The Butterfly and the Flame is a book I’ve been anxiously awaiting for over a year now, ever since Dana began teasing it under the title of Emily. Equal parts dystopian fantasy, social commentary, and transgender drama, it’s the kind of novel that both enlightens and entertains.
The story is set in a future America where the devastation following an act of Divine Retribution (a series of asteroid impacts) has prompted a return to Puritanical ways. With democracy deemed a sin, and Christianity recognized as the only true faith (although Mormon rebels and Mexican guerrillas might have something to say about that), America suffers under religious tyranny of the Seven Pillars of Faith of the Dominion. The concepts of sexism and homophobia are not only alive and well, but they are mandated by the Dominion, just as works of imagination and scientific progress are prohibited.
If it sounds a little too heavy-handed for comfort, understand that the story itself is not a commentary on faith, but does deal with the abuses of religion. Some of the most wonderful people in Emily’s world are those whose faith is strong enough to survive, and even thwart, the prejudices of the Dominion.
Our window into this world is Emily, a fifteen year-old girl who just happens to have been born a boy. Questioned, challenged, and forcibly denied the expression of her true self by both family and society, Emily is not out to cause trouble, to change the world, or to right the injustices of society. Instead, all she wants is the freedom to be who she is – a young woman, with the same hopes and dreams as any other girl her age.
Emily’s story is an emotional one, a tragic tale that contains just enough hope to make the heartache and the sorrow palatable. She’s a wonderfully well-rounded character, but one who is plagued by the dual angst of being a teenager and being transgender. Only a transgender author could so accurately portray the depths of Emily’s emotion, whether it’s her suicidal despair as she fashions her own noose, or her blissfully innocent joy as she is gifted with her first dress. Throw an arranged marriage into the mix, with the intended's family wholly ignorant of Emily's secret, and you have the makings for a complex take of human relationships.
Dana pulls no punches in exposing us to the depths of human depravity, but doesn’t neglect the heights of human goodness either. Love comes from the most barren of places, accepting Emily without question, while it struggles to take root in what should be the most nurturing of environments. There are definitely some surprises along the way, but I daresay the pleasant ones - especially those connected to motherhood - carry a far greater impact, even if they are outnumbered by the unpleasant ones.
Although largely a tragedy, fuelled by human prejudices and religious justification, there are also moments of triumph to be found in Emily’s story. As the story shifts from Period drama to something more akin to Wild West action in the final act, we get to experience just enough of the wider world to provide context to the Emily’s struggles. The further we get from Emily's Puritanical homestead, the more we realise the world may change, but human nature stays the same. A barren field of 20th century industrial ruins provide a subtle reminder of the past, while the poverty and lawlessness of Lewis Bend serves as a blatant reminder of just how powerless the Dominion is to enact the kind of change that matters.
Delicately balancing heroism and tragedy, hope and despair, Dana takes the novel to a satisfying – if somewhat sombre – conclusion that lingers in your imagination long after you’re done reading, and which ultimately provides the hope for a better tomorrow.