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Helen Lowe on the Fantasy Heroines That Rock Her World: Canny Mochrie in Elizabeth Knox’s MORTAL FIRE

HelenL2-1 (2)Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet, interviewer and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013 and Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

The Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World

by Helen Lowe

In “Fantasy Heroines That Rock My World” I’m shining a spotlight on my favorite Fantasy heroines, not only revealing who they are but why I believe they kick butt and take names as characters.
One of the most recent additions to my Heroines’ pantheon is a new character, Canny Mochrie from Elizabeth Knox’s 2013, YA novel Mortal Fire. Being objective, she is also one of the more intriguing heroines in that I am not always sure that I entirely like Canny …

Before I explain this apparent contradiction, here is just a little background to the Mortal Fire story. It is set in an alternate New Zealand called “Southland”, which some readers may recognize from Knox’s Dream duology, although the events in those books occurred during an earlier era. Mortal Fire opens in 1959, just after a major polio epidemic. The latter event sets up one of the central strands in the book, since as a consequence of the disease Canny’s closest friend, Marli, is being kept alive in an iron lung. Yet Canny, who has just finished school, must go away for the summer holiday with her older brother Sholto, and his girlfriend, Susan, to a remote valley that turns out to hold a twenty-odd year old mystery.

This semi-camping trip encompasses the other two central elements in the story: the mystery of Canny’s paternity and the mystery surrounding the valley where she, Sholto, and Susan end up. In Fantasy terms, this is a quasi-urban Fantasy—“only not quite”, because the milieu is rural not urban, recent historical not contemporary, and it is “not quite” our world, although close enough to it. Also like urban fantasy, the story’s scope is not that of worlds or nations to be saved, but about family and friendship and the way the strands of both can twist, often to positive ends, but sometimes to darker places. Make no mistake, though, Mortal Fire is definitely a story about magic: chock-full of it in fact, despite a deceptively everyday surface; it’s also a story about curiosity—with Canny standing squarely at the heart of both.

So here’s what I like about Canny. She’s very, very smart; a mathematical genius in fact, as the book’s opening makes clear. She’s also strongly loyal to her friend, Marli, while otherwise occupying the role of outsider—a “solitary” both within her family and with others. Susan uses the adjective “surly” at one point, and despite a relatively strong relationship with her half-brother, Sholto, Canny can be both standoffish and not infrequently surly toward him. At one point, he is even startled because she gives him a small smile:

“And since she never smiled, Sholto was, for a minute, shocked into speechlessness.”

Yet despite her reserve, or perhaps because of it, Canny sees more than other people—what she calls
“Extra”, but others would name as magic. She is also very, very determined, as well as being more than a little contrary, so that in terms of the mystery-shrouded house at the heart of the rural community she can say:

“At first I only tried to get up the hill because the hill tried to stop me. I was just solving a problem. And then I realized it was magic…”

Part of that realization for Canny is that she herself is full of magic, but it is as much her cleverness and determination and loyalty, as well as her sheer contrary bloody-mindedness, that are essential to resolving both the mystery and the destructive bindings, both magical and real, that lie at the heart of the story and the valley.

The reason I am not sure I entirely like Canny derives from those moments when her reserve and bloody-mindedness simply add up to being self-centered and more than a bit of a brat, particularly in her dealings with Sholto and Susan. However, that is also part of why I like Canny so much as a heroine: she reads as a real person, who like all of us is “patchy” at best in terms of the light and dark in our nature, but in the final analysis her actions come down more or less on the positive side of the ledger.

Another reason I “heart” Canny is because she is effectively a Pasifika heroine, which is relatively rare in the annals of SFF, as well as being a genius at mathematics and a magical force-of-nature. So even if liking her can be challenging at times, Canny Mochrie is definitely a Fantasy heroine that rocks my world.

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