“Canny and her teammates stood on platform nine of Casterleagh Station and watched everything they’d seen the night before in Founderston play again in reverse.”
Sixteen-year-old Canny is not your typical teenage girl. She’s a mathematical genius who spends most of her free time visiting her best friend, Marli, who is trapped in an iron lung due to polio. She can also see “Extra,” her term for the strange writing she sometimes sees attached to walls, rocks, sometimes even swarming around tree branches. When her parents go away on vacation and hoist her onto her stepbrother and his girlfriend, who are heading to a small mining town to interview the survivors of a horrible explosion, Canny finds herself in a strange valley where there are only three adults, all the children have rhyming names, and a strong magic is protecting a house that her brother and his girlfriend can’t see. As Canny learns more about the strange, idyllic valley, she realizes that her Extra is a part of the magic that suffuses it.
Mortal Fire (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was my first encounter with New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, and I think that my enjoyment of this book may have suffered a little bit as a result. I knew going into it that this was a standalone return to Southland, what seems to be a magical version of New Zealand/the setting for her award winning Dreamhunter/Dreamquake duet. A lot of writers whose work I love were raving like little fangirl lunatics about another visit to this world, so I thought I’d give it a try.
This is a slow, dreamy, sleepwalking journey through metaphysical insanity. At first it was a bit too slow; the first hundred or so pages are all character development and stage setting for the real meat of the story. Fortunately (unfortunately?) I had read a few reviews that said the first bit can be a bit of a slog, otherwise I don’t know that I would have stuck it out. Even though I did power through and ultimately found this book enjoyable and compulsively readable, I don’t know that we needed to spend quite so much time plodding along in those first hundred pages.
Once the pacing picks up, though, there is a lot of CRAZY shit going on. There’s word magic (I love word magic. I really, really do). There’s time travel via astral projection. There are magical time-bubble prisons. There’s really graphic manslaughter. There are a LOT of bees. There’s guilt, there’s jealousy, there’s grief, there are grudges that maybe people need to let go of a little, there are mysterious origin stories, there’s a fairly obvious but still enjoyable coming of age/self knowledge/MAGICAL RUNE SEARCH story. Even though there are a lot of cool magical things going on here, sometimes it felt like the nature of the magic was taken for granted; there’s a somewhat bewildering explanation of its origin, but it seemed like Knox kind of expected you to just accept what could actually be done with it. Either that or I’m kind of dumb, but I really wanted a little bit more realization from Knox on that front. I will also admit that I was kind of turned off by the Biblical nature of the magic, but that’s just me.
Canny, while not always likeable, is an interesting heroine. She’s hyper-intelligent and extremely manipulative, and there were times when I felt really turned off by her machinations. The eventual reveal of her true identity lent more credibility to the motives behind her sometimes baffling behavior (including her insta-love with Ghislain), but I got a little frustrated sometimes while I was reading and didn’t know that it would eventually all come together.
Overall, the writing was solid with some stunning moments that will be forever freeze framed in my imagination’s memory, but this book requires a very specific kind of reader to really LOVE it and I am not that reader. It’s not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with the book-it really is very, very good-it’s just not exactly my kind of book. It’s an interesting, unique take on the classic unknown origin story that explores a lot of primal human emotions. It is achingly lonely, violently disturbing, and takes place in a magical world unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It just didn’t fully line up with my own readerly preferences, and there were times when it felt a bit unwieldy and like Knox needed to do just a little bit more to make all the magic and all the characters’ stories fully cohesive; it’s extremely complex, and it just needed to be taken a step further for the complexity and clarity to be on par with each other. That said, the experience of reading this book and the way Knox explored some of the themes have really stuck with me since I finished it, so is this worth a read? If you are a patient reader and you like your books a bit heavier, absolutely 100% yes.
For music I chose Dead Moon’s “Somewhere Far Away.” This song is so sad and lonely and lovely that it felt like a perfect fit.
Where I got it: the library