Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire is the kind of book where, no matter how many times you read its initial disclaimer, you are constantly stopping to verify its historical accuracy on Wikipedia. Everything about it feels unsettlingly real. In fact, about halfway through, I realized that the protagonist’s nickname, Canny, may well have to do with this uncomfortable straddling between the real and the fantastical—and, heavy-handed as Knox can be, I was a little in love with this weirdness. So, before I say more about the novel, let me confirm that the Southland islands do not, in fact, exist beyond Knox’s novels, nor do its cities or coal mines. Iron lungs, for all they sound like depraved inventions of a crazed mind, are real. So, unfortunately, was the Second World War.
Set in 1959, Mortal Fire opens to typical YA-fanfare. Protagonist Canny (short for Agnes, short again for Akanesi) is an outsider, and is very obviously prone to the supernatural. Knox’s twist on these tropes, however, is more engaging than usual; Canny is a brown, native girl amongst her white peers and step-family, she is a mathematical genius and, it is implied, somewhere on the autistic spectrum. She sees and describes magic in logical terms, as natural “extra” rather than as something inexplicable and spiritual. Right away, Canny is made an other in our own world as well as Southland’s, but what’s more, she is a character to whom we can relate without ever fully understanding.
Canny lives in her mother’s shadow. Sisema Mocherie saved two soldiers during WWII, sailing them safely past Japanese occupying forces in a very iconic, earth mother fashion. She is featured in Canny’s history books—a sort of Sacagawea figure to Southland’s largely white, homogenized population. Canny, 16, lacks her mother’s sharpness, her beauty, her domineering personality. Unable to relate to her peers, she dedicates her time to her school’s math club and to visiting her best and only friend—the only other native girl she knows—in the hospital. Marli is in the late stages of polio, trapped in an iron lung, but calm and sweet when Canny feeds her chocolate and plaits her hair with a tenderness we will not see replicated in the rest of the novel.
A game changer arrives when Canny’s mother and stepfather force her to stop her daily visits to Marli in favor of a holiday with her stepbrother, Sholto, and his girlfriend. Sholto is researching a 1929 coal mine collapse in the town of Massenfer for his father (a renowned professor), and the three young people set out for a month of camping, recording, and transcribing. Needless to say, they get more than they bargained for.
Enter the Zarene family: old, mysterious, bucolic—the Zarenes all have rhyming names and weird tattoos, and the children are forced to leave the valley when they come of age, never to return. Canny, despite her immediate awareness that she has found fellow magic users, is not taken with the Zarenes, who treat those outside of their family with the same disdain Canny’s peers have for her. Instead, Canny observes; she replicates their magic and learns from them with the ease and grace of a prodigy. And she explores.
Canny finds a kindred spirit in Ghislain—a boy trapped by his family in a hidden house that is, quite literally, timeless. Ghislain shows an immediate and unabashed interest in Canny’s talents and company and Canny, lonely in her own right, falls hard. As she is brought further and further into the Zarene’s insular world, however, she is forced to confront the past—her own, as well as Ghislain’s, magic’s, Southland’s, and even her mother’s. What results is a blurring of boundaries, a dip into the moral grey that so many other YA fantasies seem to avoid. How can Canny find truth among stories? How can she find home amongst the flux of post-colonialism and amongst her loved ones, trapped in permanent stasis?
The answers are not simple, and Mortal Fire’s primary fault is in trying to make them so. Despite some initial pacing issues in the first quarter of the novel, the story runs very smoothly until its last 20 pages. For all Knox (a Printz Honor author) makes Canny’s mathematical mind and Asperger tendencies relatable, her choice to not only explain them away with magic, but to do away with them entirely by the end, is jarring. Canny’s strength is in her identity, and Knox illustrates this time and time again; matters of identity are rarely simple and never quite so rushed in their conclusion, even in a world with magic. I found myself making excuses for these last pages—it is, after all, a YA novel, so why shouldn’t it include exposition, explanation, and simplification for younger readers? But such excuses simply are not fair; Knox needs to slow down and give her readers (and Canny) some credit.
Up until that last round, though, the novel stayed strong. The climactic scenes managed to hit on two of the things I find most terrifying—bees and body mutilation—and Knox didn’t try to leave any neat little bows on the secondary storylines. Canny is a kick-ass protagonist, smart and a little bit scary, but with enough compassion to make her three-dimensional. She feels at least as real as the setting, a conglomeration of real and fictional places and events. Massenfer and its coal mines—like the Hunger Games’ Twelfth District—evoked poverty, disaster, and small town dynamics in a way that made me feel right at home as a Kentuckian. The novel’s setting within the 1950s, as well, felt natural; Canny’s obliviousness to pop culture made inane topical references impossible, and the historical events surrounding the period were simultaneously vital and secondary.
Mortal Fire is rife with frustrating and intriguing characters, and there are times when not one of them seems in the right. But the novel itself thrives on ambiguity, much like Canny’s own sense of in-betweenness. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Check out an excerpt here. Mortal Fire will be released on June 11th by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Emily Nordling is a writer and activist from Louisville, Kentucky. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and justice.