The Fire Sermon, by Francesca Haig

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Publication date – March 10, 2015

Summary: The Hunger Games meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this richly imagined first novel in a new post-apocalyptic trilogy by award-winning poet Francesca Haig.

Four hundred years in the future, the Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire that has laid waste to civilization and nature. Though the radiation fallout has ended, for some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. Of each pair, one is an Alpha—physically perfect in every way; and the other an Omega—burdened with deformity, small or large. With the Council ruling an apartheid-like society, Omegas are branded and ostracized while the Alphas have gathered the world’s sparse resources for themselves. Though proclaiming their superiority, for all their effort Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: Whenever one twin dies, so does the other.

Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side-by-side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

Thoughts: Judging by the description, it would seem at first glance as though The Fire Sermon was just another average run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic YA novel, with young adults bringing down the corrupt system and proving themselves to a harsh world. And in some ways, that is what you’re going to get here. But there’s also more to the book that I don’t typically expect from such a novel, such as Haig’s gorgeous writing, with very evocative imagery. Other books I’ve read in this genre typically have decent writing, but it’s of a type, and much of it I find is very interchangeable with just about every other novel in the genre. Haig’s work stands out where that’s concerned; it has its own voice, one that’s quite distinct from the others surrounding it.

Cass is an Omega, the lesser of a pair of twins, the one who bears the brunt of deformity so that their perfect Alpha twin can live a whole and unblemished life. Cass’s burden, however, is that she has psychic powers, the ability to see glimpses into the future or far-away present events. Because she otherwise appeared whole and unblemished during her childhood, both she and her brother Zach were held back in society. Prohibitions against Omegas getting an education or even really interacting with Alphas meant that neither child could partake fully in society, since it was unknown for a long time whether she or Zach was the true Alpha. But her secret was uncovered eventually, and she was branded and outcast to live in one of the Omega villages while Zach took his place in Alpha society. But it wasn’t enough for her to be segregated like that. After a while in her new life, men on horseback approach her and take her away, imprisoned for reasons she doesn’t understand.

And that’s just the beginning of the story.

The story is quite long and involved, and to me, that was actually something of a failing, especially since there wasn’t a great deal of action to keep the story moving. This is partly a fault of expectations, however; I’m used to stories of this type being rather action-driven, whereas The Fire Sermon contained far more periods of reflection than high-suspense scenes. Things definitely happened, and the plot moved along at a relatively even pace, which was nice, but much of that lacked tension and instead focused on evoking reactions of pity and sadness rather than fear or anger. It was an interesting direction for the book to go in, and one that lends itself quite well to Haig’s polished prose, but it seemed to make the book feel rather flat with only a few memorable peaks in action toward the end.

The romance (you knew there was going to be some; it’s a YA post-apoc novel, after all) was decently done for the most part, affection between Cass and Kip growing over time and due to circumstance, rather than have a love-at-first-sight situation. Which I can appreciate. What I didn’t appreciate, though, was the rather clumsy attempt to shoehorn a love triangle in there, with Cass and Piper. Honestly, most of the time it seemed like the characters weren’t even going for it, there was no real interest except on Piper’s part, and it felt so forced and awkward that I feel the story would have done better to just have that part cut entirely. It didn’t add anything beyond a couple of conversations between Cass and Kip about jealousy, and it took away from more important issues occurring at the time.

What I did especially like, though, was Cass’s greater understanding of Alphas and Omegas, due to her rather unique perspective after having spent far more time with her twin than, well, just about anybody else in memory. In the battle between sides, Alphas versus Omegas, it was she who primarily remembered that every time one was killed, their twin died. You may kill off the invading army, but somewhere, all of their twins dropped dead, killed by connections they couldn’t help, all in the name of protecting people just like them. Normally I’m not so fond of characters who are the only ones who can see issues that other people just accept as a matter of course, or don’t even see at all, but I actually think this was done well enough to bypass most of my “special snowflake” complaints.

If you’re looking for a good new addition to the YA post-apoc genre, then The Fire Sermon fits that bill. It’s intelligent, compassionate, and written in a way that gives the whole thing a more mature feel than most readers, I suspect, are used to. (That the characters are actually in their early 20s probably helps, though they still come across like teenagers, for the most part. Maybe this is more “new adult” than “young adult?”) I rate it 3 stars, but a strong 3, bordering on 4, and most of where it fails in my eyes is because I’m still apparently burned out on that genre. It may have some exemplary features, but at its core it’s still an addition to a bloated genre that seems to have very little originality despite having a large number of new books. (This is where I maintain that it’s impossible to review ina vacuum; other books do affect our opinions of later books, and that has to be taken into account for both positive and negative.) If you’re a fan of the genre and are looking for something a little different but that still leaves you on familiar ground, then absolutely look into The Fire Sermon. If you’re looking for something to breathe new life into the genre, then sadly, this isn’t it. It’s good, but not that good.

(Received for review from the publisher.)