Summary: Elsha is one of the Quelled: a branded people, doomed always to mine coal to warm the ruling class, the Chosen.
But Elsha has strange visions that set her apart– and a strong spirit that condemns her to death. Her life is saved when she is called to be Handmaiden to the Firelord, the most powerful being on the planet.
Elsha is the first of her kind ever to be so honored– and both the Chosen and her felow Quelled are stunned. But the powers and visions grow ever stronger, even in the face of extreme prejudice.
Yet Elsha must learn the hard way that you can’t play with fire without getting burned.
Thoughts: The Quelled race, forced into slavery generations ago, spend their time mining for coal in order to keep the Chosen race warm when the world is ravaged by a seemingly never-ending winter. The irony is that the more coal is burned, the more smoke is released into the air, forming clouds that block out the sun and prevent heat and light from coming through, and so more coal must be mined by the Quelled so that humanity can survive. The Chosen view the Quelled as less than animal, having no language, no emotion, no intelligence, and so God Himself has designated them as slaves to the master race of the world. Elsha of the Quelled knows this all to be false, and against all odds and opposition, vows to change the lives on the Quelled, and thus the very foundations of society.
Most YA novels with a strong environmental message are set in the modern world, or slightly in the future, so at least the world is as we can recognize. Sherryl Jordan’s world is not, instead being set in a place that’s alien enough to be fantastical while still being familiar enough to hit close to him. She tells the story of cyclical pain and consequence, how once things are set in motion it can be hard, if not impossible, to change things.
And yet through the whole book is the message of hope, that if one puts for the effort and actually works for the change they want, then something can be accomplished. We can’t all be as lucky as Elsha, to be chosen as an assistant to somebody in power, but we can make the changes we want to see in other ways.
There is, also, an expected message about prejudice in the novel. The Chosen hate the Quelled, viewing them as unclean abominations, and affront to God. Elsha’s new position, something unheard of, causes not only local strife in the towns she passes through but eventually leads to civil war. People don’t change easily, and even the people who side with Elsha acknowledge that and try to convince her not to be so radical in her beliefs. But more and more we see the futility of prejudice, how it stems from ignorance, and how with work from everybody, it can be overcome.
This review makes Winter of Fire seem really heavy-handed in its messages, but it really isn’t. It’s a well-woven story that incorporates these elements, and they are major themes in the book, but the message isn’t hammered home until you’re tired of hearing. They’re properly incorporated, woven in and around the story rather than cutting a clear path through it, becoming a part of the story instead of standing out as the wagging finger and disapproving glare. Jordan has a gift for this that other authors could do well to emulate.