Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig is a book I've had a strange mental relationship with since before I read it. For whatever reason, I kept thinking it was YA (it isn't) and then put off reading it because I didn't feel like a YA dystopian and because it felt a bit too close to potential Defying Doomsday slush. Then one day I decided to start reading, got about a chapter in and put it down for a while because some other book seemed more pressing. The second time I picked it up, however, I was hooked (and read it exclusively till the end).

Four hundred years in the future, the Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire that laid waste to civilization and nature. Though the radiation fallout has ended, for some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. Of each pair one is an Alpha — physically perfect in every way — and the other an Omega burdened with deformity, small or large.

With the Council ruling an apartheid-like society, Omegas are branded and ostracised while the Alphas have gathered the world's sparse resources for themselves. Though proclaiming their superiority, for all their effort Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: Whenever one twin dies, so does the other. Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side by side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

Although, as I've said, The Fire Sermon isn't a YA book — mainly because the main character is in her mid 20s — it does, upon reading, feel like one in some ways. Primarily the dystopian world which needs fixing and the anti-establishment sentiments of the main character, which seem like they might lead to some sort of revolution by the end of book 3, and the way in which the main character is a catalyst of change. On the other hand, it's a longer and more complex novel (plot-wise) than most YA dystopians that spring to mind. The characters are also adults and act like adults (while having similar adventures to their YA counterparts), which is refreshing. (If you're wondering, there are no on-page sex scenes, only kissing.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the world building in this book. I've had my fill of vague and/or nonsensical apocalypses and regular readers will know how fond I am of rigorous world building. The Fire Sermon was set 400 years after a nuclear holocaust in what I was lead to believe was formerly Tasmania. There's a bit of magic to the effects of the nuclear blast — everyone is born with a magically-linked twin and there are a few people around who are seers — but it fits well with the history and feels cohesive. The society is dystopian for two primary reasons: fear of technology because technology once blew them all up and the fact that one of each set of twins (the Omega) is born with a physical deformity or, in a few rare cases, is a seer. Omegas are shunned by Alpha society and forced to live on the fringes. The only reason the Alphas aren't already practising eugenics, is because if one twin out of an Alpha/Omega pair dies, so does the other.

Our main character, Cass, is of course an Omega and a seer. Being a seer makes her unusual but I appreciated that she wasn't the only one. In fact, one of the bad guys is also a seer. The other advantage of being a seer — other than, y'know, seeing the future and/or past — is that they look physically normal. In Cass's case this meant that she and her twin weren't split until they were 13 because their parents couldn't tell which was the Alpha. Usually twins are split as soon as they're weaned and sent away to an Omega settlement. Being an Omega has a profound effect on Cass's life as it makes her a second class citizen but Haig also shows us how it affects the Alpha twin and also how different people can react differently to the situation.

I really liked Cass as a character and Kip, who she spends a significant portion of the book travelling with, was also very readable. After things in Cass's life take a turn for the worst, she finds herself on the run with Kip, both of them unprepared. I thought the portrayal of the journey, with a lot of almost dying from hunger or thirst, was plausible and there were not unlikely lucky breaks for them, which often bother me.

There are more things I'd like to talk about in this review, but they happen later in the book and are definitely spoilers. Suffice to say that I approved of the world building reveals as they happened. And there was a brilliant reveal near the end that I didn't see coming until I was in the revealing scene, so that's always exciting. I wasn't sure (and couldn't be bothered checking) whether The Fire Sermon was a standalone or the start of the series. It stands alone fairly well and while I'm definitely looking forward to the next book, I don't feel like I have to read it for plot-completion reasons.

All in all, The Fire Sermon was an excellent read that exceeded my expectations and was a solid example of both the post-apocalyptic and dystopian subgenres. I highly recommend it to fans of both, in particular fans who are looking for a meatier (and longer) story than the YA side of the genre tends to provide. I see no reason why fans of YA dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories would not also enjoy The Fire Sermon.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2015, Gallery Books (US) / Harper Collins (Commonwealth)
Series: Apparently book 1 of what appears to be a trilogy. Stands alone fairly well.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via Netgalley
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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