Friday, May 8, 2015

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

A book pitched as The Hunger Games meets The Road, the marketing blurbs raise such ludicrous hopes, don't they? While Katniss Everdeen hasn't been my favorite hero/heroine, Cormac McCarthy's powerful and evocative exploration of the human drama set in a post-apocalyptic setting really rocked it for me when I read it years back.



So, the question that plagued me before even I started with The Fire Sermon, Francesca Haig's debut novel that saw a bloodbath between major production houses to acquire the movie rights and is now commissioned to be a movie soon from Dreamworks, is it really that good?

The story is a suspense chase-thriller set in a post-apocalyptic world - where timelines are split into the Before and the After ( when the world was destroyed by fire - "Before the blast, they say there'd been sermons about fire, about the end of the world. The fire itself gave the last sermon; after that there were no more" ) and the society split into the Alphas and Omegas. Everybody born are twins, one a perfectly healthy baby while the other deformed with a hand or eye missing or one too many. Cass, our protagonist however is born without any deformity. and thus compared to Zach, her twin - she seemed perfectly normal. until the visions came. She was a seer, not uncommon, with the ability to witness the future. But Cass ultimately has to pay the price that every other Omega does. Ostracized and forced to live in an Omega settlement - where poverty and famine are the order of the day, Cass resents her twin his 'rights'. This anger and fear snowballs through the entire book - and this bond between Cass and Zach is what drives the narrative forward. Cass is captured and locked in a prison - by Zach who has risen through the ranks and now is a hot-shot among the Council, a sort of tyrannical ruling society. 

But Cass is not your typical Omega ( of course not!) - Francesca sets her up for the Hero's quest: a mythical island where Omegas live free of fear and oppression. To this end, the narrative sees "journeys" as Cass and Kip, another inmate from the jail whom she saves - seek to get to the mythical Island - aided by Cass' prophetic vision. There are problems aplenty, adventure and the suspense holds till the end. The plot-twists in the end nicely set up things for the next book in the series trilogy.

What really blew me was the stark, desolate world of the After - four hundred years after a nuclear meltdown - how it comes alive in Francesca's poetic writing and begs to be a character that remains with you after you're done with the book - It is textured world-building done commendably well. The ruined landscape, the claustrophobic tight spaces, the divisive nature of a crippled society living in fear and anger - all of this is very beautifully laid out by Francesca.

But apart from this, I found little of interest that "hooked" me. Her characterization really didn't do it for me. Cass as the main character was strictly okay. Confused and never aware of her "special" powers, she was a classic trope. I really didn't think she had changed much throughout this journey. Her love-story with Kip too left me flat and cold. The side-characters  - (Hello Piper! You were an after-thought to bring in a love-triangle?) too didn't really pique my interest. That said, the antagonists Zach and The Confessor were pretty interesting. I felt the novel could have done exceedingly well to have a dual narrative. One from Zach's perspective as well. [ Kind of doing justice to everything else in the book, right? Like History cleaved in two, Society cleaved in two, the Narrative also could have benefited from an extra perspective.]

While the premise of twins connected inexplicably to each other [ If one died, the other too dropped dead] was pretty intriguing, I couldn't for the life of me figure out why an Alpha would want to kill an Omega - knowing that it would kill anyways another Alpha too. Francesca, who's had numerous poems published before this, has a clear and forceful manner of writing. Lucid, beautiful expositions timed well enough to keep the suspense from flagging. However - my lack of investment in the lead character really made this read a bit uninspiring. Plus a world where Technology is abhorred for the evil it wrought about, there are still power-hungry ass-wipes who don't learn a thing from history and want to bring back the machines? Arghhh. Nope.

Also in a genre - bursting with too much drivel right now [The term 'YA post-apocalyptic' brings out a yawn from me, not to mention innumerable comparisons to some books I haven't liked!] this book does nothing to bring in "wow" factor and change my opinion. In spite of most characters being in their twenties, the treatment is mostly young-adult and that doesn't win my vote either.

So in conclusion, while The Fire Sermon marks a good debut for Francesca Haig - set in a wonderfully imagined scorched-earth-after-apocalypse setting coupled with strong lyrical writing that brings the suspenseful chase alive - things bode well enough for a second book. But for me, personally, this book dropped below expectations. But it's just me. If you love a desolate world, social commentary on the divisiveness of haves and have-nots, a heroine who gets the visions of future and is out to save the world while being desperately on the run - then perhaps this one's for you.

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