The 7th Fire by Spencer Mckinley

The 7th Fire by author, environmentalist and social campaigner Spencer McKinley is an intelligent and haunting young-adult eco-thriller packed with suspense and mystery that draws upon pressing real-world environmental and social issues.

By Timothy Arden

New novel The 7th Fire is an unforgettable thriller that will get under your skin.

Both prescient and observant, it draws upon a wide array of environmental and social themes to provide a gripping, at times chilling, story that won’t let you go until you’ve reached the final page.

The debut work of author, environmentalist and social campaigner Spencer McKinley, it centres around daring teenager Annie Erickson and her quest to track down her missing twin sister.

In an intricate and dystopian plot—in many ways similar to those seen in a Michael Crichton novel—an area famed for its unique, pristine fresh water lakes in Canada becomes the chilling and mysterious focal point of Annie’s mission.

For it is here, at the IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA)—which exists in real life and is of global importance for environmental science research—that her sibling, Katy, vanished without trace.

And she wasn’t alone. Katy, a 14-year-old genius with a PhD to prove it, was among a group of scientists, now dubbed “The Missing”, who set out on a routine monitoring check at the ELA facility, and who never returned.

The novel opens a few months after these events, with Annie already well on her way to the troubled spot, having hitchhiked her way into Canada from her home in the USA.

It is clear from her injuries that the trip has been anything but easy but it’s only going to get tougher here on in as, since the loss of the scientists, the Canadian government has closed down access to the ELA and neighbouring countryside, enforcing this with a military blockade so that investigations can continue.

But this area is also out of bounds as it is home to a long-established tribe of First Nations people, who inhabit the private reserve of North Lake, close to the ELA.

Annie has previously tried contacting the Tribal Council by email, but without joy. So, armed only with a map and Katy’s instruction to seek out a mysterious figure by the name of ‘Ray’ should something happen to her, she ventures in, managing to avoid the military en route.

However, no sooner does she arrive at the reserve, demanding answers about her sister, than she is greeted by men carrying shotguns and is arrested for trespass by the tribal elders.

Author Spencer McKinley’s experiences as an environmental and social campaigner brings a chilling real-world feel to eco-thriller The 7th Fire.

It’s the tribal elders who do all the questioning, planning to hand Annie over to the authorities, but she is able to glean that the tribe fears the nearby lakes and have avoided them since a group of children were found dead by their shore.

Under house arrest, Annie is moments away from being collected by an intelligence officer for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) when she is rescued by another member of the tribe, Jack Lockleer, who has proven to be her only ally so far.

But Annie’s odyssey is only just beginning and, as she will soon come to realise, her sister’s disappearance is intrinsically connected with something far more sinister, and which shadowy forces will have no hesitation in killing her to stop the shocking truth being uncovered.

On the run and being hunted down, can Annie trust anyone to help her—or, indeed, survive long enough—to prevent a global catastrophe occurring, with just seven days left and counting?

Eco-thriller The 7th Fire has all you could want from a breath-taking, high-stakes adventure and effortlessly pulls you into a raw, primitive and terrifying world.

Unnerving, sinister, and perplexing, this is thriller writing at its best, with the reader pulled into a complex conspiracy involving political, industrial and scientific parties that will always leave you guessing just what will happen next.

Though it is aimed at a young adult audience, the quality of writing, the plot’s sophisticated structuring and the thoughtful exploration of numerous environmental and social issues means this transcends into a story that can be readily enjoyed by anyone who loves a classic, suspenseful mystery.

Of course, this would be for nothing if you didn’t connect with the protagonist, but with Annie we have a modern-day heroine worthy of rubbing shoulders with 24’s Jack Bauer or Die Hard’s John McClane.

Truly, her fearless determination and fighting spirit, matched only by her keen intelligence and sense of justice, makes The 7th Fire worth reading just to follow her journey.

But, of course, there’s so much more within the book’s 185 pages: drama, jeopardy, explosive action, double-crosses, and jaw-dropping revelations.

The setting, meanwhile, is perfect for enhancing the story. As with novels such as Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, this bleak, brutal wilderness frames the story in the best possible way.

Memories of short, punchy scenes featuring Annie fleeing from gunfire through a snow-blanketed forest will stay with you just like moments from your favourite TV shows or films.

This is also thanks to a narrative which is cinematic and vivid, populated with well-realised characters who each come with their own agendas. Half the fun in reading the book is trying to work out what they are before the author reveals them.

The 7th Fire by debut author Spencer McKinley is a gripping, issues-led eco-thriller that will leave a lasting impression.

The icing on the cake is that these events, while fantastic, are all inspired by real-world concerns.

Author Spencer McKinley came up with the premise for The 7th Fire after spending some time among a First Nations community in Canada that, for the last few decades, has had to live with the consequences of the country’s worst environmental disaster in history.

Indeed, the book’s title is taken from an apocalyptic prophecy of this tribe, the Anishinaabe Nation.

Add to this the appalling mistreatment the Anishinaabe, and other First Nations communities have faced—oppression, exploitation, and even illegal medical experimentation—in modern times and you begin to appreciate just how close to the bone McKinley’s story is.

I love novels like this, that are not only entertaining but also educational. As well as learning about the plight of Canada’s First Nations, you also come to appreciate topical green issues such as pollution, water poisoning and climate change in a more immediate, emotive way.

That has to be commended, and likewise the way this is slotted into a manacle-tight story without ever seeming obtrusive.

As the finale approaches, destruction rains down and just when you think everything is going to be resolved … well, that would be telling.

Mercifully, author Spencer McKinley will be releasing the second part of this planned trilogy next year so Annie fans won’t have too long to wait for the next instalment.

To sum up, this novel is fast-paced and a real page-turner. Young or old, you’re going to be glad it’s on your bookshelf.

The 7th Fire by Spencer McKinley (Austen Elliot) is out now in eBook format, priced £7.18, and will be published in paperback on 30th November, 2021, available from Amazon UK priced £13.99. It is available from Kobo UK . For more information, visit SpencerMckinley.com, or follow her on Facebook.

Q&A INTERVIEW WITH SPENCER MCKINLEY

We catch up with author Spencer McKinley to learn more about her gripping debut, eco-thriller The 7th Fire and the real-world issues it addresses.

Q. The 7th Fire is your debut novel. What has been the most satisfying part of the writing experience?

A. Well, this is my first novel based on my original screenplay, so deciding on the story’s structure, writing out the dialogue and creating believable characters took some time. Putting the pieces together and seeing them fit together was the most satisfying part of the experience.

Q. What do you think readers will love the most about The 7th Fire?

A. They’ll love the character of Annie Erickson. She’s tough, resilient, and has a great sense of inner strength. She’s a solid role model for young women. Annie is the silent but strong type who isn’t undermined by adversity. Her sheer tenacity gets her through every hardship and adventure.

Q. Your novel deals with many chilling real-world themes but which one concerns you the most, and why? 

A. Well, they all do. The devastation of our ecosystem by global warming, the numerous chemical/nuclear contaminations that have occurred, and the high-risk biomedical research at such facilities as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Generally speaking, the proliferation of unsafe BSL4 (biosafety level 4) labs globally is of great concern. It is a matter of public record that 59 BSL4 labs worldwide handle some of the deadliest pathogens in existence. The US-based Nuclear Threat Initiative states that only about one-quarter of the countries with BSL4 labs received high scores for biosafety and biosecurity! Only 40% 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, the UK and the USA. This leaves a large proportion of global biomedical labs not being monitored accordingly.

Q. As an author and environmentalist, why do you think you have a responsibility to bring environmental and social issues to the attention of readers? 

A. I believe that everyone in society has the responsibility to engage in protecting our environment and our communities. In that respect, I’m just doing my part. I’m also concerned that young people, especially young women, know that they have a voice in deciding their futures.

Q. Readers have praised your novel for its fast pace and cinematic quality. If a movie were made, who would you pick to star and why do you think they’d be perfect?

A. I can think of several  wonderful young actresses who would absolutely nail Annie Erickson: Canadian actress Anna Cathcart, British actress  Rafaela Chapman, Sadie Sink from Stranger Things, Elsie Fisher from 8th Grade, or Julia Butters from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.          

The 7th Fire author Spencer McKinley spent time at a First Nations reserve in Ontario, Canada as a CPT delegate. She drew upon her experiences, observing the lasting impact on the community of historic mercury poisoning, for her charged and topical narrative.

Q. You have visited Grassy Narrows First Nations reserve. How did this come about, what did you do during your visit, and what lasting impressions did you come away with?

A. In 2011, I lost my mother. She had been paralyzed for eight years and was also terminally ill. When she died, I felt lost. I’d been a caregiver for almost a decade in a very intense situation. Taking care of her made me feel ‘useful’. Of course, when she passed, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Returning to work in a corporate environment wasn’t satisfying to me, not in the same way I‘d felt when I’d been a caregiver. So I decided to re-enter public service as a volunteer. In 2014, a friend suggested we go to a presentation at the local university, so I accompanied her. The couple hosting the talk were, and still are, very active in the peace and justice movement. One of the organisations they volunteered with was Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). After the conference, we went for dinner together. I expressed my interest in knowing more about becoming a CPT delegate. The next thing I knew, they’d made some calls, and I was in Canada.        

Once in Kenora, I met up with six other CPT delegates. We drove up to Treaty Three Reserve to act as monitors at the environmental blockade. We also met with Grassy Narrow community members and officials at the MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources).  The reserve’s lands and waterways had been poisoned by a mercury spill dating back to the 1960s. As a result, three generations of community members have suffered severe illnesses and have died prematurely due to this tragedy. The ‘job’ of CPT delegates is to show solidarity to communities experiencing injustice, spread public awareness and share our experiences with the general public. Seeing such suffering brought back memories of my mother and impressed upon me the need to continue protecting our planet.

Q. The novel is driven by a sinister government-led plot to release a man-made virus into society. There are obvious parallels to Covid, where some conspiracy theories claim it was deliberately created and released. What is your position?

A. At the moment, there is no official statement on the origins of the Covid virus. My idea to write about a bioweapons conspiracy sprang from the devastation I’d seen at numerous environmental disasters, including Rocky Flats in the USA. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a matter of public record that there are 59 BSL4 labs worldwide that handle the deadliest pathogens in existence, and only a quarter of them have reliable safety scores. What is even more concerning is that three-quarters of them are in urban areas! You may have one within your neighbourhood or postal code!  That leaves a significant proportion of biomedical research facilities that are not being adequately monitored. Regardless of where the COVID pandemic ultimately originated, it should be considered as a stark reminder of the terrifying risks posed by infectious diseases. The fact is that unmonitored viral experimentation, even in the pursuit of humanity’s benefit, comes with great risk.

Q. How much research went into your novel?

A. I did a lot of reading and Googling on BSL4 Labs and environmental disasters, especially those occurring on public and First Nations lands.

I’ve also lived with the aftereffects of being exposed to plutonium radiation—the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado almost became the USA’s version of Chernobyl. Two separate plutonium leaks occurred there, one in the 1950s and the second one in 1969. Thankfully, Rocky Flats was not Chernobyl; however, plutonium dust doesn't disintegrate quickly and can be present in the soil for up to 25,000 years. To this day, many Boulder County residents suffer from high rates of thyroid and breast cancer.

Then, I also did historical research on bio-warfare, notably from WWI, where my late war hero grandfather claimed he’d witnessed gassings.

Keep in mind the first draft of the novel/script was written in 2014, four years before Greta Thunberg emerged as an environmental campaigner and six years before the Covid pandemic struck. I had no idea at the time how eerily coincidental my novel would be.

Q. What’s next for you as an author? 

A. I’m writing a sequel. Book two will be called The 5th World, from the Hopi prophecy detailing the world’s rebirth. I’m also working on the second and third drafts of two different film scripts.

Q. What can you tell us about the sequel to The 7th Fire at this stage?  

A. It begins as the pandemic is exploding. Annie, along with her scientist friend Dellamoe, go public. They find themselves at the centre of the conspiracy, and suddenly a lot of bad guys and good guys are looking for them, so she and Dellamoe are on the run. In the meantime they’re also seeking revenge on Norlin and Tenacoe. They have to warn the world, stop the virus and maybe have a romance.

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