The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig is a dystopian novel set several hundred years after “the blast,” a nuclear war that ruined the world. “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.” (p. 13 of the advance reader copy)
At first, there were few surviving babies. Three or four generations after the blast, twins began to appear. One perfect baby and one imperfect, mutated baby. One Alpha baby and one Omega baby. At first, some tried to kill the imperfect baby only to discover a chilling truth – when one twin died, the other died. Now society is divided into the Alphas and the Omegas. As soon as it is clear which baby is the deformed one, he or she is cast off into an Omega village, to struggle to survive on the worst land with the least resources. The Alphas know they can’t kill their Omega twins, but they make life harsh for them.
Every now and then, an Omega baby’s deformity is manifested as the ability to glimpse the future. The narrator, the unoriginally named Cassandra, is one of these seers, otherwise normal.
Most twins don’t stay together long enough to form a bond, but since it is not clear at first which child is the Omega child when a seer is born, twins with a seer stay together longer. Cass and her twin Zach lived together with their parents until they were 13, when Cass was forced to leave home. Zach has joined the Alpha government, determined to make a name for himself and change society. The book opens with Cass being taken from her home and thrown in a cell. Powerful Alphas often “protect” their twins in some manner, so the Alphas can’t be assassinated through the murder of their twins.
The book starts very slowly. The world building is gradual. The author does not dump all the information on the reader at once. However, once Cass meets up with a mysterious one-armed prisoner who has no memory of his past, escapes, and goes on the run with him, the book really takes off. I was pulled right into the story after that. It was refreshing to have an adult narrator (in her twenties) instead of a teenager for once.
Some of the plot specifics are hard to believe or clichéd. Cass loudly breaks a glass case with a wrench while trying to escape her prison. She and Kip, the amnesiac, come across a party in a barn at an Omega settlement and dance freely in the shadows despite the danger. When Kip reveals something Cass wants to keep secret, she goes on a rampage, throwing breakable objects at the door. There is a love triangle that feels forced (are women authors even allowed to publish stories without love triangles anymore?).
But it’s an engaging story despite these occasional lapses. Although dystopian plots have been done often, this one manages to find some original ideas to include. The book ends with two big surprises, one I anticipated and one I did not.
There are some lovely passages. For example, “There were no written tales or pictures of the blast. What was the point of writing it, or drawing it, when it was etched on every surface? Even now, more than four hundred years after it had destroyed everything, it was still visible in every tumbled cliff, scorched plain, and ash-clogged river. Every face. It had become the only story the earth could tell, so who else would record it?” (p. 13 of the advance reader copy) The Omega children are all sterile; Cass wonders, “Was that the one thing Omegas are spared? Since we can’t have children, at least we’d never have to experience sending a child away.” (p. 25 of the ARC)
I feel the author missed an opportunity to make the reader think about the economic disparities of our own society. Perhaps the sequel will get be a little meatier. I definitely plan to read the sequel, and I recommend The Fire Sermon for those who enjoy dystopian fiction and strong female leads. The book is scheduled to be published in March 2015. I read an advance reader copy from netgalley.com.