In a post nuclear apocalypse world, everyone is born a twin. One twin is perfect, strong and healthy; the Alpha. The other is infertile, prone to illness and born deformed; the Omega. Branded and cast out from Alpha society at a young age, Omegas form an unwanted underclass, pushed onto barren lands and oppressed by the Council. Yet the truth is unescapable – twins are intrinsically linked. The death of one means the death of the other. This is the premise to The Fire Sermon.
The novel’s protagonist is Cassandra (Cass), an Omega whose mutation is invisible – she is a seer. Separated from her twin Zach unusually late, Cass has unique insight into both sides. But when Zach starts rising in the ranks of the Alpha Council, Cass’s life is thrown into turmoil.
Much of the pleasure that comes from reading The Fire Sermon lies in not knowing where the narrative is going, hence the general and vague description. The broad strokes are certain enough; there is a conflict building, there are secrets, and there is desperation. Tonally and structurally, The Fire Sermon is following in the footsteps of many young adult dystopian novels and it is unsurprising the novel was optioned by Dreamworks even before publication.
Fans of similar books (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner) will enjoy the familiarity of the structure, which operates as a kind of shorthand into the story and its tension. Like many of its ilk, The Fire Sermon is a trilogy, and it shows. The novel reads like the first season of a television show, with its storyline completing at the end but the series arc still unfinished. This does not mean that the ending is unsatisfying, rather, it is more like a prompt, a reminder that there is more of this universe to come, if you want it.
The Fire Sermon is Australian poet and academic Francesca Haig’s first novel, and her experiences help shape the book into something that stands out in the genre. There is a distant, clinical tone to much of the description, even the emotion, that perhaps comes from academia, poetry, Australia, or a combination of the three.
The tone sits closer to a traditional high fantasy novel rather than the super personal speculative fiction bent of other YA dystopias, or the clean and detailed voice of hard science fiction. It might be projection on the part of particular readers, but the landscape of The Fire Sermon feels Australian. Perhaps it is that the vivid and horrific fiery apocalypse is reminisce of a bushfire, or that one of the cities is named New Hobart, but it is easy to picture this country turned into Haig’s nuclear fallout wasteland reborn.
There are some issues with The Fire Sermon; the amount of time passing is difficult to keep track of, the exposition often feels like an information dump, and one of the major twists can be picked about ten pages before it’s revealed. Cass doesn’t have all that much character development and some of the minor characters, especially the Alphas, are not particularly fleshed out, though that seems more like a deliberate choice on Haig’s part, something to be elaborated on in later books.
In keeping with its genre, The Fire Sermon is obvious social allegory. Haig’s apartheid society is broad enough to encompass many social divisions and operate as commentary on a range of issues. Hopefully, as with The Hunger Games, fans will latch on to different readings of the trilogy, discussing and exploring the novel in tandem with the real world issues it could reflect.
The Fire Sermon is available from Gallery Books on March 10th, 2015.