This book is so good I bought it twice, once as an ebook and once as a paperback for a gift. Yes, it’s one of those novels you end up buying for other people.
The set-up is disarmingly simple: in a world reshaped by an ancient nuclear war, people only give birth to twins. One twin will be healthy and the other will have a ‘defect’, ranging from physical deformity to the more subtle kind, like that experienced by the heroine, Cassandra. She has a predictive psychic ability, which she is able to hide. Doing so delays the separation from her twin demanded by tradition/superstition and what passes for a governing power. Her brother, Zach, is thus an Alpha while Cass is an Omega.
Their relationship is not a yearned-for opposition to the status quo defined by sibling love so much as an early-life cold war, characterised by fear, distrust and manipulation. There is good reason for this constant unease. Omegas are shunned and despised; we sense that the only reason they are not exterminated is because in this world when one twin dies, so does the other.
From this ingenious premise, the author spins a gripping tale that places our sympathies firmly with the Omegas. Not since Katniss put her hand up to volunteer for the Hunger Games in her sister’s place have a set of young characters so effortlessly engaged our understanding.
Once Cass has been outed for saving her brother’s life from a falling tree branch, she is banished from her parents’ home to live in a much poorer village, as Omegas are not allowed to farm productive land. Meanwhile, the ruthless Machiavellian Zach joins the ruling Council and quickly begins to accrue power.
Cass is a humble young woman, although talented and increasingly resourceful, especially when on her brother’s orders she is kidnapped and incarcerated. These sequences are genuinely upsetting, not least because the imprisonment lasts years. It is also interspersed with visits from the Confessor, an Omega willing to work with Alphas against her own kind. The Confessor scours Cass’s mind for the whereabouts of an island that may harbour the beginnings of an Omega revolution.
Despite these predations Cass manages to escape, but only finds more horror. To ensure their Omega twins do not accidentally die, some Alphas have had them preserved alive in glass tanks. Cass helps one of these unfortunates, the charming but amnesiac Kip. The two then begin their perilous journey towards the Omega island, whose location Cass’s ability has finally located.
Many dystopian novels describe a world that is merely a bit unpleasant and a bit depressing, with a set-up that would not withstand a moment in reality. Very few take a proper SF idea and interrogate it with the same degree of ruthless yet oddly joyous thoroughness as this one. From her deceptively straightforward premise, the author weaves a complex and involving tale whose directness approaches the mythic, a resonance borne out by the religious overtones of the book’s title. ‘The Fire Sermon’ also has a number of emotional sucker punches, which make the story even more exceptional.
That nothing in the world of ‘The Fire Sermon’ is quite what it seems should come as no surprise, not least because any politics that rejects an entire group of people for something that isn’t their fault will always be deeply flawed. Indeed, this big-hearted novel is a genuine antidote to the current real-world political horror show. For it is in this regard that Cass is a truly great character. She will not, perhaps cannot, see things in the conveniently binary way demanded of her by vested interests and stupid, intolerant tradition. A lesser character, and indeed a lesser novel, would have taken this easier road. It is a credit to both character and author that things get messy, then devastating in a wholly believable fashion without sacrificing an essential, fundamental optimism.
Recommended, to say the least.
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