — despite having been portrayed as an authority when the perspective is Canny’s. Canny’s mother, the awe-inspiring Sisema Afa, is possibly the most profoundly complex personality here: war hero, haughty princess, Professor’s wife, mother — and also a lost young woman at sea, both in actuality in her famous story and figuratively as she tries to navigate the world she has found. We see Sisema as a figure to fear and respect — but the Sisema we see in her back story, both in her own words and as Canny travels through the past, is someone else entirely. Even Iris Zarene has more than one face, as Canny finally recognizes in the end.
So: identity and perception, love and loss, and a recurring motif of isolation and imprisonment, seen in Canny, in Marli, and in Ghislain; in Sisema in the past; in Lonnie Zarene. And, of course, death and rebirth: fitting, given the quasi-religious underpinning of the Zarene magic.
(Side note: I am ecstatic that Knox is planning to write stories about each of the five families — we’ve had Hames and Zarenes, but that leaves us three more to come.)
And how about that magic. I cited world building at the beginning as something to admire here; Southland, the five families, the complexities of the magic as the Zarenes wield it — I believe in this place. It probably helps that it’s based on someplace real, but plenty of fantasies fail even when they’re set in the actual real world. Knox writes sensual prose: bees humming, light shining through leaves, the golden color of Cyrus’s honey and mead, the static-y cloud of Canny’s hair, the coldness of the Iron Lung and the smells of the hospital. Smell alone is so frequently evoked and described (and at least once it’s even critical to the plot) that I could probably have written a post just on that one aspect of world-building.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, there seems a bit too much detail for its place in the story; there’s an awful lot of bee information, especially in the first Cyrus chapter. But then I found myself wondering if all that description is just an authorly version the spell on Fort Rock; it hides things by misdirecting our attention. Really, this book was built for a close read; Sholto at one point talks about difficult to reconcile details (Sholto, of course, serves as both himself and a vehicle for a really slick and sly kind of exposition) in the story of Bull Mine, which again is a micro-macro sleight of hand; the book is full of difficult to reconcile details too.
I’ve almost talked myself into thinking this does deserve the silver, after all. But even if some of the detail is for a purpose, it sometimes buries the story. The pacing is uneven — downright choppy at points. And while the relationship with Marli is necessary, and Marli’s death is probably necessary as well as quite touching, the friendship story doesn’t always mesh well with the larger narrative about family, magic, and especially about how the past affects the present.
This is ambitious, literary, smart, and well worth multiple reads. Does aiming really high and not quite getting there rate higher than a book that aims lower but seemingly achieves everything it sets out to do? Sadly, I suspect not.
Filed under: Best Books, Books to look for, Contenders, Fiction
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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