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Mortal Fire, Elizabeth Knox

July 1, 2013

Mortal Fire Book blurb

Mortal Fire - Elizabeth Knox (Kevin Tong artwork)“When sixteen-year-old Canny of the Pacific island, Southland, sets out on a trip with her stepbrother and his girlfriend, she finds herself drawn into enchanting Zarene Valley where the mysterious but dark seventeen-year-old Ghislain helps her to figure out her origins.” ~ from Gecko Press

“Sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie has always been a little different. She’s never known her father, she’s always had a calculating, mathematical mind, and she’s always been able to see something Extra.
When she begrudgingly joins her older stepbrother on a trip to research a strange coal mine disaster that happened thirty years earlier, she wanders into a nearby enchanted valley, occupied almost entirely by children who all have the same last name and who can perform a type of magic that makes things stronger and better than they already are. With the help of the alluring and somewhat threatening Ghislain Zarene, who is held hostage by a powerful, out-of-control spell for his part in that mine accident long ago, Canny starts to untangle the mysteries of the valley – only to find that its secrets are her secrets, too.” ~ from the back of the book

Mortal Fire First Page(s)

“Canny and her teammates stood on platform nine of Castlereagh Station and watched everything they’d seen the night before in Founderston play again in reverse. Passengers from the overnight express were met, kissed, and led away into the concourse – or set off by themselves heads down into the hot wind. Bundles of pillows, sheets, and blankets were removed from the sleeper car, piled into handcarts, and wheeled away by the porters. The only difference was that here, in their hometown, the team’s school uniforms were recognized, and several people stepped up  to shake their hands. One man even opened his newspaper to their photo and had them sign it, first the three boys, then Canny. The man said that the Castlereagh Clarion had finally stopped calling their win an unlikely one.
It was the second year that Castlereagh Tech had carried off the supreme award at the National Mathematics Competition; a contest traditionally won by either [-p.2] Founderston Collegiate or St. Thomas’s – a decades-long rivalry in which the prize simply changed hands between the capital’s two best boys’ schools. Castlereagh Tech was a coeducational, state-run high school full of ‘kids of every stripe’ – to quote its own principal – and famous for nothing much but disturbances on city buses and the occasional talented rugby player. When, two years before, Castlereagh Tech’s junior math team took the prize in their section of the competition, even the Clarion reported their win as a surprising result. Last year the same ‘whizz kids’ made the front page in their hometown. This year the Clarion was taking their feats a little more for granted.
‘Only page two,’ said one of Canny’s teammates, disappointed.
Canny took off her blazer. Mr. Grove, the head of the mathematics department, said ‘Agnes Mochrie, you can remove that blazer once you’re back in bounds. Until then you must remember that you are representing your school.’
Canny put her blazer back on. She stared at Mr. Grove, whose favorite pupil she was, and wondered how she could get him to just let her go. Then, because she wanted what she wanted, and was already imagining herself setting off with her suitcase banging on the backs of her legs, Canny just said the first thing that came into her head, without articulating any of the steps that led up to it. ‘I don’t have to wait till visiting time,’ she said. ‘I could go now and they’d let me in.'” (pp.1-2)

Ref: Elizabeth Knox (2013) Mortal Fire. Gecko Press: Wellington

Themes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Mortal Fire

I realise this is a recent release just now, so don’t read this section if you don’t want PLOT SPOILERS (nothing specific, actually, but a few quotes and discussion of bits of the book that interested me).

Here are a few thoughts I have from reading the book:

  • What is important to the telling of this tale? What could the story do without in terms of plot (if not in colour and complexity)? How do all these bits come together to tell the story of Mortal Fire?
  • Canny has unique abilities (her math talent and her knack for magic), but what qualities of character shape this story through Canny? Does her character change during the course of the story?
  • The character Marli is critical to the plot of Mortal Fire. But how important is Marli’s character to this story? What do we know of her and how is that important? (Consider, for example, Marli and Canny’s friendship begins in part because of their shared experience of outsider-ness)
  • What role does Ghislain’s house play? How is it described (e.g., p.63; p.145)? How does this house contrast with others?
  • Mortal Fire is part fantasy, part coming-of-age story, part romance, part puzzle. What makes these bits mutually relevant, I wonder? It seems very natural to read them all together in a story. Why is that?
  • Mortal Fire is all about the importance of stories to our experience of the world….
  • How is ‘story’, as a concept, treated in the novel? (Consider: Sisema’s response to Canny’s report card (“a kind of curse” p.16); the Professor’s and Sholto’s interest in history (pp.128-129, p.183 etc.); Susan’s interest in folklore (p.31; p.61; p.181, 415, etc.); the oral histories gathered throughout by Sholto and Susan; Canny’s letter-writing to Marli and her awareness of how the stories she told Marli in those letters would be shaped by time and distance and by her having ommitted to say that these things were true (p.199); the one letter Canny receives from Marli – written by Sione with his additions (p.336); the photographs gathered on the Barber’s wall (pp.182-187); Canny’s use of story to manipulate events (e.g., p.188 “She needed a plausible story, and Sholto should be the first to hear it. Sholto had to believe her story, and then keep telling it for her.”; p.196); Canny’s thoughts about Bible stories and their dis-connection from her (p.355); Sisema’s explanation of Canny’s ‘breakdown’ after her visit to the Zarene Valley and Marli’s death (pp.411-412)).
  • Why have so much background information about the war, the colonisation of Southland, the experience of being brown/not belonging etc.? Is it just enough to make us see Southland in a certain shape (i.e., create a setting by drawing on what we know of New Zealand in its post-colonial, multicultural present)? Or does it help place story/history in an agentic position here? (Consider: Susan’s defense of her professional interest in witchcraft (“I know you pride yourself on your scientific worldview, but I’m an anthropologist, and anthropology is the study of how people live, and their stories and beliefs” (pP.61-62)); Cyrus and Sholto’s irritable interaction over the Shackle Islanders having citizenship and Canny’s relationship to Sholto (pp.212-213))
  • The importance of naming (a common enough thread in stories about magic) is intertwined with this interest in Story. Consider Ghislain’s stance on the matter of names when Canny suggests that the Zarene family’s rhyming names are a form of camouflage. Ghislain says that this helps protect people from curses and adds: “Having several names is better, but it isn’t something anyone can arrange. You can’t deliberately change your name. The differences have to evolve naturally, so that they represent slightly different identities.” (p.158).
  • Language is magic: this is a fairly common approach to magic – that language is crucial to its power – but it is still a topic worth discussing and exploring (I am put in mind of something Claudia Marquis once said about Margaret Mahy here too –
  • time and the effect of time on our interpretation of events; as well, of course, as the possibility of changing the past or the future. Time functions differently in the house on the hill (this and the importance of the clock brought Tom’s Midnight Garden to mind).
  • I am always interested in representations of age and elderly characters in children’s and young adult fiction. Iris, Cyrus, Lealand, and Ghislain Zarene are all much older than they seem – and appear to be experiencing old age in the final pages of the book when Canny returns. What does the age of these characters add to the story? What about Canny’s age? The discussion between Canny and Ghislain about age (p.334) is an interesting one, but definitely needs to be read in context.
  • How important are material things? NB: p.213, when Cyrus is remembering the mining accident and the fact that “Back then people didn’t need so many things.” (italics in original); p.412-415, when Sholto’s history book is described (it was written as a result of the trip to Zarene Valley to learn about the Mining disaster, and caused Sholto and his father to part ways. Canny quotes his approach to him: “We have floated our material culture over a sea of folktales and ghost stories nobody respectable will tell.” (italics in original, p.415)). As well as these rather explicit examples of materialism, there is also the moment when Sholto must enter the mine with Mr Mews in order to get his story – and realises that, while his intention had not been to enter a mine at all, he could not have written about the Mining Disaster without doing so: “[Mews] pointed at the steel that studded sections of the ceiling. ‘Those are rock bolts. They pin together the layers of rock.’
    ‘They’re holding the roof up?’
    ‘Yes. Perhaps you should have taken a tour of the Westport Mine. Westport is a roof and pillar mine. They’re much more roomy, and not as deep.’
    ‘I wasn’t planning to go down a mine at all, but I see now that I had to.’
    ‘I’m pleased to hear that.'” (pp.173-174) What I like about this is the subtle way that Knox inserts the physical experience of place and the materiality of experience into the ethics of storytelling. This section is important, I think, because it is a turning point for Sholto in terms of how he approaches history. It is, perhaps, when he shifts away from the Professor’s officially recognised and nationally acclaimed approach to history. Sholto begins to insert materiality of a different nature into the story. I haven’t thought this through exactly, but it’s there.
    This materialism theme (poorly articulated by me) is also there when Ghislain describes the origins of the Tabular alphabet that produces magic; Ghislain tells the story of Geli Zarene who had what sounds like synesthesia (Knox doesn’t label it so, but that’s how it’s described). Geli took the sounds of the Lazarus song, which were magic, and converted them into glyphs (pp.272-273). It’s there again in the compass that forms part of Sisema’s story, but which also becomes an object of physical power for Canny when she builds her Master Rune.
  • Family: neither Canny nor Sholto have comfortable relationships with their parents. They are brother and sister, but theirs is also a step-family – and one with many silences around its own personal history. In what ways is the concept of ‘family’ explored in this novel? How is it presented? Note that we are given alternative families to contrast the protagonist’s family with – Marli’s and the Zarenes in particular. Does the shape of Canny’s family change during the novel? How important are stories to the shape of a family? (Consider p.30; p.33; p.92 (Sisema’s tattoo); p.93 (Sisema’s story and the fact that someone wrote a song about it); p.103 (Iris’s inquisition about Canny, Sholto and Susan’s genealogy); p.127 and pp.270-271 (the descendants of Lazarus); p.203 (Sisema’s story is always there in the background; it’s even on the front page of the newspaper Canny gives Lonnie)).
  • What role does the government have in this story? (It is the government behind the war; behind the Lazuli Dam project (p.213) so crucial to the plot; behind much of Sisema’s story)

Consider also these excerpts (in terms of the above themes):

“Sholto’s hand sank to his side. Tears came into his eyes. The only thing he understood, of everything that evening in the valley, was his sister. The man and woman beside him were wolves. The man Canny was clinging to was probably a mad wolf. But Canny was faithful. And because she was a kid she was waiting for her faith and patience to be rewarded. She was like that bloody elephant in the book she’d used to love so much, though, at seven, she was already too old for it. She used to get him to read her that book, though she could read herself and it took her courage to ask him for anything. She got him to read it to her because, for some reason, she wanted to share with him – her new brother – what was essential to her. Her faith. And it should be, it should be, it should be like that –
– but it wasn’t. Yet how was she supposed to understand that there were things that were impossible, when she was brought up hearing over and over how you could set out in a canoe, with a compass and green coconuts, and save people?” (pp.319-320) [The story of the canoe and compass is the story of Sisema’s heroism]

Explaining what happened to her after she rescued the soldiers but before the war ended and her role in their rescue could be shared without fear of reprisal in her home village, Sisema tells Canny: “‘When I first came to Southland,’ Sisema said, ‘people were very kind to me. The people in the know, that is. They kept an eye on me and set me up on dates with groups of nice young people. Groups, so there’d be no poor fellow having a brown girl foisted on him. Sometimes I felt like I was the only brown girl in Castlereagh. The people from the archipelago never ventured farther north than Pitt River, and my own people hadn’t started coming here. I was different – a bit of a hot potato. And though there was goodwill, none of the folks being nice to me knew what the goodwill was about, so they were kind of thinking, ‘We’ll see,’ about it all. People don’t have faith without having the story.” (p.386) In spite of growing up with stories of Sisema’s heroism, this is the first time Sisema tells Canny this story.

“‘Sisema sent me a letter saying she wanted me to clean out my room, and she preferred me to do it when she and the Professor were out of town.’
Sholto and his father had had a bad falling out, a year ago, when Sholto’s book came out. …
‘You’ve hardly made a start,’ Canny said. She sat on his bed and once again slipped off her shoes.
‘I’m sorting. Making it clear what it’s okay to throw away. I’ll give them the pleasure of doing that.’
‘Purging the house of Sholto,’ Canny said.
‘The Professor was making a big, scrupulous fuss about what I was going to take and keep, like he always does about family things,’ Sholto said. The he repeated with the right emphasis, ‘Family things.’ He pulled a face. ‘As if the family having things and passing them on with due ceremony represents family to him.'” (pp.410-411, italics in original)

And this excerpt, just because it’s lovely: (while Sholto and Iris are arguing about the missing tents and who took them, Cyrus brings up the 1929 explosion of which ‘they all consider themselves survivors’)

“A silence came into the room and, like a cat, turned in a circle a few times, trampling down all arguments to make itself comfortable before settling.” (p.133)

Texts that invite comparison

Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (in terms of the manipulation of time within a domestic space… perhaps that doesn’t sound significant to anyone but me, but there you are) gives a plot summary. discusses Pearce.

Margaret Mahy’s work – including The Tricksters, The Changeover and probably others that escape my head just now (in terms of the entrance into magic; the threat of the unknown supernatural; how the remnants of history in our lives impact on us (The Tricksters); the magic in a place (The Changeover)…)

For that matter, both The Tricksters and Tom’s Midnight Garden… together (in terms of houses (not exactly Gothic sites, but hmmm), history, personal growth…)

Obviously Knox’s Dreamhunter duet is relevant here – the story in Mortal Fire absolutely diverges from that one, but the interest in history espoused by characters (and driving the plot) in Mortal Fire make the duet relevant. I’m not sure about comparison exactly, but I do think the importance of storytelling and language to each of these books makes them critically intertwined.

I have to think about others.

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).

Knox’s Mortal Fire: a History

Awards won (not for Mortal Fire (published this month!), but by Knox in her literary career):

Publishing History:

Classed as teenage fiction, ’15+’ and published by Gecko Press, Mortal Fire was only published in June of this year so there isn’t much of a history (in terms of criticism, I mean; check out what Knox has to say in her own corner of the web:

The cover art is just awesome – and copy righted to Kevin Tong; I assume that is the Kevin Tong, but I’d need to confirm.

Bibliography of secondary literature:

  • Nothing as yet … except that there are interviews and reviews around the place.

Author information:

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