Review: THE FIRE SERMON by Francesca Haig (Gallery/Voyager)

HaigF-FireSermonUKMuch-hyped debut fails to sizzle

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.

This novel has been enjoying quite some hype on social media, and the premise does sound like an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic dystopia genre. Dreamworks has already acquired film rights for the novel (which is the first in a trilogy), and the Guardians of the Galaxy co-screenwriter has been hired to write the adaptation. It has been described as a “Potential Heir to the Hunger Games“. This had all the makings of an enjoyable, thought-provoking read, one that would rise about the masses of other dystopian novels that are hitting shelves on a monthly basis. I decided to read it early (I received an eARC via the US publisher and NetGalley). Sad to say, I was thoroughly disappointed.

[Minor spoilers ahead. Some not so minor, perhaps.]

I don’t really like writing negative reviews. Even when a novel leaves me feeling disinterested, a review can come across like a scorched-earth tirade. Ultimately, The Fire Sermon left me feeling rather indifferent. I read until the end despite spending most of my time a little bored, able to predict almost everything that was going to happen (telegraphing happened), struggling on until the rather limp final pages. The premise had huge potential, but there were just too many things — plot devices, events, some of the world-building — that ruined it for me. I can’t go into too much detail without ruining the story completely. The fact that I did read until the end would suggest the novel has merit — I’d agree, though this is more because the author writes very competent prose (given this was an ARC, too, I only spotted two typos, which is fewer than I find in many end-product novels). Also, the amount I’ve written would suggest the novel did have a larger impact on me than I might have thought. But, even after writing this, I remain mostly indifferent.

The story is pretty straight forward, and can be simplified thus: story of seer Omega’s childhood before “split” and banishment, imprisonment by Alpha brother, meets evil seer, freedom, girl-saves-boy, wander in the wilderness, momentary safety, discovery of fabled land of Omegas, fabled land attacked by evil Alphas, confrontation with Big Bad. Generally speaking, that’s not a bad story arc, and certainly one can see echoes of many great fantasy (and other) novel plots. It’s pretty well structured, in that regard.

However…

Certain plot developments are presented as revelations when they’ve been absolutely telegraphed, and most likely the reader was there already. It’s never a good thing when a new reader is moving faster than the novel. There were very few surprises. And this has nothing to do with Cass’s seer abilities as they aren’t particularly well utilised or explained (more on these later).

The sense of peril and danger for the Omegas is negated by their mortal link to their Alphas — even though some are seen as useful tools for control and/or blackmail, and abused accordingly, Haig fails to generate much of a sense of tension — perhaps because, in the clear desire to write a novel about prejudice and the Evils Men Do, to create an apartheid-like society, the linked nature of the twins gets forgotten (until the final 20%~ of the novel). It felt like a considerable oversight, despite it being spelled out for the readers countless times. I think it could have been done much better. Cass at one point explains this to one of the other characters, in a moment where we’re supposed to believe that he’s forgotten about this link — it’s a very frustrating aspect of the storytelling. I don’t believe anyone would forget that everyone is linked, and the fact we’re presented with people who need it explained or reiterated, despite being involved in the protection of, or active persecution of Omegas… It grated and didn’t feel right. Cass is presented as the only one who seems to really be thinking about it. Not sure if this was just a clunky way of making her the Heroine of the story or an odd oversight. Given the twin-link, I didn’t quite buy that society would have developed in the way it has.

That being said, the connection is well-presented during a battle near the end. But by then much of the impact has been blunted, because of a lack of investment in the story and characters, and the clunkiness of what has come before.

What of the characters? Well, Kip has no memory, so he’s blank and remains so for most of the novel, but he’s also slightly more likeable and interesting than Cass, in those few scenes he’s given a personality. His role near the end of the novel is interesting, but my investment in his general arc was middling at best, so the impact was severely blunted. As for Cass, she’s almost as bland, but at least she has the seer thing going for her. The ability seems to be a rather random, ill-defined power if ever there was one — it seems to change handily to suit the situation, and ends up a bit of a crutch. I was rather disappointed by this. Zach, Cass’s twin, is a bit of a central-casting villain, but without the realism, making him something of a cartoon or parody. Just, you know, also lacking a personality of note. Piper was fine, if underdeveloped and his obvious, near-immediate attraction and falling for Cass was forced, and the “rivalry” between him and Kip over Cass’s affections came across like Plot Point Bingo. Not particularly interesting.

Ultimately, I never developed an attachment or connection with the characters. There was a lack of emotion in the writing and storytelling — even moments that should have elicited an emotional reaction failed utterly to do so. Partly because they were telegraphed, and partly because the tone was rather dispassionate. This, I think, is my biggest disappointment with the novel. Potential squandered for reasons I cannot fathom.

One thing I will say is that there was nothing wrong with the author’s prose, which is well-formed and composed. This probably explains why I read all the way through: it’s well-written. It’s not especially beautiful prose, but it is rather straightforward. The narrative is slow, with a few peaks of excitement and forward-momentum — almost all quickly halted far too quickly, lest the reader start having fun. But long, deep troughs in between these fleeting action or interesting sequences, in which the story just tread water, were far too long.

Let Us Sit And Discuss Plot Things. There was far more telling than I like, and lots of reiterating elements of the story and world. Sometimes in the same paragraph (if you need to say something two or three times in one paragraph, you’re doing it wrong). It’s almost like Haig thought we needed our hands held, even though the repeated information is clear as day. I was never lost, nor did I ever need anything explained. I got the allusion, the inferences, but it was always explained. The world is more complex than some of the parochial characters’ world-views would suggest. We know this because a) it’s so obvious and lacking in nuance, and b) in case you didn’t get it, we’re told it is. More than once. It became over-written.

There’s one other issue I had, which takes place during the confrontation at the end. To go into it would offer mega-spoilers. But needless to say, after 400 years, with no technology to speak of, certainly no training in science and technology, it’s perhaps best not to give characters inexplicable skills with them, or the language of “algorithms”, etc. This really bugged me, and spoke to my general concerns about the level of world-building. Too often, there were things that were included which, developed properly, would have been fine; but instead were just sort of slotted in there, as if the author was hoping we wouldn’t notice that it didn’t quite work (if at all).

There was one funny joke, about subversive goats.

Overall, a disappointment.

***

Francesca Haig’s The Fire Sermon is due to be published in the US by Gallery Books in early March 2015, and in the UK by Voyager in late February 2015. The cover at the top is the Voyager edition, and the second image is the place-holder from Gallery. I received an eARC via NetGalley.

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