The Fire Sermon
Harper Collins, 419 pages
Review by Noel Chidwick
The Fire Sermon is a novel that hits the ground galloping, scooping up Cass onto the back of a horse to be thrown into a dungeon lit only by the buzzing glow of a single lightbulb. Chapter one is a masterclass for fledgling writers in how to grab your readers by the eyeballs and hurl them into your story.
Some 400 years after the ‘Blast’ mankind is back to pre-industrial existence, but with a twist. Births are always boy-girl twins where one—the Alpha—is perfect, but the other—the Omega—is deformed in some way. The deformation is usually visible and the Omega twin sent away. But sometimes the deformation is not obvious and the twins are brought up together until the Omega becomes apparent. Cass—short for Cassandra, unnecessarily—the Omega twin to Zach hides her ‘deformation’ for years until as teenagers she finally has to reveal that she is a seer, sensing events to come. She dreams of the Blast too:
“There were no written tales…what was the point… when it was etched on every surface? It was still visible in every tumbled cliff, scorched plain and every ash-clogged river. Every face. It had become the only story the earth could tell, so who else would record it?”
Yes, the first thought that sprang to my mind is John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Set in a similar post-nuclear apocalypse where the deformed infants are similarly scorned, and the protagonist whose ‘deformity’ is similarly of the mind, in this case David being a telepath. But Francesca Haig sets us old-timers’ minds at rest when she cheekily names her main town where Cass is incarcerated as Wyndham. Thereafter I relaxed into the tale to see where we are taken.
The Fire Sermon relies on the new cast-iron law of nature of linked twins (when one dies, so does the other) and the story rattles along as we understand Cass was imprisoned by her twin who by now is a High Heid Yin on the Council, who is protecting his sister in the cell and thereby protecting himself.
Soon Cass is on the run with her new friend Kip as they try to find their way to a safe colony for Omegas and the story becomes a strong chase around this neatly described future of mankind knocked back to an agricultural lifestyle. We sympathise with Cass as she struggles internally to understand her world, how to restore her relationship with her brother and also right the wrongs of the persecution of the Omegas. Although a contrivance, the linking of severe pain and deaths of twins sets up an agonising balance, asking us to consider that when we harm others we also risk injuring ourselves. I rattled through the book, eager to turn the page. It’s a mix of adventure and plot turns, with ample space to explore themes of oppression and reconciliation.
Wyndham fans may well each raise an eyebrow, but they can lower them again: The Fire Sermon is a thoroughly good read. It is craftfully written and reaches a satisfying conclusion, but with enough loose ends to guarantee the story continues. I look forward to the sequel to be published in the New Year.
This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 1.