A VISION OF FIRE is a supernatural thriller that aims high but falls far. Its interesting premise is blandly handled, reducing the novel to an uninspired slog rather than the page-turner it hopes to be. Readers drawn in by Gillian Anderson’s name emblazoned on the cover and expecting an X-Files-type romp will be disappointed: A VISION OF FIRE is a poor substitute for the fan-favourite TV show.
Caitlin O’Hara shares a key trait with Dana Scully, in that she’s a rational professional thrown into a mystery that defies logic, whose fervent dismissals of the supernatural are gradually worn down and scepticism gives way to acceptance. As relationships between India and Pakistan deteriorate, there is a failed assassination attempt on the Indian Ambassador, witnessed at close proximity by his daughter, Mannik. Soon after the event, the young girl regresses into a trance-like state and begins speaking in strange otherworldly tongues. Similar events occur elsewhere, and so it falls on Caitlin, an esteemed child psychologist, to investigate their correlation, and if at all possible, find a cure. She’s not alone, of course: a long-time friend and UN translator, Ben, acts as Caitlin’s confidant and prospective love interest (a subplot that feels undercooked, lacking the sort of will-they-won’t they tension that emanated the Mulder and Scully dynamic).
A VISION OF FIRE feels uninspired: a series of cardboard cut-outs moving through their paces. The narrative lacks zest, the characters lack spark, and there’s not much to grasp onto for the inevitable sequel. A disappointment.
STATION ELEVEN is an utterly compelling novel about a dystopian future in which 99% of mankind has expired from a flu pandemic. Rather than focusing on the minutiae of humanity’s collapse – although it’s touched on throughout the text – or exploiting the set-up to recount a tale about mankind’s attempted uprising or resurgence, Emily St. John Mandel turns the spotlight on a core cast of five characters, shifting back and forth, from before the crisis to afterwards, whose sole objective is survival, and retaining mankind’s artistic and cultural achievements. Does Shakespeare matter in a decimated world? What about Beethoven? It’s a fascinating conundrum, deftly touched upon: is the cost of survival worth forsaking our greatest achievements?
In this dystopian world, a hodgepodge of talented survivors travel together as the Traveling Symphony, performing in various settlements, and pillaging vacated homes and dilapidated buildings from the old world for costumes, props, and other useful objects. Early on in STATION ELEVEN, the Traveling Symphony run into a man known as the Prophet, who has warped perceptions of the world, and the crisis that has unfolded. From here, the narrative splits in various directions, delving into the past and present, and exposing the connective tissue between protagonists. One man unites them all: a famous actor named Arthur Leander, whose passing in the opening pages sets the novel’s course.
There’s a captivating lyricism to the Emily St. John Mandel’s prose. It’s the kind of novel you can sink hours into without realizing. While there are fleeting moments of action and violence, STATION ELEVEN is far more focused on its characters, and their development from ‘before’ to ‘after.’ It’s a refreshing take, an enthralling snapshot into a post-apocalyptic mankind. Its glacial pace might not be to everyone’s taste, but STATION ELEVEN is the kind of novel that rewards readers who undertake its journey.