DNF Review: Mortal Fire by Elizabeth Knox

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June 11, 2013 by Heidi

Mortal Fire by Elizabeth KnoxTitle: Mortal Fire [Goodreads]
Author: Elizabeth Knox [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone, I think?
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical
Published: June 11th, 2013 by Farrar Straus and Giroux
Format: Hardcover; 448 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher.

Sixteen-year-old Canny Mochrie’s vacation takes a turn when she stumbles upon a mysterious and enchanting valley, occupied almost entirely by children who can perform a special type of magic that tells things how to be stronger and better than they already are. As Canny studies the magic more carefully, she realizes that she not only understands it–she can perform the magic, too, so well that it feels like it has always been a part of her. With the help of an alluring seventeen-year-old boy who is held hostage by a spell that is now more powerful than the people who first placed it, Canny figures out the secrets of this valley and of her own past.

I won’t lie, I picked up Mortal Fire for shallow reasons.  One, because the cover is stunningly gorgeous with a typeface that makes my eyes sore and my head spin (and, as it turns out, is incredibly fitting to the story–I do love that kind of detail), two, because Elizabeth Knox is a former Printz Honoree, and I’m almost always willing to give Printz authors a go, and three, it was blurbed by Holly Black whom I adore.  Yes, FSG marketing crowd, these things work on suckers like me.

I opened Canny’s story, and I fell into it.  Taking place in a fictional South Pacific island nation, Southland, Mortal Fire embraces a setting that so few fantasy novels take on (which is always surprising to me given all the wonders the jungles have to offer).  Knox builds her world organically, with no info dumping beyond the stories that would naturally be told in context of the tale.  I was easily led by the nose into the valley of the Zarenes on a research trip that became so much more to one 17 year old girl.  I also have to admit, having an anthropology student along for the trip, even as a side character, didn’t hurt my interest as someone with a degree in the subject as well.  Set in the late 1950s, Mortal Fire approaches a generation that remembers when WWII touched their lives clashing with a changing world.

Knox’s magical structure, performed in an ideogramatical language of symbols invisible to most people was unique and odd and captivating.  Canny has an instinctual understanding of how the magic works, and a surprising ability to manipulate it, one that sets her apart from the people of the valley.  

While I was greatly enjoying the thoughtful world building and construction of this tale, I’m afraid it wasn’t enough to hold my interest throughout.  When Canny finally meets another who is able to accept her instinctual knowledge of the magic and help her learn its inner workings, an insta-love romance develops out of nowhere that left me confused and disheartened.  I wanted to feel some emotion for Canny, this girl who everyone seemed to say was broken, the daughter of a national heroine, but her inexplicable attachment to the man trapped in a seventeen year old’s body was disturbing and underdeveloped.  It’s not only that I have personally come to loath the somewhat-immortal falling for the real teen trope (once again, let me refer you to John Green’s review of Twilight), it’s that I’m afraid Knox had me as convinced as the bulk of her world that Canny was largely unfeeling.  She didn’t make me believe in the connection that Canny felt, which despite its lack of development drove the tale from there on in, and thus I felt no investment in the story’s ongoing plot.

Deciding not to finish Mortal Fire was an uncomfortable experience for me.  I DNF books often, but usually after no more than 50 pages, and I tend not to review these as I consider them snap judgements of whether or not they are for me.  With Mortal Fire I read around 300 pages before I acknowledged that the story didn’t really seem to be building up to anything I couldn’t predict.  This was a hard realization as I felt truly engrossed in the first half of this book–I loved the world and the background of Canny and her family, I loved uncovering what was going on in the valley of the Zarenes.  I flipped to the last chapter and found that the entire thing seemed to be an exposition explaining everything Canny had figured out in the course of the story.  While this gave me the satisfaction of knowing what I missed in that last 100 pages, it also filled me with disappointment.  I always feel that if you have to have a big monologue section at the end of a story to explain things, the story wasn’t told quite right to begin with.  And so, I leave Mortal Fire a bit sad.  Too much of it felt like a build up, and not enough seemed to be actually playing out what it was building up to.  I do think some readers will fall into this beautifully strange world and not let the lack of emotion stymie them, unfortunately, I was unable to work beyond it.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Unsure. There’s always a good possibility of me going back and checking out former Printz winners, and the Dreamhunter duology would fit the bill, but I’m not really sure it’s for me.

Recommended for: My favorite thing about Mortal Fire was the setting and the world building–if you’re intrigued by the tropical fantasy I recommend this as well as Frances Hardinge’s The Lost Conspiracy.

Real life repercussions of reading this book: I’m curious, do you stop reading books when you’re more than halfway through?  Do you feel like it’s a waste of time invested not to finish the story, or a bigger waste to keep going?

Get a second opinion:
Bibliophilic Monologues – “This book is strange and wonderful. And so deliciously different.”

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6 comments »

  1. I’ve been avoiding all the hyped-up books recently since I’m so afraid of being disappointed, but it’s a shame that after such an intriguing first-half you were unable to feel a connection for the characters. It seems as if this had so much potential, but characters always inevitably come before setting and plot. And yes, I have DNF’d books after reading a considerable amount of them – Starcrossed, from The Thief Errant Series that so many people seem to love. Like you, I realized nearly at the end that I simply didn’t care about the characters, so it was a hard decision since, like you, I DNF after 50-100 pages, but I don’t regret not having finished it. Anyway, beautiful review, Heidi! :)

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks, Keertana! It’s good to know this happens to other people as well. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so far into a book and just not had the will to finish it out. The world really was so strange and wonderful, which is why I think so many people are really enjoying this one, but the complete lack of emotion really quashed it for me.

  2. elena says:

    I’m currently reading this book and I’m at around 300 pages but STILL not exactly sure what’s going on. I’m the opposite of you, I found the beginning hard to get into and I’m sloooowly (trying??) to get more into it as I’ve seen reviews say it gets better. Your assessment of the ending doesn’t leave me feeling v excited though and I’m wondering if I should just throw in the towel. You’re right though, it really DOES have a pretty cover. Sigh.

    • Heidi says:

      I think because I read the beginning slowly (it was my lunch break book for a couple of weeks before I read it outside of work), I didn’t notice it being slow? Did you end up finishing it? I feel like everyone’s enjoyed it more than me, so it’s always nice to know it isn’t only me who’s struggled.

  3. Oh wow, this is such a shame. The book started out so well, only to go to tropey territory. This gives me a sad. I might still try this someday, but I’m definitely going to keep your review in mind.

    Like you, I almost never DNF that far into a book. More than fifty pages and I’m committed. Haha.

    • Heidi says:

      Oh I hope that you do still try it! I honestly think it’s one of those that bothered me that wouldn’t (and hasn’t) bothered a lot of people. I think that most other people that had problems with it were confused by the world building, which I actually really liked. It was very different from anything I’d read before.

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