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Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

A review by Nalini Haynes

Cass and Zach are perfect twins in a post-apocalyptic world where one twin is always born Alpha (‘normal’) and the other twin is always an Omega (has a disability or is a seer). The split in society is catastrophic and final: the Omega twin is always sent away to protect Alphas from contamination. Thus begins the Fire Sermon.

Alphas claim the best land, shunting Omegas into poorer land where they struggle to feed themselves and yet are taxed even through famine. In recent years, Alphas forced Omegas further out or into refugee camps. The only thing restraining Alphas is that when their Omega twin dies so does the corresponding Alpha twin.

You’d think they’d take better care of their Omega twins so the Alphas would live longer. However, an underlying fear of the Omegas, of being disabled or tainted, skews Alpha thinking and the structure of their society.

Cass, a seer, hides her difference until she’s thirteen when her twin, Zach, tricks her into revealing herself so she’s branded and sent away. From his position of superior entitlement, Zach feels Cass made him suffer and stole from him, although she went hungry during drought years. Zach is like those men who claim that women seeking equality are stealing their entitlement and threatening their way of life.

Zach orders Cass kidnapped and imprisoned for his personal safety but things don’t go according to plan.

Complex dynamics around disability

I particularly love how Cass is rejected even by the Omega people because she’s not physically deformed. Her invisible disability makes her suspect even after her family branded and rejected her. She is neither Alpha nor Omega in their eyes, therefore she is bereft of real community. This is such an accurate portrayal of disability culture that, at times, my breath caught and my eyes moistened.

(Because my visual impairment is an “invisible” disability, people judge me, accuse me of fakery and fraud.)

Fanservice

Haig winks at the audience by naming a major city Wyndham. This emphasizes her parallels to Chrysalids. Something bugged me about the Confessor until I realized her search for Cass was very Eye of Sauron–like. There are also parallels with Andre Norton’s Witch World series, Terry Brooks’s Shannara series and many more.

The verdict

The Fire Sermon is riveting with engaging characters, a fast-paced plot and a few twists along the way. Most important, The Fire Sermon is a book about disability, the class divide and the underlying fear and loathing motivating Alphas/’norms’. There is also romance, a kind of ‘whodunnit’, political intrigue, a resistance, a rounding up of the Jews/Asians/[insert ethnic minority here] and much more.

Francesca Haig is a Tasmanian living in London. I expect The Fire Sermon will be shortlisted for the Norma K Hemming Award next year for its representation of disability and its discussion of disability, class and gender issues (overt and symbolised). It’s too early to predict any winners but if The Fire Sermon isn’t shortlisted I Will. Have. Words.

If you enjoy good writing about disability, I recommend Nothing Can Hurt You Now (with a protagonist on the autism spectrum) by Simone Campos. We chat in this podcast.

Update

Update: I updated this post in 2023 to replace the missing image etc. Of course the Norma K Hemming Award ignored the Fire Sermon. I’m of the opinion that it’s an award given to friends and assigned strategically to further the judges’ careers. Prove me wrong, judges: give awards to the best written, most insightful, most groundbreaking and disruptive books eligible.

Book details

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9780007563067
ISBN 10: 000756306X
Format: paperback, 432 pages
Imprint: Voyager – GB (HarperCollins)
On Sale: February 23, 2015

the fire sermon book cover: Greek letters Alpha and Omega overlap on the cover above the title

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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