Rated Reads

Mortal Fire

by Elizabeth Knox

Rated: Moderate

In 1959 on a Pacific island called Southland, a teen named Canny goes on a trip with her stepbrother and his girlfriend. Her mother, famous for a daring rescue of some soldiers during the war, is away with her stepfather, so Canny has to be third wheel while Sholto and Susan conduct some interviews with survivors of a mine accident some years before.

As it turns out, the three end up staying a few days in a quiet valley filled with honeybees and orchards and populated with one large extended family who tend to keep to themselves. And some interesting things are going on there, including more of the kind of invisible-to-everyone-else odd writing that Canny has sensed sometimes throughout her life and just called her “Extra.” These insular valley inhabitants, the Zarenes, clearly know something more about the Extra, but Canny isn’t sure what it means or how it relates to her. When she finds a young man about her age seemingly held as kind of a prisoner in a hidden house on a hill, Canny has to find out why he’s there and what he knows about this magic. And when she meets him, she knows she has to help him escape.

Mortal Fire is set in the same place as Elizabeth Knox’s wonderful books Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, but about 50 years later. It’s not necessary to have read those books to follow this one, but I did enjoy being able to revisit the place and a few of the references to the earlier events. What’s also nice is that the plot is complete within this one book and the pieces of the various puzzles all find their way together (kind of magically) by the end of this book and readers don’t have to read a second book to figure it all out. But what’s most important is that all of the books have just such a powerful sense of place and their own distinct tone; I couldn’t help but feel utterly transported there, immersed in the story and the place. The books all have a slightly dreamlike quality, one of mists and mystery just gathering around the periphery. The plot is complex, the mystery of Canny’s ability and how it fits in with the strange history of the Zarenes an intriguing one. When it comes together, the reader reaches the a-ha moment just as the characters do. Plus, the emotional pull is real; we care about what happens to the characters, and it’s sweet and satisfying. Fantastic book.

Rated: Moderate. There is occasional mild and moderate language throughout; there are a few brief, non-descriptive references to sex and some brief intense kissing. But what makes it moderate is one scene of a violent event that is jarring by what happens and the fairly short but detailed gore.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • Mortal Fire
  • by Elizabeth Knox
  • Rated: Moderate
  • Genre: Young adult
  • Reviewer: