We love featuring books written by Westcountry authors and with Westcountry settings. So we were thrilled to discover Devon author Mich Kenney’s, Book of Fire series, set in a dystopian future Exeter. The series combines fantasy and mythology whilst drawing on Exeter’s Roman history. After diving in to the first book in the series – Book of Fire (and loving it!) we caught up with author Mich Kenney to discuss the series.
WW: So, for people new to the Book of Fire series could you give them a little idea as to what it’s about?
Mich: The Book of Fire is a Young Adult (YA) fantasy trilogy. The series follows wild girl Talia, surviving as a hunter-gatherer in a treehouse village valley, after a biochemical Great War has destroyed most of the world. The story focuses on two communities: a sealed off scientific population who believe the outside world to be poisoned, and a treehouse-dwelling community of foragers who believe they are the only Great War survivors – until a chance encounter changes everything…
The trilogy is rich in Roman mythology, science and history, with plenty of romance thrown in for good measure. Often dubbed ‘The Hunger Games meets Mythology,’ or ‘Percy Jackson meets The Bone Season’.
WW: That idea of science vs nature and also history and what we can learn from it is a really strong theme in the first book.
Mich: Yes, I wanted to explore the frequent conflict between nature and science. Arafel, home to Talia and her hunter-gatherer community epitomises a healthy balance with nature, and yet the shadow of Pantheon and the scientific domes is ever-present, reflecting the pressure in our real world to exploit natural resources and pursue scientific advances.
WW: And speaking of Pantheon, I have to admit to being more than a little excited when I read that it was called Isca Pantheon and that Exeter is the core setting for the novel.
Note for readers: Isca is the Roman name for the fortress city that modern day Exeter is built upon.
Mich: I deliberately chose Exeter for my dystopian world setting because I wanted the landscape to be local and recognisable – partly because I like to ground my fantasy in a little reality, and partly because Exeter has a deep vein of Roman history that I knew I could tap into and use.
WW: I think we’re so used to reading books and watching movies set in London or New York or San Francisco etc that it’s a genuine thrill to read something with a local setting. What Exeter landmarks will readers recognise in the series?
Mich: As the trilogy progressed, it inspired me to research and include more local history and landmarks. These included the ruined Roman bathhouse beneath Cathedral Green, which I deliberately used as a backdrop to action in City of Dust, and of course Exeter City’s famous underground passages.
For the launch of City of Dust we hid signed copies of the book in key locations around Exeter for a Book of Fire treasure hunt, and local bookshops have been very supportive throughout the series.
WW: That’s great to hear. I’m biased of course but there’s so much history and incredible scenery in the area to celebrate. It’s great that more readers will be introduced to Exeter through the series.
Mich: Absolutely, I love living in Devon and feel very lucky to have the moor, coast and historical cities like Exeter on my doorstep, for inspiration. I live in such a scenic corner of the world, that it feels very natural to build in some of the scenery and history.
WW: Talking of history, mythology is a major theme in the series. Has that always been an interest for you?
Mich: I’ve always loved mythology & history, and the Book of Fire series gave me the opportunity to research and write both from a local angle. I’ve also long admired writers like Madeline Miller & Natalie Haynes, and knew I wanted to include ancient mythology in my writing too.
The idea for the Roman mythological theme came when I decided to model Pantheon’s society on Ancient Rome. I wanted a society that was autocratic, barbaric, plus capable of invention. Ancient Rome fitted really well so I thought, why not include its mythology too? It felt different from say Greek or Nordic mythology, which has enjoyed a lot of reinvention in fiction, plus it linked with Pantheon’s genetic programme too.
I was aware of most of the mythological creatures before I included them, except perhaps the Manticore, which is definitely not one I’d want to run into in Pantheon’s Flavium! But I also researched each a lot so the detail was right for the book.
WW: I loved Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe has been on my reading list for a while. You also mentioned earlier parallels with The Hunger Games which was huge in terms of the books and then the films. Do you think dystopian fiction is on the rise again?
Mich: I think dystopian fiction is always bubbling away beneath the surface, but its popularity (like most fiction) can also be influenced by a particularly strong title. Unfortunately, it’s not difficult to imagine a dystopian world given recent world events, and this adds a factor of relatability at the moment too. The Book of Fire series imagines a world after a devastating Great War, and I’ve been surprised by the number of readers who’ve been in touch to say how the setting feels a little too raw and realistic to be entirely comfortable.
WW: Definitely, I think that’s the mark of great dystopian writing, when you can plausibly see the situation evolving from the current day. Are there any dystopian novels that have particularly inspired you?
Z for Zachariah was the very first dystopian novel I ever read at the influential age of 13, and at that time it felt as though it changed everything.
Before then, I’d read a usual range of popular childhood authors including CS Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and lots of Enid Blyton!
But this one story turned everything on its head – a reimagining of a world after an apocalyptical war, where the race for survival is uppermost and no-one is who they first seem, felt so exciting and unique. Afterwards, I actively sought books that gave that same thrill. I think part of the reason I love YA fantasy, is that it’s brave and unafraid of taking chances or asking the difficult questions.
WW: Some favourites of mine in there too! Whilst reading Book of Fire, I also thought about the parallels with Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy. Although the series are very different I think that theme of inside vs outside is so strong in both novels. In your series, Talia, your heroine grows up outside of Pantheon, in nature, whilst those inside the scientific domes grow up inside, looking out. How did the idea for your world come about?
Mich: The outside, and Talia definitely came first. When I first got the idea for Book of Fire, I saw a wild girl surviving as a hunter-forager after a cataclysmic war. But I also knew I wanted to weave in a society based on Ancient Rome, a society that countered every natural principle Arafel held true, and so Pantheon and it’s mythological secrets was born.
I wrote Talia from the outside, because I wanted her to be a clear voice for the fragile natural world when she enters Pantheon, and to be as relatable as possible as a young adult heroine.
We all have moments of feeling ‘on the outside’ in life, and I really wanted her to be vulnerable and yet believe so passionately in a free life.
WW: And what about the world of Pantheon? It’s described in such detail, was there any specific inspiration for that setting?
Mich: It was actually a visit to the Colosseum in Rome. They were burning torches of burning lavender at the end of every stand. The tour guide explained it was an authentic detail from the real gladiatorial games, where the scent was used to cover the scent of bloodshed. It was a tiny gruesome seed that lodged in my head, and stayed with me for nearly 20 years, before it grew into a trilogy.
WW: Wow, that’s quite a journey – 20 years from inspiration to story! Have you always wanted to write?
I always scribbled stories as a child, and even had some short stories published in my local newspaper as a teenager/adult; however I didn’t start writing seriously until a traumatic event relating to the birth of my second child. While I always nursed secret hopes of getting published ‘one day’, the event was a wake-up call – a reminder that none of us are here forever, and fulfilling ambitions takes time and stamina! So I started writing seriously.
After working on the Book of Fire series for so long it’s been fantastic to hear from readers now that the books are out in the world. Every reader who reviews or gets in contact to say Talia represents so much more than a wild girl in a recovering world, makes me very happy.
WW: Definitely something to be very proud of! And now that the series has finished, what’s next for you?
Mich: I have a new book I’m working on. This one is a pure fantasy setting and I’m thoroughly enjoying playing creator!
WW: Very exciting! And finally, if anyone reading this is inspired to try their hand at writing themselves, what one piece of advice would you give them?
Mich: Believe in your voice, everyone else’s is taken
WW: I love that! And a very positive note to end on. Thank you so much for talking to us about Book of Fire.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not check out Deadly Devon! 15 murder mystery and crime books set in Devon.
About Michelle Kenney
Michelle is a firm believer in magic, and that ancient doorways to other worlds can still be found if we look hard enough. She is also a hopeless scribbleaholic and, when left to her own devices, likes nothing better than to dream up new fantasy worlds in the back of a dog-eared notebook. Doctors say they’re unlikely to find a cure any time soon.
In between scribbling, Michelle loves reading, running, attempting to play bluegrass and beach treasure-hunting with her two daughters (dreamers-in-training).
About The Book of Fire trilogy
The Book of Fire trilogy is published by HarperCollins HQStories
Book of Fire, August 2017 (ebook)
City of Dust, Oct 2018 (ebook) & Dec 2018 (paperback)
Storm of Ash, Dec 2019 (ebook) & Feb 2020 (paperback)
All images in this post with the exception of Exeter Cathedral and Exeter Castle Gates, owned and provided by Mich Kenney and used here with permission.
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