Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox
(Gecko Press $29.99)
Elizabeth Knox is a versatile writer - from the magical and moving threads of The Vintner's Luck to the sweetly detailed mystery of Billie's Kiss to the inventive symphony of Black Oxen. We have been gifted versions of her real world (her autobiographical trilogy) and her magnificent realms of invention (The Dreamhunter Duet).
Knox's latest, Mortal Fire, is Gecko Press' first venture into young adult fiction and it is a terrific publishing debut, gorgeously produced with shiny bees almost leaping off the cover. Two of my all-time favourite Young Adult writers, Kelly Link and Margo Lanagan, have written endorsements on the back that should be enough to make anyone pick it up.
Knox has used the Southland of her Dreamhunter Duet (an Edwardian version of New Zealand), but this place is no longer the haunt of dreamhunters and the story is set in 1959. Mortal Fire is a modern fairy story without fairies, full of breathtaking magic and visual detail.
Canny Mochrie is a 16-year-old with an unknown father and a heroine mother (she got some marines off her island at great risk to herself). Canny is a different kind of heroine.
She is a misfit with an ability to see things that others don't, and she possesses a prodigious memory and mathematical wizardry. She is resourceful, determined, compassionate, prickly and curious - a glorious female protagonist.
Canny's mother and stepfather have to go away so she is reluctantly taken on a camping holiday with her brother and his girlfriend. Her brother is researching stories of a mining disaster that don't add up and the girlfriend is studying witchcraft. Canny enters the puzzle of the valley in which they find themselves, which in turn becomes the puzzle of herself.
The story that unfolds is gripping and surprising. A young man, Ghislain Zarene, is trapped by magic and his wrongdoing at the top of a hill and Canny manages to break through the magical barriers to meet him.
It is a story of love, desire, friendship and teenage turning points, yet it is much more. It is also a story of politics - the lengths a community will go to stop a hydro dam flooding their precious Zarene Valley. It is a story of outsiderness, whether through the colour of one's skin, abilities or bloodline.
Above all, it is a story of trust.
Knox excels at creating imagined worlds that you occupy fully as a reader, in part due to her sensual detail, elevating itself beyond the traditional fable. Canny's mouth "tasted of toothpaste and apple crumble - apple, sugar, cinnamon". Trees are "bearded with lichen".
Magic is inscribed on walls, forearms and in the air as visible extras to be read and understood by those who can.
Knox writes with such a graceful hand that the story (despite its mist, steam and smoke) reverberates with exquisite clarity.