Elizabeth Knox has a knack for creating rich, textured worlds in her fiction. In Mortal Fire, her third YA novel, Knox returns to the ‘world very like our own—but not completely’ that she created in her previous two highly acclaimed young adult books Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. But Knox cleverly approaches the same world from a totally different angle.
Mortal Fire is set in a different city, several decades after the events of Dreamquake, and, in contrast to the well bred, private school educated, white rich girls of the Dreamhunter Duet, Mortal Fire’s heroine Canny is a middle class public school girl whose mother is a Shackle Islander (Knox’s fairly close take on Pacific Islanders) and whose father is a mystery.
Canny is shipped off by her stepfather and rather forbidding mother to the Zarene Valley, on a research trip with her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend. Sholto is researching a terrible mining disaster that happened there.
As it happens, the mining disaster and the strange people who live in the Valley have something to do with Canny’s mysterious parentage—and why she, unlike her stepbrother, can see magical symbols woven into her surroundings.
When you lay out the premise of Mortal Fire in such stark black and white, it’s very easy to think you know where the novel’s heading. But you’d be proven completely wrong. Knox’s meticulous doling out of exposition, handing out of red herrings, withholding of information until just the right moment, and clear decision not to indulge in plot clichés means that the plot never heads in the direction you anticipate.
You find yourself delightfully, engagingly wrong-footed, every time.
Part of what makes the plot so great is that the character of Canny drives it forward at every turn. A hyper-intelligent maths genius who shows little emotion but certainly feels it, Canny’s actions all derive from her intense curiosity and equally intense force of will. She’s also sometimes quite manipulative and impatient with everyone else’s relative stupidity, choices of characterisation that I liked.
It’s rare to see a lead female character (in any medium) who does much more than be pretty and likeable, and in Canny we find a character whose best features are intellectual, not just physical.
Canny’s lightning-fast ability to put two and two together from the barest of clues bleeds into the way Knox has chosen to tell her tale. In general, there are very few moments when a plot revelation is explicitly spelled out, one laborious step at a time. Instead Knox carefully lays out the pieces of her very complex puzzle, then leads you along, trusting that, like Canny, you, the reader, are smart enough to put two and two together.
In fact, my minor dissatisfaction with the book’s final revelation may have stemmed from the fact that this revelation did seem spelled out, in almost the same vein as the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel, when the detective explains everything but you’re not necessarily party to the way the detective worked it out.
In Mortal Fire, though, most of the time you are party to the detective process because you are the detective. Perhaps that’s why the final revelation seemed somehow like a leap (possibly, a leap too far); we weren’t quite as party to the detective process as we had been throughout most of the book. The fact that Knox largely lets you work things out means that there is quite a lot of exposition, giving this book a somewhat leisurely pace.
This slower tempo lends the book a sense of space, and gives you time to sink into this curious world of Knox’s, where World War Two has happened and where Canny’s friend likes to read My Friend Flicka, but magic also occurs—real, dangerous magic, magic that can command a swarm of bees to chase you.
With every page you come across a new facet of this parallel universe and you realise that this fictional world is somehow genuinely deep, just like our world. Endless possibilities lie folded into every crevice. Here’s hoping Knox lets us return to this imaginary geography again, some time soon.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
By Elizabeth Knox
Published by Gecko Press