Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox

Mortal FireA review by Nalini Haynes

Canny, also known as Agnes or Akanesi, is a brown 16-year-old girl graduating from high school, already with entry into a university program because she’s a maths prodigy.

Canny sees writing no-one else sees; this writing seems to be telling bridges to be stronger than they are and giving similar mystical instructions.

With her best friend in an iron lung in hospital after contracting polio, Canny doesn’t want to leave her friend’s side. Maternal willpower is an irresistible force, however, so Canny is carried off to Zarene Valley by her step-brother Sholto and his girlfriend Susan.

Discovering a house on a hill that no-one else seems able to see, Canny investigates. It appears the Zarenes, the large extended family living in the valley, can read and write the hidden magical sigils. Inadvertently instructing Canny on their use as she spies on them, the Zarenes become suspicious when evidence is brought to light.

Meanwhile, Canny finds Ghislain, the 17-year-old boy held prisoner in the house on the hill, a house with magical properties.

Partially due to the era in which it’s set – the early 1960s, the period of many available books in rural school and town libraries in the 1970s – Mortal Fire reminds me of fantasy novels I read as a child.

Although not usually a fan of magical realism, I found this story engaging. The focus was less on how magic spells were cast and more on Canny’s secretive investigation.

Not only is Mortal Fire set in the 1960s but it’s also set in a fantasy world – a parallel world if you will – in a fictitious country that has some similarities to New Zealand but strong differences as well.

A lot of research has gone into Mortal Fire. I lived in Tasmania as a child, a place not dissimilar to New Zealand. In winter the St Marys Pass would close to all traffic except working trucks carting goods like livestock. Closed to all traffic except the school bus whose driver decided to risk the lives of students rather than lose his pay. I’ve seen landslides up close and personal, including having to walk up half the pass because the bus couldn’t go forwards or backwards. Knox’s description is horrendously real.

Knox goes into detail about a coal mine and some of its dangers. When I attended St Marys District School, many of my classmates were miners’ children. Occasionally there was an accident at the mine, at which time all the children would go deathly pale as they were released from class and bused back to their shabby, impoverished town. My knowledge of mining is very limited and local to that era so I’m no expert but Knox’s descriptions feel genuine.

One of the problems of living in a mountainous region where government enjoys freehold (the government is able to evict owners) and the government enjoys hydro-electricity, is the threat of valuable property being damned, dammed even. Again the legal battles evoked by Knox feel real, with the exception of magic being used to protect Zarene Valley.

Magical realism and detailed research combine to give Mortal Fire a realism and depth not often found in fantasy, especially fantasy based in parallel worlds. I found myself barracking for the romance in these pages even though I’m not a huge romance fan and the romance wasn’t even the driving force for most of the story. I highly recommend Mortal Fire as an award-winning magical realism story, suitable for a wide range of readers.

Rating: 4.5 stars 4 1/2 out of 5 stars