Timeless and timely, Hannah Marshall
Winter Of Fire
A dismal world where the sun has disappeared is the backdrop for Sherryl Jordan’s hard-hitting and powerful novel Winter Of Fire. Back in print 25 years after its initial publication, Winter Of Fire blends a strong, rebellious protagonist with the difficult themes of slavery, sexism and pollution, to create a powerhouse of a novel with ideas that still stand strong today.
Winter Of Fire is the story of 16-year-old Elsha, part of a people known as the Quelled – the slaves branded by those called Chosen, and responsible for providing their lightless world with firestones, the only source of warmth. The Chosen’s treatment of those branded Quelled is brutal and bone-chilling – “no Chosen ever looked into the face of a Quelled. We were not worthy” – and, right from the get-go, Jordan plunges us into a society in which prejudice and oppression is the order of the day. Indeed, female Quelled are not even worthy of the title of “woman”, known only as “harsha”, or female slave, and their society’s patriarchal system is no less than appalling to the modern reader. Jordan quickly establishes the challenges Elsha will face as a Quelled harsha in a Chosen world, and Winter Of Fire’s unsettling world of inequality will leave a lasting impression on the reader.
However, Elsha’s dreary life changes when she is appointed as handmaid to the Firelord, the most powerful and well-regarded member of the Chosen. Thrown into a world of privilege while fighting for justice, readers familiar with the dystopian realm will know Elsha’s journey well: her overcoming of a world where hatred runs centuries deep (The Hunger Games, anybody?) is achingly familiar, and fails to be original. Only so much breathing room can be allowed in the science fiction genre, and despite points for uniqueness with this novel’s backdrop – slavery and a sunless world are certainly not in your everyday dystopia – the novel’s bleak setting is laden with repetitive descriptions and threatens to burden this book as tired. However, Jordan’s setting redeems itself with a traditional, spiritual culture that parallels the magic of ancient societies, with religious rites, cultural ceremonies and a holy mountain bringing a much-needed revival to the setting. Blended with Jordan’s vivid, poetic style, Winter Of Fire’s storytelling mirrors that of ancient literary texts, and saves this novel from an otherwise sleepy storyline.
Despite its age, Winter Of Fire’s nightmare portrayal of the consequences of climate change is as relevant now as it was at the time of its first publication, and it’s a timely reminder of the danger our world faces in the midst of our climate crisis. While a society dependant on slavery may sound like an exaggeration of what climate change could lead to, it’s an impossible decision that is made in order to keep Winter Of Fire’s society alive; it’s also a decision that feels frighteningly real, and even more frighteningly possible. The only hint this novel gives of its age is the portrayal of Elsha: in recent years, society has drastically shifted its stance on gender equality, and while the strong-willed Elsha is less revolutionary for a protagonist than she may have been 25 years ago, her defiance and strength make her no less admirable. Elsha’s patriarchal society may feel overdrawn and irrelevant to readers of today, but resilience, the overcoming of adversity and demonstrating leadership are still qualities that readers can take away from Elsha’s journey.
Winter Of Fire may not have won me over with its repetitive setting and predictable plot, but its hard-hitting ideas are redeeming features of this impactful novel. Twenty-five is a just a number when it comes to this novel’s true age; a quarter of a century between its first publication and now puts up no barriers to its impression on readers today, and it’s fair to say that Winter Of Fire carries the charm of being a timeless read.
Hannah Marshall is 16 and from Wellington.