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Review: ‘Winter of Fire’ by Sherryl Jordan

October 3, 2010

All Elsha has ever known is cold.  Her world is a snowy landscape afflicted with bitter cold and harshness.  Working in the mine to bring out firestones, the only combustible material in her world, is her only sense of true warmth, deep in the tunnels and darkness of the earth.  But she does not go into the mines willingly–Elsha, as all of her kin, are slaves.  Unable to escape because of a brand on their foreheads, the Quelled have lived with their oppression for 500 years under the hateful eyes of the Chosen, the master race.

Elsha dreamed of a better life, a life of fire and warmth and an end to her people’s enslavement.  Her dreams are unsettling to her family, as they are dreams of things that could never be for her people, dreams of insurrection and change, but to Elsha they are a comfort and a promise.  She even dreams of meeting the Firelord one day, as if one of her kind would ever be permitted to meet the man who is like God, the only person who can divine for the firestones and bring warmth to the people.  Threatened with death in the mines early one morning, Elsha spends some time in her family’s meager garden, looking for solace or an answer from God…and destiny intervened.  An emissary from the Firelord finds her there, and her adventure–and fateful destiny–begin.

Elsha is what people call a firebrand, a troublemaker.  She speaks her mind, no matter if it means a lash to the face or even death.  Her rebellious ways continually land her in trouble at the mine, and many times she has dared to speak to the Chosen, or look them in the eye, both of which are forbidden.  It is this spirit that makes her such a wonderful character.  She makes many mistakes, and often gets herself into a world of trouble, but she does so generally with the best of intentions.  Elsha tries very hard to live within the laws and serve the Firelord, yet often her own spirit rebels at those laws and she is at odds.  The environment is so at odds with her spirit, her fire so out of place and rare in this land of bitter cold as well as in her slavery… but that, of course, is part of the point of the story of Elsha.

From the very start of the book you are put into Elsha’s head.  The story is written in first-person, so all of Elsha’s thoughts and emotions and reasons for her actions are there for our perusal.  This, more than anything, gave me the sense that I knew her well and could relate to her.  There are interjections scattered throughout, however, that suggest Elsha is telling the story  not as if she were living it and a narrator told the story, but as if she were the one telling the story of her past.  Sherryl Jordan wrote a very compassionate character, who does not wish ill to the Chosen (most of the time–there are a few exceptions) despite the fact that they have enslaved her people.  She merely wants a better life, and she takes her opportunity and holds on to it with both hands.

What I liked best about Elsha is that she is a dreamer.  I don’t mean her visions, though she does have those–I mean that she has a dream, a very powerful dream, not only for herself but for her people.  She is far from selfish, though she wants what is best for herself as well.  Her courage sometimes falters, and by that time I was rooting for her to get back on her feet and continue on.  The challenges she faced were not necessarily physical, despite the harshness of her landscape, but were more ephemeral and intangible.  Up against prejudice, deep hate, and tradition, I found it interesting how Elsha faced all these challenges.

Other characters come into the story and are just as interesting as Elsha.  Lesharo, her dearest friend and love in the first part of the story, is crippled because of an accident.  Yet he has such a fine demeanor and strength to him I found it difficult to remember that he was not physically whole.  Dannii, later in the story, is very like a female version of Lesharo.

And of course there is Amasai, the servant of the Firelord.  He is a study in contradictions, sometimes adhering to the conventions of the Chosen race, and sometimes ignoring all tradition to treat Elsha like an equal.  Their relationship is somewhat complex, largely because their personalities and stations are so different.

When I first bought this book, it was in pristine condition.  That was years ago, and although I keep very good care of my books, this one has a lot of shelf wear on the edges and the pages are yellowed.  The spine is a little cracked.  That is how much I have read this book.

Love doesn’t feature in this story until most of the novel is past, at least not for Elsha.  Other people deal with love, and usually it is love for her, but Elsha does not find real romantic love until much later (I’m not counting Lesharo, her interest early on, because of what happens with both of them through the story).  That is actually one thing I liked about this book-normally I’m all for a romance in my stories, but I felt the romantic element early in the novel would have detracted from Elsha’s growth and purpose.  Much of the story is then focused on her interactions with the Chosen and the Firelord, and her growth and struggle as a character.

The only real complaint I could think of about this book was that nearing the end, I felt some of her triumphs were inevitable.  Elsha has overcome so much that I suppose it’s not really much of a surprise that she would continue to persevere–contrary to all common wisdom in life.  What is not inevitable are the far-reaching implications of her triumphs.

I also did not much like the divine right to rule or divine favor through military victory mentality that developed near the end.  I’ve never cared for that kind of logic, and I was deeply unimpressed that such intelligent characters would fall prey to it.  However, if Jordan is applying a medieval mentality to her world, then that sort of logic would fit in perfectly.  Also, the highest office in the land is that of Diviner–a position governed by innate abilities and sometimes prophetic visions or chance.  Then some belief in the whim and will of their God is understandable.

A final wrap-up: my favorite quote from the story.  Lesharo to Elsha: “They cannot put their stamp upon your soul, Elsha.”  I picked this quote out because it stuck with me through the whole story, and I think it would be Elsha’s personal motto, if she had one.

Despite these two things which I disagree with, my disagreements are minor points that ultimately don’t detract from the story as a whole.  I think any fan of young adult fiction would love this story.  Although Elsha comes off as being older, she is only sixteen, and this is her story of coming into her own.  I love this story and will certainly read it again and again until my copy is falling apart!

Book info: published 1995, 321 pages, ISBN 0590452894

Buy on Amazon * Author’s information * GoodReads

Copy is from personal library

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