Monday, July 20, 2015

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig

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.

The Fire Sermon is a dystopian novel about a world completely destroyed by a cataclysmic event and the survivors divided against one another. The blast four hundred years ago had destroyed everything, scorching the earth, filling the rivers with ash. Time was divided into Before and After.

From the bards, Cassandra and the people of her time learned that "other nations, across the sea, sending flame down from the sky" had caused a fire that consumed everything and exposed everyone to radiation. Afterwards came the Long Winter. Her father told her that "If there'd once been other lands, across the sea, there were no longer, as far as any sailor had lived to tell." There were rumours of Elsewhere, countries across the sea as well as an island where Omegas lived free of Alpha oppression.  Cass's father warns her not to ask questions about the Before, Elsewhere or the island. The people from the Before had delved too deeply into things and brought destruction upon themselves. Anything from the Before was taboo, the Electric and any other technology, most of which was destroyed in the blast.

Those who survived  the blast were deafened and blinded. Three generations after the blast and after the Long Winter during which there were almost no births, twin births began happening. The twins were always one boy and one girl, with one being robustly perfect and called the Alpha while the other twin, the Omega having some kind of imperfection. The twins were forever linked; "twins came in pairs and they died in pairs." Extreme pain, serious illness, accidents and loss of consciousness in one twin would lead to the other experiencing the same. The Omega twins were always infertile; only Alphas could produce children but they continued to produced twins. Once one of the twins was identified with a defect they were sent away to special settlements where they lived a subsistence lifestyle. The settlements were located on the least fertile land. Some Omega's who could not survive in the settlements were allowed to live in refuges near the large Alpha towns where they were fed and housed by the local Councils. They could not be allowed to die since that would mean their Alpha would die too.

While most of the defects in Omegas were physical, some Omegas had an unseen defect; the ability to have visions of both future and past events. On the outside both Zach and Cassandra appear to be physically perfect. But while her twin, Zach slept through the night, Cassandra would have dreams of large cities, of storms that would arrive the next evening and of the blast. Cass knew that her difference needed to remain hidden, otherwise she would be identified as a seer and they would be "split". And so her parents waited for their defect to become apparent so they could identify one as Omega and one as Alpha and send the defective one, the Omega twin away. Zach becomes increasingly impatient as the years pass as their status as unsplit twins prevents him from becoming part of the Alpha society. As unsplit twins, Zach and Cass are marginalized in their village, Zach being unable to attend school and the two of them taunted.

Although some parents did not want to send away their Omega child, most were happy to get rid of the Omega which they considered poison and freaks. When they were thirteen, their father fell sick with a fever and his twin, Alice was sent for. Alice lived in abject poverty in the Omega settlement she was confined to. Eventually both Alice and Cass and Zach's father die, leaving Zach in charge. The first thing Zach does is to have a Councilman come to their home and brand Cass with the Omega symbol on her forehead. Four days later Cass is sent away to live in Alice's cottage in the settlement. Cass lives there for six years before she is taken away to the town of Wyndham. In those six years Zach's life changes drastically. After an apprenticeship at the council in Wyndham, he became a Councilor. Also during this time conditions for the Omega's began to deteriorate; Omega's were forced out of long-held settlements, Alpha raiders stole cattle and destroyed crops, leading more and more Omega's to seek out the settlements. Cass's mother comes to visit her and tells her that Zach is becoming a powerful Councilor known as the Reformer. Because there are strong rivalries between the Councilors, her mother warns her that people will try to get to Zach through her. She tells Cass that many Councilors keep their Omega twins in the Keeping Rooms beneath the Council chambers at Wyndham. And this is exactly what Zach does to Cass.

Six years after arriving at the settlement, Cass is kidnapped and taken to Wyndham where she is placed in one of the Keeping Rooms. At first she is occasionally allowed out onto the ramparts of the mountainside fort. The only person who visits is an Omega woman called the Confessor who attempts to get Cass to reveal her visions to her in order to help Zach. The Confessor is able to penetrate Cass's mind and learn that she knows about the island but Cass refuses to tell her anything about her visions. Even when she shows up with a map and tries to enter more deeply into Cass's mind, and even when Zach threatens her, telling her that there are worse things being done to Omega's at the fort, Cass does not relent.

Soon Cass begins experiencing new more frightening visions of glass tanks with tubes and wiring, and eventually bodies, suspended in a viscous liquid that seemed to slow everything until even the waving of their hair was lethargic. From each drooping mouth, a tube...Most had their eyes closed, but even those few with open eyes wore entirely blank expressions,..." The dreams of the tanks continue for three years but then change when Cass begins seeing an empty tank and then herself in one of the tanks. Desperate to get out of her cell she sends Zach a message begging him to allow her outside for ten minutes in exchange for information about an important dream. When Zach takes her outside however, Cass manages to trick him, locking him inside and finding her way into the mysterious tank room. There she finds hundreds of tanks with human beings in them who seem to be half alive. However one of the tanks contains a young man who seems alert. Cass after a great deal of effort manages to break the tank and extract the man from the tank. Together the two of them escape the compound and flee into the wilderness. The boy who is Cass's age has no memory of his life before being in the tank. The fact that he is missing an arm means he is an Omega. Cass names him Kip and together they decide to try to find their way to the island the Council is so determined to locate. It is a journey that will lead to both uncovering Zach's sinister plan for the Omegas and one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.


The Fire Sermon is yet another dystopian novel in a genre that has dominated young adult fiction for the past five years and continues to do so. Its plot is typical - a post apocalyptic world so devastated that the survivors must make impossible decision to survive. In Fire Sermon the survivors of "the blast" are born in pairs, one perfect (Alpha) twin and one (Omega) twin with a defect. The Omega twins, who are considered the carriers of the "poison" from the blast that ruined their society, are isolated from the Alphas. The Omega twins are all but starved and abandoned, and the only thing keeping them alive is that their death will kill their Alpha twin. Like most societies in a dystopia, information is strictly controlled. The people are told that any contact with technology from the Before is taboo and this is strictly enforced by punishments. However most of the Omegas and the Alphas do not know that the Alpha leaders are using whatever Before technology they can to implement a "final solution" of sorts - where all the Omegas are placed in tanks in a sort of stasis so that the Alphas can live a life unencumbered by their weaker twin. It is a society that is turned on itself. Alphas against Omegas and the pursuit of perfection.

Into this story, inject the themes of family, loyalty and acceptance.  One of the dominant themes is that of acceptance and looking for what we have in common instead of focusing on our differences. Cass begins to understand this when her Aunt Alice, her father's Omega twin is brought to their home, very sick. While nursing her, Zach asks her what is wrong with her because her defect is not readily apparent. Alice explains her minor physical defect but she also astutely points out to Zach "If we were all so drastically different from Alphas, darling, why would they need to brand us?"

When Zach visits Cass in the Keeping Rooms he tells her that they have only one life between them, that this is the way the world works. Cass challenges him to change the world. "...You said you want to be a big, important person and change the world. It didn't occur to you that we were changing the world, every day day we weren't split?"

Unlike the Council, the Assembly, Zach or Owen, Cass doesn't want to take sides. She wants all people, the Omega's and the Alpha's to live in harmony. When a vision reveals to Cass that the Alpha's are planning to attack the Omega island, Cass is determined to convince the Omega leader, Piper, not to fight them. She tells him that it's a fight they cannot win because for every Alpha they kill, an Omega will die. When he responds that this is the same for the Alphas once again she reiterates that he is "only ever looking at half the story."

When the attack comes Cass states, "For me, each was a two-fold dying. With each Alpha soldier killed, I felt, and sometimes saw, an Omega on the mainland fall...Each of the deaths had its echo, and I saw them all..." 

This also leads Cass to attempt to get Piper and Zach to view their twins in a different way. When Cass meets Piper's Alpha twin, Zoe, she begins to understand that because he and his twin have been working together, "he must know what it was to see your twin as something other than an opposite." Cass knows that Piper and Zoe's experience of living together along with her and Zach's thirteen years unsplit are proof that life could be different if enough people want to change it. When Zoe defends the idea of the island, Cass tells her that no matter how many islands they find, the problem remains: the Alpha's view of the Omegas.

Despite the harshness of Cass's post nuclear world, there is still plenty of care and love. The Omega's build a society based on love in contrast to the Alpha's utilitarian approach.But Cass is a determined heroine, fighting to try to unite her broken society and believing that the twins, sharing that bond of family can somehow unite and work together to make a better world.

Readers will find Fire Sermon and engaging read, despite its predictability and lack of a cliffhanger ending. Fire Sermon is part of a trilogy, with the next book due out in 2016, so readers will want to check out the second book to see where Cass's travels take her next.

Francesca Haig taught creative writing at the University of Chester before her debut novel, The Fire Sermon garnered her a good deal with HarperVoyager of the U.K. Haig says her novel originated with the idea of twins who shared a fatal bond and from that concept she developed the rest of her story. Haig was keen to include many characters with disabilities as a way of reflecting the diverse society we live in.

Book Details:

The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig
Toronto: Gallery Books     2015
370 pp.

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