Francesca Haig, The Map of Bones (The Fire Sermon #2), HarperCollins Australia, 21 March 2016, 442pp., $29.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9780008163433
The Map of Bones is the second novel in Francesca Haig’s fantasy trilogy for young adults. Those who read the first novel back in 2015, The Fire Sermon, have been waiting eagerly for this follow up. If what we want from a fantasy novel is to be transported into another sometimes more dire world than our own, but one that still manages to expose the errors and limitations of our own world, taking us back to it somehow feeling wiser and readier for its trials, then these two novels and the promised final one will do just that. It is a bonus that the characters are vividly and touchingly realized, and the prose is alive and pleasurable to read.
In this post-apocalyptic world, a great nuclear blast over four hundred years ago laid the planet and its technology to waste. This event that still scars large parts of the land with ash, and still finds its place in the songs of the wandering bards (one of them, a gravel-voiced Leonard, is surely an invitation to Leonard Cohen to sing the film’s signature song) has left a humanity strangely mutated by the effects of radiation: everyone is born twinned. One twin is physically perfect while the other infertile twin carries a deformity of some kind as a reminder of the effects of the blast. This is where the world of the novel is both unlike and like our own. Parts of this second novel could read as episodes from the events of the Holocaust, when one group of people thought themselves near to perfection, and perceived all that might be weak or wrong with humanity in those they called the Jews. The program for incarcerating the deformed twins in this second novel is frightening in its reminding us we are still prone to these projections of own weaknesses onto others. The oppressed twins are the Omegas, while the perfect twins regard themselves as Alphas. The twist that makes this so interesting, tense, and deeply metaphorical, is that when one twin dies the other must die too. ‘Every death has its echo,’ we read in the first novel, and while this is literally true in Haig’s world, surely it is true in our world too, in even more sinister and complicated ways.
There is a love story, in fact several love stories woven through the thrilling, murderous, and confronting episodes, and each of these stories of emerging or denied love is real, tentative, and sensitively drawn.
Cass, the novel’s central Omega character, is a woman we come to live with and hope for, and get frustrated by, for she is not always the wisest, smartest, or the most powerful character around.
As for swords, bows, axes, horses, magic, acts of courage, sailing ships, fortress walls, lost documents, maps, caves, and islands they are there in abundance. Along with them is the detritus of our present world of technology we might feel will never be shattered, but must be if it is to go the way of all civilisations.
This is fantasy of a high order, in the realm of Philip Pullman or Ursula Le Guin. The Map of Bones is a novel for all who like page-turners, who want characters that live and grow with us, and a story that captivates as much as it teaches its readers. Definitely a book for teens that adults will devour.