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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Review: The Fire Sermon, Francesca Haig

It can be easy to read the blurb of 'The Fire Sermon' and think,  'when will this plethora of Dystopian fiction end?' as much as with vampire fiction did at the Twilight-peak days. But this is a YA Dystopian fiction you don't want to miss.

In a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by the Blast (presumably a nuclear disaster, but it's never explicit) the world becomes strictly divided. Everyone is born as twins - one perfect (the Alpha), one with some kind of imperfection (the Omega), seen or unseen.

Cassie is one of the Omegas whose claimed imperfection is hidden. She is a seer, a fact which she desperately attempts to hide from her twin, Zach, and her parents. And, for thirteen years - a record - she manages to do so until Zach, frustrated by the ostracism of their unsplit-ness, calls her on it. She is thus sent away and lives fairly quietly for a few years until men come for her to take her away.

She is taken to the Keeping Rooms, a place where powerful Alphas - one of which Zach has now become - keep their Omega twins, lest they be used against them. For almost four years Cassie doesn't even get to glimpse the outside, and is routinely mentally tortured by a powerful Omega called 'The Confessor' until she is finally able to devise an escape plan.

But she doesn't escape on her own. Having discovered a room full of tanks that keep Omegas in them she manages to free a boy close to her own age who does not remember anything about his former life. She calls him Kip and together, they break free and make for the island, a rumoured refuge for Omegas, knowledge of which The Confessor has been probing Cassie's mind for.

What makes this book different from other YA Dystopian fiction is its treatment of a particular issue, rather than just another oppressed heroine rising up to beat 'the system'. Its treatment of disability is bold, of the evils of segregation passionate, and Cassie's daring to hope that the divide might be stopped, audacious. For when one twin dies, so does the other. Cassie is pretty much the only character who sees that one death is not really one death, but two. The other good and different thing is that Haig does not cling onto characters for sentimental reasons - if it's necessary and logical for them to be let go of, then they are. Neither are the twists too 'out there' to be plausible, and when you work them out, you wonder how you didn't know all along.

Pace, plot and characterisation are well-wrought and managed, particularly the rise and fall of action vs lulls that are little more than temporary breathers for Cassie and Kip.

Overall, an outstanding debut novel, its sequel eagerly anticipated.

Review: Oh Dear Silvia, Dawn French

Silvia Shute may be one of the most interesting characters one can ever read about without her even uttering a word. We meet her in a coma, after a fall from a balcony, and one by one people close to her gather around her bedside - for their own purposes or for hers, it's never really decided upon.

This is more of a character study than a story as such, because there isn't really much story to be gained from a narrative that simply consists of characters whom do not interact with each other until the end of a book, each of whom are talking at Silvia. We learn about Silvia through several different lenses: Ed, the ex-husband; Jess and Jamie the estranged children; Winnie, the ever-optimistic nurse; Tia, the housekeeper; Jo, the eccentric and jealous sister; and Cat, the friend/lover. With Silvia being in a coma, she never gets to defend herself from the charges laid at her door, with the result that that we get several patches of a quilt that is simply unable to be sewn together.

There are several threads that French starts but doesn't quite see through to completion and by the time I finished the novel I had lots of questions - not in the philosophical sense, because it's always good to finish a novel and have questions, but questions that simply were not answered because they were almost forgotten about. Overall, it feels more like an almost-finished draft, but because French was already famous before, the amount of further editing and polishing that would be required from a non-famous author was simply skipped.

The variety of characterisation, on which such a novel necessarily relies, was good in its potential, though it does revert to stereotypes. Winnie's speech, in particular, was hard to navigate as her Jamaican accent was written phonetically and almost got stronger as the novel progressed with the result that I found myself saying the words aloud to make sense of them. Not that it's a bad thing to write in the accent of your character, but it wasn't always helpful. Tia, too, was an unfortunate stereotype - described in another review as simply, "the Asian maid who steals from her employer".

Silvia is given only one redeeming feature in the book - I'm assuming the purported 'secret' which the blurb hints at - but it is one of those threads that is started but not finished, so we don't get to see Silvia in the light in which she could have been presented. All we see of her is the cold wife, the distant and unforgiving mother, the cruel lover. The only chance she gets is from Winnie, the nurse, and the 'what ifs' providing she wakes up from the coma.

In summary, it's an interesting book that never quite stretches to an actual story, despite its interesting characters and flashbacks.