Reposting to include Rebecca’s review of the new reprint edition.
Sherryl Jordan is a New Zealand-based author of young adult and children’s fantasy fiction. In Winter of Fire (1993) she tells the story of Elsha, a sixteen year old girl born into the enslaved underclass called the Quelled. As the sun has disappeared from the world, a memory only alive in mythology, the Quelled are forced to mine for the firestones that are the people’s only source of warmth. But Elsha has a rebellious spirit and is often in trouble with the brutal overseers at the mine. They are from the upper class, the people known as the Chosen.
Elsha’s life is changed forever when she is chosen to be the handmaid of the legendry Firelord. The Firelord is the most important man in the world as he possesses the power to divine for firestones, the life fuel of every person alive. The Firelord’s choice is remarkable; never before has he selected a Quelled girl and the ramifications for the established way of life are huge. Elsha travels with the Firelord through the frozen villages where he divines for the firestones. She faces unbearable prejudice and open animosity from the Chosen people who have been brought up to believe that she is stupid and filthy, not even capable of speech. Elsha remains defiant and dedicated in her service to the Firelord and soon begins to learn that her affinity for the firestones may mean more than she ever realised. As her abilities heighten and her relationship with the Firelord develops she realises that it is her mission to bring hope back to the Quelled and help them rise up from slavery.
Winter of Fire is a highly readable, stand-alone, young-adult fantasy. In many ways it is a classic tale. A young heroine with special abilities leads her people to a better life. But it is particularly well told and the characters are strong and likeable. Elsha is a true heroine, utterly committed to her people and unwavering in her purpose. She has very few doubts or fears but approaches the situation with a believable bravery, born of the terrible hardship she experienced throughout her childhood. There isn’t a huge amount of tension in the story — it is fairly clear that Elsha will achieve her goal. How could she not with so much determination guiding her. But I derived much pleasure from Elsha’s fiery spirit and the bravery and charisma of the few enlightened Chosen men she meets on her travels. If it was a little annoying how quickly each of the men fall in love with Elsha, that feeling was off-set by the fact that her allure lies in her character rather than in great beauty.
There is no arch-villain in Winter of Fire. The hateful oppressor is the very system that governs the world, the years and years of false teachings, and the tampering of history. There was something refreshing about this, particularly as so many villains fall prey to being pantomime cut-outs. This also led to a realism that is often missing in stories of heroism, an understanding that things will not change over-night, that Elsha’s mission will be long and arduous even after the most visible barriers have been broken down.
Winter of Fire is a deceptively simple little story that manages to be deeply affecting. Sadly, it is now out of print (Update: see below!), but I found a second hand copy pretty easily and I would recommend that any reader who enjoys strong heroines battling bleak settings seek it out.
I can’t have been more than eleven or twelve years old when I first read Sherryl Jordan’s Winter of Fire, but I remembered it vividly. Heck, I even remember why I was reading it in the first place: because I had recently finished Rocco by the same author, and my secondary school teacher had been telling me one of her former students had called it the best book he’d ever read.
Now over two decades later, Winter of Fire has been reprinted, with the same evocative cover art of a woman in a red dress and fur cloak. The moment I saw it on the library shelf, it all came back to me.
A dystopian novel LONG before The Hunger Games was published, Winter of Fire is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the world’s population is divided into two distinct groups: the Chosen and the Quelled. The Chosen are wealthy and privileged, but the Quelled are slaves: branded on their foreheads, forced to live in abject poverty, and responsible for the acquisition of “fire stones” from the deep mines in the mountains.
These fire stones are the world’s only source of warmth, what with the sky being perpetually blotted out with smoke and gloom. The sun isn’t even a distant memory, but considered a myth.
Among these Quelled is a teenage girl called Elsha, who feels in her bones that this is not how the world should be, and that somehow she will be called upon to change it. Then, on her sixteenth birthday, she is selected as a handmaiden to the Firelord: the most powerful Chosen of them all. He alone has the power to divine for the life-giving fire stones, and his selection of a Quelled for the position of handmaiden is unprecedented.
Hatred and fear follows Elsha wherever she goes, but she is committed to the Firelord’s work and eager to learn what she can. With a foot in each world, not belonging to either Chosen or Quelled society, she slowly begins to discover her own innate gifts, and what they might mean for the future of her world.
Sherryl Jordan’s story is just as powerful now as it was when I was a child, and perhaps even more resonant given its emphasis on climate change. Granted, her depiction of slavery and the way in which it’s resolved is perhaps a little simplistic — but then, this is a standalone YA novel. It’s actually rather refreshing to get a complete story that deals with heavy subject matter that still manages to end on a promising note.
Elsha herself is a fantastic heroine: brave and determined, selfless and assured. There’s the usual YA tendency to have every young male character fall in love with her, but it’s not overstated, and Elsha herself remains grounded and three-dimensional. “Mary Sue” is a term that’s thrown around with too much abandon these days, but Elsha is certainly not one, despite her “chosen one” narrative. She’s just an ordinary girl, trying to do the right thing and achieving extraordinary results.
Twenty-five years after Winter of Fire was first published, it was quite a trip re-experiencing Elsha’s journey. I was astonished at how much of the detail I was able to remember, which speaks as to the clarity and vividness of Jordan’s prose. As relevant now as it ever was, I hope the reprint brings more people to Elsha’s story.