Author: Elizabeth Knox
Genre: YA, Historical, Paranormal
Publication Date: June 11, 2013 (Macmillan – North America)
Source: Publisher-provided ARC
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie’s vacation takes a turn when she stumbles upon a mysterious and enchanting valley, occupied almost entirely by children who can perform a special type of magic that tells things how to be stronger and better than they already are. As Canny studies the magic more carefully, she realizes that she not only understands it–she can perform the magic, too, so well that it feels like it has always been a part of her. With the help of an alluring seventeen-year-old boy who is held hostage by a spell that is now more powerful than the people who first placed it, Canny figures out the secrets of this valley and of her own past.
☆: 4/5 – a gorgeous magical reality tale!
Review: This was an absolutely gorgeous treat of a book, guys. Though a little on the long side, “Mortal Fire” is a beautiful magical reality tale set in 1959, Southland New Zealand. And get this – it has paranormal romance AND characters of color! That feels so rare now in YA, which is really a shame. If you’re looking for a good vacation read to really sink your teeth into, definitely give “Mortal Fire” a try.
My two biggest issues with this book: stuff that could have been edited/cut short with no detriment to the novel as a whole, and the fact that it’s part of the “Dreamquake” universe, which is not talked about on the jacket description. Because of that, I felt a little lost in areas (especially talking about the Dream Hunters), but you can definitely bet that I want to read those other two “Dreamquake” books because of “Mortal Fire”. This book isn’t directly tied into the “Dreamhunter” Duet, but it’s still within the same universe, so there were a lot of references that I didn’t get because until you got to them (and then googled them), it wasn’t mentioned in the blurb or description at all. Which was pretty frustrating. As for the part about length – the explanations of the mine accident and how it tied into the Zarene family could have been cut short – it got a little too rambling for my liking – with no real change to the book as a whole. Since I read an ARC I’m hoping by the time it went to pub it got that edit that it needed. The mine accident is just one area that could have been cut down, but it’s the most obvious of the lot.
Those gripes aside, Knox definitely knows how to build a world, characters, and has a real way with sensory imagery and language. Let’s start with the world – Knox really was able to bring back the world of 1959 (and previous years) Southland, NZ with ease and grace that’s incredibly hard to pull off, but she absolutely nailed it. While I will admit that I don’t really know much of New Zealand, its geography or history, Knox was able to make it very accessible to the ignorant reader, and that was something I was really greatful for. She gave a quick rundown of what happened in WWII, the Shackle Islands, and how Canny (and her mother, both of API descent) came to be in Southland in the first third of the book. That was really well done, especially when we learn Canny’s mother’s role in the history of the Zarenes and outsiders during WWII. The rest of the world is built by the histories and backstories of the main cast, as well as absolutely gorgeous sensory imagery and language – which is definitely Knox’s greatest strength. It was so nice to be totally immersed sensorily in a book like I was with this one.
The characters: While I feel like some of the more important of the Zarenes could have been fleshed out a little more (Iris), overall Knox does a great job with building her characters. Canny is one you want to root for, that clever girl, and the relationship web of worldbuilding is used here, so the world builds the characters, and vice-versa. While I feel like things happened a little too fast with Ghilsain in terms of romance, it wasn’t instalove, but it still felt a little too quick for my comfort level. Regardless, nearly everyone is wonderfully deep and detailed, and to do that for one character is hard, much less an entire main cast.
There’s also the magic – it’s one of the most original systems I’ve seen in YA in recent years. It’s complex, it’s lovely, and it’s very detailed. It’s not easy to learn, or easy to continue learning – the Zarenes are strict in their instruction and their entire magic “language” is very, very hard to learn (even for the predisposed-to-magic Zarene children). All of this stems from a retelling of the Lazarus story from the bible, which I thought was a very odd but interesting touch, and really absorbed me more on the whole. I wanted it to be a larger part of the story than it was, but what I got was still really awesome.
Final verdict? If you’re looking for a very original PNR YA tale, definitely pick up “Mortal Fire” and give it a try. It’s out now from Macmillan in North America, so check it out when you get the chance!