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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

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.



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.


  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    If there are five books published this year that are worthy of the Printz than MORTAL FIRE, I’d love to know what they are. BOXERS and SAINTS? Sure. You seem to be very high on SEPTEMBER GIRLS, Karyn, but I felt it was extremely overrated. Not saying MORTAL FIRE is a perfect book, but compared with what’s been published this year, I think it has as good a shot as anything, especially if the committee gives it a second reading.

  2. Karyn Silverman says

    You might be right Jonathan — this year has yet to really knock my socks off. And I’d be pretty happy if you are. I’d say September Girls, The Summer Prince, Boxers & Saints, A Corner of White, and Sorrow’s Knot all rank slightly above because they pull off what they are doing with fewer flaws. Although I haven’t yet reread A Corner of White or Sorrow’s Knot, and sometimes the reread really does change things. That said, I LIKE Mortal Fire better than Boxers & Saints or September Girls.

    On a more critical note: you didn’t think the pacing was messy and jarring?

    • I haven’t read this one yet, though I want to now – but it’s interesting that you thought it was a weak year, too. I really liked Sorrow’s Knot and A Corner of White and will be thrilled if one of them medals, but I also felt like I read a bunch of books that didn’t work for me, and I’ve been slow to pick up recent releases as a result.

  3. Heart-wise, this is in my top three, I think. I loved the writing, the wonderful and immersive world-building. And Canny, with all her prickliness and vulnerability (I seem to be a sucker for that combination). I loved how it took on the big themes of national identity and a history of racism in a way that seemed important but also natural and not didactic. Outside of the criteria, I also think the cover is gorgeous.

    Head-wise, I do agree that the pacing fell apart at the end. Does that knock it out of contention when balanced against what the book does well? Not sure, to be honest. Marli did largely work for me; I especially got Canny’s guilt when she realizes she hasn’t thought of her. I think ultimately, I would be happy if this did get a silver, but not surprised if it didn’t.

    I will also note that I have not read Knox’s earlier books and had no problems reading this one. (No one’s raised the question yet, but given our discussion on The 5th Wave, I thought I would mention it.)

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

      I’m slightly confused here, and I’m just trying to clarify. When I used the word pacing, I’m talking about the relative speed of the events in the narrative. I’ve found that pacing is often a very subjective thing, and if readers enjoy the things that are slowing the pace (mostly descriptive passages about one thing or another), they are willing to forgive the slower pace. When I use the word plotting, I’m talking about the order of the events in the plot. If there is not an obvious cause and effect relationship between the events then it can also make the pacing seem slow. I guess, I’m still not sure what you mean when you say the pacing is choppy or the pacing fell apart at the end. Not getting a clear picture in my head about what the problem is.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Thanks, Maureen, for the context re: whether it mattered to have read the Dreamhunter duology — I had wondered, after posting my review, whether my knowledge of those books was a factor in my reading of the themes of race and nationality. Glad to know it’s not!

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the pacing. I would describe it as leisurely, and I do think you have to wade through some historical stuff before you get into the fantasy stuff, and I will say that the friendship between the girls in the beginning was not terribly interesting or seemingly important (although I did read a convincing justification for it somewhere online). It could be that I was already programmed to enjoy this novel. A second read is definitely in order. If I run through my checklist of literary elements–plot, character, setting, style, and theme–I find that this one is at or near the top of what I’ve read this year.

    While I do think measuring how well an author accomplished what they’re trying to do is a great barometer of success, I also think you have to factor in degree of difficulty as well, so I’d take a noble failure (and I’m not acknowledging that MORTAL FIRE is one) over a well-written, but safe and boring. The thing I admire about Knox as a literary fantasist is that she requires the reader to draw inferences through their reading. It’s almost like the reader has to become a complicit co-author of the book. Margo Lanagan writes this way, too, but I think Knox appeals to both literary fantasy readers and genre fantasy readers.

    Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier under the SEPTEMBER GIRLS thread, but well . . . Last year you wondered whether there was a gendered reading component to CODE NAME VERITY that made it especially resonant for female readers. I think there was certainly some truth to that, but the book did not lack for male readers. On the other hand, Kirkus described SEPTEMBER GIRLS as a not-mermaid story for boys, but I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. I don’t see a boy audience for this at all, and neither did HarperCollins since they slapped that girl-friendly cover on it. The whole blogosphere furor was entirely female-driven. I just don’t think this book is interesting to boys at all . . . I’d cite DOING IT by Melvin Burgess as a book that caused a similar uproar, took a deep look at the relationship between manhood and female sexuality, but also actually appealed to boys.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Re: “mermaid story for boys” — Jonathan, I could not agree more with you! Well, mostly. I don’t think it’s without male appeal, but I also don’t think it’s targeted there, and most of the readers I wanted to give it to were female.

      As for Mortal Fire, it’s both richer and more problematic on read 2, I think. The pacing (by which I do indeed mean pacing, but my issue is that it’s not slow or fast, which I agree is partially taste — it’s some things taking their time and other moments being rushed) felt more off reading with a sense of the full scope; I can’t see a reason for the switches and moments when events are in immense slow detail versus moments when things move quickly and moments elapse with no textual details. And there’s some characterization of Sholto in particular, but occasionally of Canny, that was problematic. I prefer to give Knox the benefit of the doubt and assume the inconsistencies have purpose related to the meta-discussion of perception, but even if that’s the case, it’s clumsy — I feel less like a complicit co-author and more like a frustrated editor. Hence my question about striving and failing — and it’s not like the other books I’m listing strike me as safe or boring, just a little smaller in scope and a little tighter.

      I think the friendship has purpose in the organic-seeming reflections on race and identity, and also to prove that Canny, while complex and manipulative, is still empathetic and capable of warmth. But the Canny with Marli is a little hard to reconcile with the Canny who calculates and manipulates in the Zarene Valley. Not her kindness to Marli — more that it’s hard to see how they ever giggled at the pool, because Canny doesn’t understand people who do that and has no patience for frivolity or idle chatter. This is one of those blips in the characterization I was talking about above, and was far more noticeable in the second read. Are we meant to think Canny has changed since Marli got sick? That doesn’t gel with how everyone else sees her. Are we meant to think Marli broke through Canny’s otherness? That doesn’t make sense given that Canny actually isn’t fully human and is indeed odd, because of the Found One’s influence. And so on.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

        Thanks, Karyn. That makes sense, and since I read this one so long ago, I’d really need a second reading to see how I respond to some of your questions and/or concerns. I was completely engrossed on the first reading, but then I do think I’m the ideal reader here, and more likely to forgive what others are not. I’m hoping to read it before the year is over. This didn’t get any love from the review journals, most of which praised the literary elements, but found it confusing or disorienting, too. Could be a real sleeper. At least, I’d like to think so.

      • Jonathan, I’m responding to Karyn’s response here, rather than to your response to my comment above, because I wanted to agree with Karyn–I felt that the tendency to go into slow detail at critical moments kept the narrative from moving as it should have, and yet at other moments I wanted more detail. It’s been a few months since I read this one and I haven’t had time for a re-read, but I do remember being intensely frustrated by the feeling that these moments weren’t consistent. I’m normally all about slow pacing, but it just felt uneven to me, particularly in the early second half of the book.

  5. Karyn Silverman says

    I can’t reply (we’re already too many deep), but Jonathan, I hope you are right. I’m still pulling for gold for The Summer Prince, although I don’t know that it’s chances are good — it’s a divisive book, I think, which is part of why I keep rewriting and rethinking and failing to post my writeup of it — but I would be delighted to see silver for Mortal Fire and be wrong about how problematic the flaws are, because there is so much here that is smart and thoughtful and powerfully written.

  6. Karyn Silverman says

    Apropos of nothing, I was thinking just the fact that Susan, who is forward thinking and smart and a feminist and a powerful character in even the small pieces of her we see, is with Sholto at all says a lot about him. But it’s just occurred to me that Susan’s perception of Sholto is cast in a completely different light given the jocular idiot she marries at the end. Oh, such good playing with what is seen and what is real and how perception makes reality!

  7. I guess I’m in the minority here – I started this book back in the spring and stalled about 150 pages in. And there I stand to this day. I cannot stand this book. It is boring and I really don’t like any of the characters, so I’m not feeling any desire to delve back into it. In my head, I’m thinking I should just get over it and finish it, but my first, visceral reaction to this book is abhorrence and it’s hard for me to get around that.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Wow. Wow! Abhorrence? And not even a shred of tender feeling for Sholto?

      • No, not so far. As I said, I’ve basically quit at about page 150, so maybe I’d grow to love him a bit more. As of now, I find him the least off-putting of the characters, but not enough for me to want to subject myself to more of this book.

        Like I said, maybe I’m the one taking crazy pills here since so many others seem completely on board with this one, but it’s just not working for me.

  8. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    Okay, I’ve finished a reread and will address some of the complaints.

    1. Pacing: I think this is leisurely paced throughout. I do think there are moments in the story when our interest waxes and wanes (although I’m not sure that we’d all agree on the same moments), so here’s what accelerates the pace for me: dialogue vs. description, when clues are dropped and puzzle pieces fit, and when in the various scenes where characters confront one another. This ebb flow, whether it is inherent in the pacing or whether it’s my own patience with the story, still does not bother me. Another thing is that I think the climax here is two third of the way through the story rather than much closer to the end like it is in most YA books. That shouldn’t matter, but maybe it does?

    2. Characterization: I still find it subtle and nuanced. Canny with Marli is different from Canny in the Zarene Valley who is also different from Canny with Ghislain at the end. Knox has a great line earlier in the book where somebody felt like all the different versions of Canny were looking out at them. I think there is enough consistency between the different versions of Canny for the characterization to work for me. Plus, her mother is kind of a schemer, too, so I saw this as something like learned behavior.

    I’m not sure that this convinces anybody, but that’s how I see it . . .

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