The Fire Opal by Regina McBride
Source: Random House
Grade: 3.5 stars out of 5
When Maeve was a young child she found a large metal stick-like object embellished with a face with it a large jewel. The rod was engraved with word: THE ANSWERER. With the rain storm coming in and her fear that Maeve’s older twin brothers will damage it, she buried it. But that night Maeve came down with a high-fever and when the fever broke, she suffered a slight amnesia and had forgotten about the rod she buried.
Seven years later her mother begins to show signs of madness of hearing swans after the death of Maeve’s younger sister Ishleen the previous year. She announces to the family that she is pregnant again and Ishleen has come back.
One day Maeve and her old brothers caught Tom, a menace of a child who was graced with good looks, shooting at birds with his slingshot and knocking hatchling off ledges. In a faraway remorse Maeve didn’t notice the lady with down falling from her sleeves until she tapped her on the shoulder. She offers Maeve two bottles that appears to enclose fire sealed with the 3 twisted spirals: one for Maeve and the other for her Mam as a protection. Just minutes later Tom pops up from no where and knocks the bottle for Mam out of Maeve’s hand. Maeve then gives Mam her bottle instead.
With the “reincarnation” of Ishleen, the fire bottle is transferred to her yet on the same day Mam loses her soul leaving her body vacant. Forced to take care of the newborn and Mam at the age of 15 (or 16?) Maeve struggles to retain her sense of sanity from the viewpoint of the other villagers. But the English are coming. And then the Spaniards are coming to defend Ireland.
Yet hope begins to fade when Maeve’s brothers and Da joins the rebellion and Ishleen’s soul has been taken away. Tom, however, is in the background having come back to their home, Ard Macha, with wealth after being sent away years ago. Maeve goes on her own odyssey to find their souls while escaping Tom’s obsession. The goddess Danu and the swan-shifting woman who gave Maeve the bottles will guide her on her journey.
In this almost cross between a myth and folklore, Regina McBridge will incorporate magic realism and bend time. Flashbacks and premonitions, shapeshifters of all kinds (vultures, chimeras, swans, mermaids, etc.), a battle with a valkyrie, and blue fire when breathed in can create hallucinations of a lush forest seems to weave endless until the reader begins to be unsure of what is real and what is not anymore, just as what Maeve feels in her journey of self-identity and savior. I felt like an invader on this novel, there was just something so intimate that created this free-falling floating sensation.
Yet time is also an opponent for the reader. The first half was heavy, sluggish, dragging and in comparison made the second half seem too fast. I read the last two parts (out of four) with ease, with a calm swiftness that I did not mind the ticking of the clock because it seemed worthwhile. The first half seem as though I made no progress with what I had hoped to be the real focal point.
Despite this I would actually recommend this book. To me I believe that this book would be great for reading to a younger group of children. It is action packed with a moral lesson, filled with imagery and wild creatures delightful to the creative mind. While it may or may not be the perfect bedtime read, it would be great for a teacher (librarian or assistant) to read (in a circle) to a small group of 10 year old children (and maybe try to work in some motifs and symbolism). And hey, The Fire Opal is great at history too.
The ending, to me, is unsatisfactory. I am someone who demands the whole ending especially with epilogues. Did the brothers and father ever return (though it may appear so) and whatever happen to Francisco, the Spaniard soldier that Maeve recurred? In a chilling voice, one might say that she may never know, but will the heart will continue to live on.
The Fire Opal is a combination of history, folklore, fantasy, and adventure (with a speckle of romance) that will resonant better with a younger audience, but that does not mean young adults and adults will not find contentment with this novel.
Try The Fire Opal if you enjoyed:
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
Sun and Moon, Ice and Stars by Jessica Day George
or just magic realism