Sherryl Jordan, Winter of Fire, Scholastic NZ, July 2019, 312 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781775435983
Definition of QUELLED: “Anything that’s quelled is quieted, extinguished, or calmed.”
Winter of Fire is an absolute revelation. Here is a book that was originally published in 1992 and was out of print for years, now reprinted to celebrate its 25th anniversary. I did not read it when originally published, so I have no fond adolescent memories to illuminate my reading of this book. The writing is lyrical, and its messages of tolerance, equality and care for the environment are still relevant today. But these themes don’t get in the way of a book that is impossible to put down, and a heroine impossible to forget.
Elsha lives in a world bereft of sunlight; a world of “wind and ice and killing cold.”. She is a Quelled, a people whose lives are controlled by the Chosen who brutally brand their faces so they can never escape their lot. Life for the Quelled is a constant struggle as they are used as slave labor by the Chosen to mine for firestones, the only known source of light and warmth. From an early age, Elsha is rebellious; “She’ll never learn, that one. Only four years old, and already her spirit is all spit and fire.”
On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Elsha is chosen as the handmaid to the Firelord, who has the gift of divining – finding new sources of firestones to mine. As they travel together, a bond develops between them and the ailing Firelord comes to rely on Elsha more and more. In the opulent towns of the Chosen, Elsha is treated with distain and cruelty. The Chosen cannot accept that their Firelord has selected a Quelled harsha as his handmaid. As Elsha reflects; “We were called harsha, a name made up from the old Quelled words for oppression and earth. Only females of the Chosen were called women and it was a term of respect. I dreamed sometimes that a man, faceless and tall and with a tender voice, did call me woman. It was my finest, maddest dream.”
Throughout Elsha’s journey, she develops strong alliances with those who will support her vision for a better world where Quelled and Chosen are equals. She makes an oath before her Eternal God to “improve the lives of the Quelled and open the eyes of the Chosen who are blind” and to “make new laws, and wipe out injustice.”
Jordan has created a harsh landscape, obviously blighted by years of abuse. Elsha and her people believe it was a punishment by God: “What changed the world, Elsha, to make it cold?” asks the Firelord. Elsha replies; “Men were evil, lord, and God regretted that he had created them. So he made death come out of the sky and shake the earth, and he smote his first on the land, and covered it with dust and dark. And the light withdrew behind the darkness, and cold came.” Animals that we take for granted have become mythical creatures: “The dolphins lived in great waters called seas, and were friendly to human beings, so the legends say. They were part of the warm-time.”
Although Winter of Fire is promoted as a young adult novel, I found it a deeply satisfying read as a decidedly un-young adult! Highly recommended to readers of all ages.
Reviewed by Gaby Meares