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.
[Into the mines]