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? A history written in ashes, in bones. Before the blast, they say they’d been sermons about fire, about the end of the world. The fire itself gave the last sermon; after that there were no more.
Cass lives in the After, in a time when all babies born are twins – one boy and one girl. An Alpha – ‘perfect’ in form – and an Omega – mutilated somehow, missing limbs or eyes or with additional body parts. The Alphas refer to the Omegas as ‘mutants’, assuming that they were affected by the blast, carrying the scars for both of them. Twins are separated during childhood, the Omegas cast out to live on less fertile ground with other Omegas. Despite this, the twins are inextricably linked – when one is in pain or suffering from an illness, the other does too. ‘Wherever they were, and no matter how far apart, whenever someone died, their twin died too.’
Cass and her twin Zach were separated late. This is because Cass’ ‘defect’ wasn’t apparent; she’s a seer, she has visions of the future and can feel her way around buildings and landscapes. The longer it took for Cass’ mutilation to show itself, the more frustrated Zach became until he forced her to reveal herself. Cass thinks he’s angry, her Omega aunt Alice refers to him as ‘full of fear’ but concedes that fear and anger are ‘all the same thing’.
It was mid-harvest when they came. I felt it first. Had been feeling it, if I were honest with myself, for months. But now I sensed it clearly, a sudden alertness that I could never explain to anyone who wasn’t a seer. It was a feeling of something shifting: like a cloud moving across the sun, or the wind changing direction. I straightened, scythe in hand, and looked south. By the time the shouts came, far from the end of the settlement, I was already running. As the cry went up and the six mounted men galloped into sight, the others ran too – it wasn’t uncommon for Alphas to raid Omega settlements, stealing anything of value. But I knew what they were after. I knew, too, that there was little point in running. That I was six months too late to heed my mother’s warning. Even as I ducked the fence and sprinted toward the boulder-strewn edge of the settlement, I knew they would get me.
The men have been sent by Zach to take Cass to the Keeping Rooms, chambers under the council buildings where powerful Alphas can imprison their siblings to avoid them – and, therefore, themselves – being killed by rivals. Cass is kept there for four years during which she’s visited regularly by The Confessor, an Omega working for the council, trying to access Cass’ visions so her brother can use them. Two things happen as those visits progress: the first is that Cass senses the island – the mythical haven for the Omegas where they live free from Alpha rules and taxes – and secondly, she sees in The Confessor’s head a room filled with electrical wires. Things from the Before are strictly taboo and Cass struggles to make sense of this vision but she does have a working light bulb in her cell in the Keeping Rooms…
The Fire Sermon may well be set in the future but, like any good dystopia, it has clear connections to the present day.
The drought years were the turning point – I’ve always said there’s nothing like hunger to turn people against each other. Now with all this stuff the Council goes on about – contamination, separation – Alphas can hardly bring themselves to speak to Omegas these days…
Oh, doesn’t it sounds like life under a Conservative government who try and tell us that austerity is all the fault of those awful scroungers who can’t be arsed to go to work? You know, the disabled, those living in abject poverty, immigrants. Anyone who isn’t white, wealthy and healthy. There’s a wonderful couple of lines from Zach and Cass’ aunt Alice in response to these sort of ideas:
‘If we were all so drastically different from the Alphas, darling, why would they need to brand us?’ He didn’t answer. She went on: ‘And if Omegas are all so helpless, why do you think the Council’s so afraid of the island?’
There is much to love about The Fire Sermon: a great premise; a fantastic female protagonist in Cass (along with some excellent supporting characters); a cracking plot, and thoughtful themes and ideas. I started reading it at 3pm on Saturday and finished it at lunchtime on Sunday – I guess that’s as close to ‘unputdownable’ as it gets. It also includes what’s likely to be my line of the year:
‘Not all Alphas – obviously.’
You can listen to the first chapter of The Fire Sermon, narrated by Lauren Fortgang here. (Thanks to Audible.)
Thanks to Harper Voyager for the review copy.