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  • Writer's pictureClaire Wong

Writing evocative settings: Mortal Fire by C.F. Dunn

For some time now, I've wanted to see what the Secret of the Journal series is all about, so shortly before Christmas I ordered myself the first book in the series, Mortal Fire. A Jólabókaflóð gift to myself, perhaps!

Mortal Fire introduces us to protagonist Emma D'Eresby, an academic who has taken up a yearlong teaching post in the USA. She's there to investigate a seventeenth-century journal as well as to teach Medieval and Early Modern History. But she becomes side-tracked dealing with sinister colleagues, reports of students being attacked, and an enigmatic doctor who captures her attention.

One thing I loved about this book was its evocative sense of place. The university buildings and historic architecture rose up from the page without ever being over-described. Though it's been some years since I graduated, I was transported back to my own university days, by the sheer excitement the main character felt on setting foot in the library for the first time. There's a real warmth and respect for the physical components of the university, from grand stained glass windows to small attic bedrooms, as rightly befits a novel narrated by an academic in that field, and it lends a richness to the story that unfolds.

Standing alone in its role as protector of the past, the library lay beyond the medical building in an area of parkland. Broad and squat in the shape of a drum, its linear windows swept from ground to rooftop in narrow strips of dark glass, framed by pale finds of smooth concrete. Tracing the pathway, my heart beat a little faster with each step I took until – breathless – I stood before its doors. I had resisted the urge to visit the library until this moment as an incentive for surviving the reception party, like saving the best bit of a meal for last. This was it – I came to claim my reward.

I loved these lines! What's impactful about the words is how they tell us not just about the setting but also about the character through whose eyes we see it. She's not a neutral viewer, but a protagonist who feels excitement about her research, who struggles with social events, who isn't one to rush into things. These are all qualities we see in Emma D'Eresby elsewhere in the novel. She's an intelligent, self-conscious, at times conflicted character, and Dunn deftly uses Emma's reactions to her setting to bring her to life. This is a well written and complex character to draw us in to the story.

I don't want to give away any spoilers, so all I will say is that this is very much the first in a series, and not every question that I had was answered in this book, but I'm guessing those answers will be found in the later volumes. This novel roundly sets up the story and introduces us not just to Emma but to other characters whose secrets have not yet come out. And there's plenty of gripping drama, mystery, a good amount of theological and philosophical reflection, plus the forming of some close-but-realistically-imperfect friendships.

Mortal Fire by C.F. Dunn is published by Lion Fiction and is the first book in the five-part Secret of the Journal series. C.F. Dunn is an author of history, mystery and suspense, who writes full time from her home in the South West of England. Find out more on her website.

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