This was my first time reading an Elizabeth Knox novel, but I know for certain that it won’t be my last. Quite famous in her (and my) country of New Zealand, Knox is best known for her adult novel The Vintner’s Luck and her YA duology Dreamhunter and Dreamquake. Mortal Fire is set in the same world as the Dreamhunter books, one that’s so similar to our own that only a few name changes and the presence of hidden magic differentiates it.
The story is set in 1950s Southland, a large island republic in the South Pacific, and our protagonist is Canny Mochrie, a sixteen year old math genius, forced to accompany her stepbrother Sholto and his girlfriend Susan on a research project to the town of Massenfer. Sholto has been instructed by his father (a writer and professor) to collect testimonies on a somewhat strange mining accident that took place there thirty years earlier.
Canny has to go because her mother Sisema is returning to her home of the Shackle Islands where she’s to receive a medal for her actions during WWII (she paddled a canoe carrying two wounded soldiers from the Shackle Islands to Southland, saving their lives from Japanese occupiers). Canny is reluctant to accompany her stepbrother as it means leaving her best friend Marli in hospital, slowly succumbing to polio.
But once she reaches Zarene Valley, other things begin to monopolize her attention. Not least is the strange Zarene family, which seems to be composed of the very old and the very young. She also realizes that what she calls the “Extra,” a type of magic visible to only herself and which has the ability to manipulate reality, is being used by the Zarenes to keep hikers, wanderers, and other curiosity seekers from venturing too close to a strange house on the hill.
What is inside the house that the Zarenes seem so determined to protect and contain? Canny makes it her business to find out.
It’s hard to really pin-point what it is that makes Mortal Fire so appealing, but there are three major facets to the novel that are worthy of praise. First of all, Knox’s grasp of language is glorious. Often it’s not so much a story as you tell that story which takes a book from good to great, and there were passages throughout Mortal Fire that made me sigh with envy and glee at how beautifully they conveyed ideas and descriptions, such as:
A silence came into the room and, like a cat, turned in a circle a few times, trampling down all arguments to make itself comfortable before settling.
When her dark fingers flashed, the bees calmed and time itself seemed to slow till the late afternoon sunlight was as thick, lucent, and golden as honey.
Secondly, Knox has a wonderful grasp of how to use the supernatural to shape her story. It’s not just something that informs the world-building, but is an intrinsic part of shaping the characters and plot. If you’re a fan of Margaret Mahy (especially The Changeover, The Haunting and The Tricksters) you’ll love the way that Knox infuses the strange and wonderful into everyday life, conveying magic with a matter-of-fact tone that does nothing to rob it of its beauty and mystery. As Canny learns to wield it we learn more about herself in the process, for its existence has a profound effect on her background and abilities.
Which leads to the third component of Mortal Fire that makes it so engaging: Canny herself. Knox referred to her at a seminar I attended as “a female Odysseus” in regards to the way Canny tricks and lies her way through the obstacles in her path (much to the stress of her long-suffering stepbrother). She is an incredibly intelligent teenager, and Knox is equally clever enough to show rather than tell us this. A reader has to pay close attention to what Canny thinks, says and does if they want to keep up with her, and as all the strewn pieces of the mystery begin to come together, it becomes all the more satisfying when we realize what she’s been up to the whole time.
Also worth mentioning is that the book contains subtle flashes of insight into gender and race, such as how Canny is forced to downplay her mathematic skills by pretending to consult with her male companions at math competitions, or how her skin tone influences the way other characters respond to her, whether it be the curiosity of children or the vague suspicion of certain adults.
In short, Mortal Fire is a fascinating story, beautifully told, with a unique heroine and an engrossing plot. It’s also quite a thick book, so you can be assured of a few days’ worth of reading. I was hooked, and I’m not only looking forward to reading it again, but tracking down Dreamhunter and Dreamquake as well.