Must read of the week: The 7th Fire by Spencer McKinley
The 7th Fire by author, environmentalist and social campaigner Spencer McKinley is a haunting young adult eco-thriller that draws upon real-world themes to conjure up the ultimate environmental nightmare.
By Gwyneth Rees
In many ways, the release of new issues-led novel The 7th Fire couldn’t be more timely.
This explosive eco-thriller tells the gripping story of a teenage environmentalist, Annie Erickson, who starts out searching to uncover the whereabouts of her twin sister and ends up in a race against time to prevent a medical emergency of unprecedented proportions.
The book, however, was first written in 2014 as a film script, predating the Covid pandemic by several years. While author Spencer McKinley, making her literary debut, couldn’t have foreseen such a global disaster, it does make reading The 7th Fire all the more unnerving.
This is only amplified by the real-world setting, with the story taking place in the Northwest Territories of Canada, home to the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA)—an internationally unique fresh water research station that is critical to building a better understanding of the global impact of climate change.
In the novel, this area is home to many competing interests—a First Nations tribal reserve, a mining company, a federal government agency, big pharma plus other murky business concerns.
But this wild and sparsely populated zone, bordering the United States, is essentially off-limits to the public and shrouded in secrecy.
Annie, however, is forced to venture in after a group of renowned scientists—including her 14-year-old PhD-educated savant sister, Katy—vanish during a routine monitoring check at the ELA’s facility.
When we first encounter Annie it has been a few months since the group, now dubbed ‘The Missing’, were last heard of, and since that time she has been hitchhiking her way towards and across the border into Canada, determined to reach the private First Nations reserve of North Lake.
This hasn’t been easy as, despite a public outcry, the Canadian government promptly shut down the ELA when the scientists disappeared and a military blockade has been set up as investigations continue.
Annie, however, knows that she must get to North Lake at all cost as there is something deeply sinister at play. Before she set off with the other scientists, Katy had been acting strangely and had passed her a map and a message to track down a mysterious character named ‘Ray’ should something happen to her.
Annie manages to reach the reserve, close to the ELA, but is promptly arrested for trespassing on private land. All she gleans is that the tribal elders, whom she had previously tried to contact via email without success, are afraid of the lakes and have avoided them for several years.
While under house arrest on the reserve, an intelligence officer for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) arrives to take Annie away, but she is rescued by Jack Lockleer, a tribal member who has proven the closest thing she has to a friend in this remote setting.
What follows is a dark and dangerous cat-and-mouse adventure where Annie puts her own life, and those of others, in peril as she pursues the shocking truth amidst many suspenseful twists and turns.
The pounding heart of the story is Annie’s quest to locate her sister—the powerful, emotive struggle to find a loved one and understand just what has happened to them.
We are soon rooting for the courageous teen, who goes through hell on her journey, because of this.
It also grounds the story as it expands into a complex web of conspiracies and counter-conspiracies that could fuel an entire season of The X-Files.
As you would expect from a great thriller, The 7th Fire is packed with jeopardy, double-crosses, violence and constant danger as the stakes continue to grow higher and Annie plunges ever-deeper into the rabbit’s hole.
Author McKinley masterfully releases just the amount of information in each chapter to keep you hooked while keeping you guessing about what, exactly, is going down.
I loved the nuance to the characters, who are all well-realised and who have their own agendas, and the fact that you never quite know who is on Annie’s side and who is against her.
And I adored the many mysteries that glue you to your seat. What exactly, did Katy find out about the ELA that made her so nervous? Why are the tribal elders afraid of the lake? And how does the lake, and the activities of certain corporations, connect with the deaths of several First Nations children?
This is all enhanced by the setting in the far north of Canada—a snowy, forested, isolated and bleak landscape where no one will help if you get into trouble, or hear you if you scream.
The remote lake setting seems like a character in its own right, adding to the danger, the paranoia and the fear. It brings the novel to life, representing an ominous presence even from the opening scene where Annie is hitchhiking to her destination, and the truck she is in slides on the icy roads.
That the natural environment has become something to fear ties in with the thematic concerns of The 7th Fire, which is aimed primarily at a young adult audience and which provides a pointed, though never preachy, commentary on major environmental and social issues.
As well as addressing the real-world, and utterly shameful, defunding of the IISD Experimental Lakes Area, it covers the historic and ongoing mistreatment of Canada’s indigenous First Nations tribes.
The catalogue of abuses perpetrated against these proud people reads like a horror story, including the historic mercury poisoning of the Grassy Narrows First Nation reserve in Ontario, represented by the North Lake reserve in the novel, where between 1962 and 1970 Dryden Pulp and Paper Company—owned by British multinational company Reed International—released as much as 24,000 lb of mercury into the local river network.
It has been described as one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters and public health crisis, affecting three generations of the indigenous First Nations community.
Other abuses which are touched upon by the author, an active environmental campaigner who has previously volunteered for Amnesty International and Christian Peacemakers Teams (CPT), include the genocide of First Nations women and children by the Canadian state, the historic illegal medical experimentation on First Nations children (represented by ‘Tenacoe Labs’ in the novel), and the attempted mining on First Nations lands (represented by Hill Mining in the novel).
As tribal character Michael Left Hand says angrily to Annie: “You think you’re the only person who’s lost a loved one?”
The other big theme, and one that will especially resound with readers at the present time, is bioterrorism. Without giving any big spoilers away, it involves the deliberate creation of a deadly pathogen.
Together, these themes can be considered as a microcosm of the wider environmental issues happening globally, and which McKinley hopes will serve as a wake-up call to action before it’s too late.
The way she has been able to weave so many issues into this thriller in a way that doesn’t interrupt the action-packed narrative or tension should be praised.
You can learn a lot from The 7th Fire, as well as gain a better appreciation of the culture of First Nations people and their myths.
In fact, the book’s title refers to the 7 Fires Prophecy of the Anishinaabe Nation, which incorporates the Grassy Narrows community.
The prophecy predicts that “the world has been befouled and the waters turned bitter by disrespect, human beings will have two options to choose from, materialism or spirituality. It is this time that humanity will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If humanity make the wrong choice of roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth's people.”
As the story unfolds, the theme of this prophecy becomes ever more apparent, and seems wholly prescient in the age of global warming and viral pandemics. This is emphasised by the division of chapters into seven days, echoing the fact that a disaster is fast approaching.
In the second half of the novel, the action really comes alive, with Annie now bursting with more power and agency, playing all her cards and doing things just as she wishes.
The story essentially ends on an edge-of-seat cliffhanger where Annie uncovers a bigger goal that she must pursue at all costs, specifically relating to the 7th Fire.
This will continue in the sequel, and find its resolution in the third and final book in the planned trilogy.
For now, whether you are young or old, you should read The 7th Fire. It’s a breath-taking, gritty thriller that never flags during its 185 pages and which will fill you with righteous indignation at the deplorable realities of the world it draws upon, and confronts.
A lot of fiction is based on the unbelievable yet is still entertaining; with her debut, Spencer McKinley presents an unforgettable, chilling story that is, alas, only too believable.
The 7th Fire by Spencer McKinley (Austen Elliot) is out now in eBook format, priced £7.18, available from Kobo UK. It will be published in paperback on 30th November, 2021, available from Amazon UK, priced £13.99. For more information, visit SpencerMckinley.com, or follow her on Facebook.
Q&A INTERVIEW WITH SPENCER MCKINLEY
We speak to author, environmentalist and social campaigner Spencer McKinley about her sensational debut novel, eco-thriller The 7th Fire, about the real-world issues it addresses, and about the urgency to take action to protect our planet.
Q. Your debut novel,The 7th Fire, highlights global environmental concerns. Why were you drawn to these themes?
A. Back in the1970s and ‘80s, my mother was a volunteer social campaigner for numerous organisations including environmental coalitions and the Woman’s Movement. She was one of the first individuals to march at the first Earth Day in 1970. I inherited her concern and passion for the environment. She believed that we all have a moral obligation to protect our environment and to safeguard and promote sustainable survival for future generations.
Let’s face it—environmental degradation is destroying our planet and is jeopardising the survival of all living things .Climate change is only one of the environmental challenges that we’ll face over the next decade. Ninety percent of humanity breathes polluted air, and drinks contaminated water. Our oceans have become giant waste dumps for plastic and our waters are being overfished as well. While energy accounts for 60 percent of all global greenhouse effect emissions, the UN calculates that, ironically, 13 percent of the world population lacks access to electricity and that three billion people depend on fossil fuels for cooking! This situation requires an immediate transition towards a cleaner and more efficient base of renewable energy.
Q. You visited the Grassy NarrowsFirst Nations reserve as a Christian Peacemakers Teams delegate in 2014. Can you describe this experience?
A. Eye- opening.The Grassy Narrows First Nation Community, like MANY indigenous communities worldwide, have lived for years with the consequences of environmental degradation. It’s almost asif two societies are emerging; one in which general society will be trapped in a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario, (where many will starve, be poisoned or be forced to migrate, causing potential world conflict) while the other half of society, ‘the elite’ (basically the rich), will be able to buy their way out of the crisis. Both indigenous and non-indigenous communities are victims of environmental injustice. These issues are microcosms of the larger issues to come—ones that will affect the rest of humanity. Canada's ‘worst environmental disaster’ is going to become the world’s greatest disaster, if environmental measures, including the control of infectious diseases and global warming, aren't addressed now.
Q. Your novelwas written before the Covid pandemic but is eerily similar in some respects, most notably in dealing with a new, lethal pathogen. In the novel, this is man-made and some people believe the Covid virus was likewise manufactured and released into the wild. What is your view on this?
A. At this point in time, no public statement has been made regarding the exact origins of Covid. However, it is a matter of public record that there are 59 BSL4 (biosafety level 4) labs around the world that handle the deadliest pathogens in existence, and only a quarter of them score high on safety. Think about it. There are approximately 59 maximum containment labs in operation worldwide, that are supposedly designed and built to allow researchers to safely work with the most dangerous viruses on the planet. Yet, a large number of these labs do not meet adequate safety standards.
What is also concerning is that they are spread over 23 countries, with the largest concentration of BSL4 labs—25 of them—right here in Europe. North America and Asia have roughly equal numbers, with 14 and 13 respectively. Australia has four and Africa three. What is even more alarming is that three-quarters of the world’s BSL4 labs are in urban areas! You may have one in your own neighbourhood or postal code! Around 60 percent of BSL4 labs are government-run public-health institutions, leaving 20 percent run by universities and 20 percent by bio-defence agencies (whomever they are). The US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative shows that only about one-quarter of the countries with BSL4 labs received high scores for biosecurity! Only 40 percent of countries with BSL4 labs are members of the International Experts Group of Biosafety and Biosecurity Regulators (IEGBBR): Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, UK and the US. That still leaves a large proportion of scientific biomedical research not being monitored adequately.
While the Covid pandemic has served as a terrifying reminder of the risks posed by infectious diseases, whether they originate organically or otherwise, unmonitored viral experimentation for whatever reason, even in the pursuit of benefiting humanity, carries great risk.
Q. Your novel can be enjoyed by anybody but is particularly aimed at a young adultaudience. Why do you think it important to bring environmental and social issues to their attention?
A. Our youth is our future. The moreaware and engaged teens are in current events, hopefully the more proactive they will be in solving our global problems. And, as a woman, I strongly believe that girls and young women should have contact with as many strong female role models as possible.
It’s very important to discern early on what goals or missions a young woman might have in determining her role in society and the world beyond. Recently, a survey in Europe was done indicating that young people are aware of the need to care for and protect the environment but actually place it low on their list of personal priorities! This sentiment needs to change as soon as possible.
A German study found that a full 70 percent of teens thought that the quality of their environment at home in Germany was “fine” or “very good”. The present study shows that the readiness to “change behaviour from an environmental perspective is especially decreasing among young people”, as stated by German environment agency (UBA) president Maria Krautzberger. Most teens understand and are ‘concerned’ about environmental issues; however, the report indicated that many are just unwilling to do anything about it. What does it take for future generations to wake up? There are only so many Greta Thunbergs in this world.
Actively engaging as many teens as possible in working towards a better future. THEIR future is imperative—from teaching them to protect our world's limited resources to maintaining cultural diversity, and protecting future generations from further environmental catastrophes.
Q. You are an active environmental campaigner.What advice would you give to others who wish to follow suit?
A. The quickest and easiest way to get involvedin what you love and believe in is to take action. Contact people and organisations—put yourself out there. Volunteer to go on delegations or serve on grassroots or established coalitions and campaigns. Everything in life begins with the first step.
Q. Your novel began life as a film script. If a film adaptation was made, who would you cast forthe lead roles, and why?
A. Just off hand, I can think of threewonderful young actresses who could really nailthe lead character, teenage environmentalist Annie Erickson: Julia Butters of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sadie Sink from Stranger Things and Elsie Fisher from 8th Grade.
Q. How much research went into your novel?
A. I read up on BSL4 Labs as well as about environmental disasters, particularly ones that have happened on public and First Nation lands, such as the mercury poisoning of the Grassy Narrows reserve in Canada.
I also conducted research on the history of bio-warfare, especially during the First World War. I remember my late grandfather, a war hero, telling me how he’d witnessed gassings in the trenches.
The remarkable thing is that I completed the original film script for The 7th Fire, before I turned it into a novel, in 2014, four years before Greta Thunberg emerged as a public figure and six years before the Covid pandemic. The story was based on my own environmental and public health concerns, but I never imagined how prescient it would turn out to be!
Q. What other books or films have been an influence on your novel, and in what respects?
A. I’d say my personal experiences have been the primary source of inspiration for the novel,but films like Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep and The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, all carry similar concerns and warnings regarding the unregulated use of viral and chemical experimentation.
Q.The novel is the first in a planned trilogy. What can you tell us about the second book?
A. Annie’s real adventure begins when she sets off to warn the public and help stop the pandemic. Book threewill chronicle her confrontations with the biomedical company Tenacoe and Norlin. And maybe she’ll spark up a romance with Dellamoe?
Q. What do you hope readers take away from readingThe 7th Fire?
A. A Sense of mission in ensuring our children’s future. I hope readers come away alarmed and determined to help save our planet and protect our populations in any way they can. I also hope that they enjoy a good mystery read. As a reader, I pick up a book with hopes of being entertained. I want the story to draw mein and I hope that readers feel drawn to Annie’s story and relate to her sense of raw justice, heartache and triumph.