Strange Fire: The Anchor and Sophia, Book 1

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
Strange Fire:  The Anchor and Sophia, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Intriguing series opener explores faith, knowledge, truth.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Far-future, postapocalyptic story meant to entertain.

Positive Messages

Raises questions instead of providing answers about differences between a strongly religious, faith-based society and one that wants to pursue intellectual, scientific, and technological advancement. Both societies have good and bad aspects, and both are populated with complicated characters both good and bad. It's the first in a planned trilogy, so the overall messages may evolve with the story. But this volume seems to suggest that people should be free to ask questions and pursue answers to anything they wonder about, whether about faith or science. It also explores the importance of knowing the truth, both for individual characters and as the foundation and guiding principles of a society.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The large cast of characters are mostly good role models, or at least understandable, with few really evil villains. But they're also complicated, they make mistakes, and they sometimes get caught up in negative motives like selfishness, jealousy, or revenge. Positive and negative consequences are easy to spot, so readers will see the disasters that follow decisions based on negative traits, and they'll also see the good that follows from positive motives, such as putting others first, bravery, being helpful, etc.

Violence

Killing with knives, swords, arrows, and guns. Blood is mentioned as pouring, gurgling, oozing, etc., and the sound of bones crunching is mentioned; no other gore. Important characters die. Fights with kicking, punching, slapping, being knocked out by hard hits or blunt objects to the head. Pain is mentioned but not described in detail. A few dead bodies are briefly described without gore. An assault includes some sexual innuendo and an attempted kiss.

Sex

A few kisses, none described in detail. Brief making out once or twice mentions hands on hips, belly, and chest. One or two matter-of-fact mentions of same-sex relationships in a matriarchal tribe. Teens mention "doing whatever we want" after they're engaged.

Language

Infrequent, but sometimes strong:  "s--t," "horses--t," "damn," "ass," "bulls--t," "hell," "f--k," "bitch," "whore," and "bullcrap."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Several mentions of shine (moonshine). A few scenes take place in taverns with beer. Wine, honey wine, and apple beer mentioned a few times.  Mention that alcohol erases your inhibitions and makes inhibitions seem terrible anyway. A few mentions of smoking a pipe and a cigarillo; several mentions of the smell of tobacco.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Strange Fire is the first of a planned trilogy by Tommy Wallach (We All Looked Up). It's set in a postapocalyptic, far-off future and has a strong Wild West or frontier-days feeling. There are killings by stabbing, swords, arrows, and guns; blood's mentioned but not described in detail. There are a few kisses, and a couple of nonchalant mentions of same-sex relationships in a matriarchal tribe. Moonshine, wine, and beer are consumed on a few social occasions and in scenes in taverns. Profanity is infrequent but strong, including "f--k," "s--t," "bitch," and "ass." Explores themes about the differences, and battles to come, between a faith-based society and one that prizes scientific and technological advances. Both societies have good and bad aspects and are populated with good and bad people. Seeking the truth, and whether you really need to know the full truth, is another prominent theme. Characters model friendship, loyalty, bravery, and family unity, but most make mistakes or act out of negative motives like jealousy or revenge, too.

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What's the story?

In STRANGE FIRE, Clive (18) and Clover (16) are the sons of a prominent minister from The Anchor, a bustling city built by the descendants of those who survived Earth's near destruction centuries ago. Part of their father's ministry involves traveling a circuit through the outlands to bring far-flung residents The Anchor's messages of faith, as well as their warnings about how to prevent another apocalypse from ever happening again. On the latest mission, they discover evidence that a group of people in another town have been pursuing technology and scientific advancement -- the very things that caused the apocalypse in the first place and which are forbidden in The Anchor. Now Clive and Clover will have to decide what roles they'll play in The Anchor's attempts to stop the people of Sophia from bringing about another catastrophe. Each young man's decision will have life-changing consequences for their family, their sweethearts, and maybe even for civilization itself.

Is it any good?

This novel is an ambitious departure from Wallach's first two, with its intriguing setting, huge cast of interesting characters, and fearless approach to the tricky intersection of faith and science. Not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction, Strange Fire broadens its appeal by creating a familiar, almost frontier-days world as the type of society to survive a catastrophic event. Teens may relate to different characters at different times, but they'll always relate to the turmoil each faces as they sometimes look forward to, and sometimes run away from, future expectations. And of course the roles that faith, religion, knowledge, technology, and truth play in our lives are substantial foods for thought at any age.

The writing is solid, with a wide variety of believable characters and dialogue and a vast, inventive world. Fast-paced action and intrigue are woven together with quieter character development to provide a well-rounded read that keeps the pages turning. Sometimes Wallach seems to reach too deeply into a thesaurus to find just the right word, but it's a minor complaint that's easy to overlook, or ideally inspires readers to look up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. As the first in a planned trilogy, it ends on a major cliffhanger that should have readers eager for the next installment, and full of ideas and speculation about where the story's headed.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the violence in Strange Fire. How much is too much? Is reading about it different from seeing it on TV or in movies?

  • Does this novel have any fantasy elements? What about science fiction? What defines those genres? If you had to assign a genre to this book, what would you pick, and why?

  • Have you read We All Looked Up? Do you see a connection between that book and this? Which book do you like better? If you didn't read it, would you like to now?

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