Always a bit of an outcast, Canny is more interested in maths competitions than social events. She sees things differently than others do, from her impatience with their difficulty reasoning things out at her speed, to her sense that there is something special about how the world is put together that she could understand if her mind could just pry apart the right cracks. She’s not sure what this something is, but it might be connected to her Extra, the glowing patterns she sometimes sees that everyone else seems blind to. Canny must now spend her school break helping her step-brother Sholto and Sholto’s girlfriend Susan collect interviews on a mining disaster that occurred thirty years ago. But a few of the survivors, those from the Zarene family, seem to be hiding something that could have little, or everything, to do with the accident’s cause.
One of the best things about Elizabeth Knox’s new novel is the complexity of her main character. From the beginning, the reader has the sense that Canny may be a mathematical genius (she’s asked to help make it appear that the answers her maths team reach in competition are a group effort, rather than mostly coming from her), but as the story unfolds, we discover that Canny has a history of alienating behaviour, that there is something considered to be “wrong with her,” something more than just introversion or standoffishness. This “wrong” thing is most likely to do with Canny’s lower than average ability to convey what she feels in a way that is easily apparent on her face. She’s not much of a smiler. In this sense, Knox has taken a risk with Canny, the risk that readers won’t understand or relate to her. However, Knox is careful to make the reader privy to Canny’s inner thoughts and feelings, including those she has difficulty expressing to other characters in the novel, thus, her social problems endear the reader, rather than alienating them.
Many young adult novels of the moment are written in the first person from the perspective of the novel’s main character. While this can make the character easier to relate to, it also means the author must be spot on with their portrayal of a teenage voice or risk being criticized for either dumbing down, or, more often, writing in a way no teenager speaks. Knox avoids these possible pitfalls by writing her young adult novels in the third person. Although in Mortal Fire most of this third person narration occurs through Canny’s viewpoint, Knox also has a wonderful gift for switching gracefully to the point of view of other characters. Perspective switches can be disorienting, or can seem out of place in a novel told mostly from one character’s view, but Knox manages to give the reader just enough of the other characters to flesh out both the novel’s plot, and the reader’s understanding of Canny.
While all three of Knox’s Southland books have magical elements, the magic in Mortal Fire differs substantially from that in the Dreamhunter Duet (Dreamhunter and Dreamquake). In the Duet, magic is something sung up, something shaped by hands and spoken through words of power. In Mortal Fire, the magic is revealed as more of a written language, a language whose ties to the magic in the previous books exist, but are not made quickly apparent. The connection, once revealed, is somewhat tenuous but clever to the degree that this fragility is well over-shadowed. The more important connection between the Dreamhunter Duet and Mortal Fire is a historical event which occurs at the end of Dreamquake and has helped shape the national identity of Southland as it’s described in the new novel. This fact contributes to the sense that while the magic in the novel becomes important to Canny in life-altering ways, this magic, and the knowledge it reveals, is less significant than the more mundane world represented by Canny’s relationships.
While romance is present in all three of Knox’s Southland novels, filial love is, perhaps, a stronger presence in the Dreamhunter Duet. By contrast, in Mortal Fire Canny’s strained relationship with her mother, coupled with the fact that she doesn’t know who her father is, makes the romantic relationship that unfolds in the novel all the more important. However, Mortal Fire is much more than a love story. It’s the story of a teenage girl discovering and accepting her differences, both the strengths and the flaws, and learning that the world is put together in strange and wonderful ways, of which she is a part. In Mortal Fire, Knox has given readers a rich and intricate world peopled by detailed and fully-realized characters — a perfect choice for teens and adults wanting to explore the realm of young adult literature.