Elizabeth Knox, Mortal Fire

Canny is different. She knows it, but she doesn’t know how. She simply knows that she doesn’t quite fit in with other kids. She’s the native kid in a classroom full of Anglos. She’s the girl who’s helping her team win the National Mathematics competition, who perceives mathematical relationships. When she sees a bridge, she sees not the physical shape, but what makes it strong. Sometimes, she sees a hint of something more, as if someone told that bridge to be stronger than it had any right to be, and it obeyed. But Canny has no idea that she has access to magic, until she goes on vacation to a distant rural corner of the country, and sees a house, and the magic designed to keep anyone from ever noticing it or trying to reach it.

I love it when a fantasy book actually has a concept of magic that isn’t off someone’s cookie-cutter list of traditional ways to conceive of magic. That’s this book all over.

I love it when a fantasy book has a deep sense of place, when the locations come alive. This book is clearly set in a fantasy alt-New Zealand called Southland; but what’s so great about it is not the New Zealand-ness, but the rootedness that comes from drawing on what is different about that place and time, compared to a more usual setting.

I love it when the protagonist in a fantasy isn’t Everyman or Everywoman, but has a distinctive personality. Canny is so true to the experience of the smart kid who never quite fits in. I won’t exactly say the socially awkward kid, because Canny isn’t that exactly. It’s more that she’s looking at the social world from outside. She may be able to take the pieces apart and figure out how they work, but she doesn’t live IN it. This is an experience that not all teens have — but the kids who have, like I was at that age — oh, they’ll recognize the experience instantly.

I also love it when the plot is not a standard quest, but something else — in this case, Canny’s got to figure out both her own heritage AND and the past that led to a particularly nasty magical present, involving a young man who’s trapped where he is like a fly in amber.

Great stuff. My one complaint? The author slightly undercuts the meaningfulness of Canny’s differences with other people with her plot resolution. Canny’s offered a cheap out for why she’s different (the magic made me something not wholly human). And I don’t buy it. Canny is a real, human girl, and don’t anyone forget it.

I read this book after checking it out from my local library. I have no other connection with the author or publisher.

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