Author: Sarah Micklem
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Adult (US Hardcover) / Spectra (US Mass Market) / Voyager (UK)
Publication Date: June 2004 (US Hardcover) / April 2009 (US Mass Market) / March 2006 (UK)
Mass Market Paperback: 576 pages (US)
Stand alone or series: Book 1 in a planned trilogy.
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I’ve had Firethorn on my radar for a long while, intrigued by the overwhelmingly positive reviews and the comparisons of Sarah Micklem to fantasy authors like Jacqueline Carey, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Terry Goodkind.
Summary: (from barnesandnoble.com)
Introducing a mesmerizing debut in the rich tradition of Marion Zimmer Bradley and the powerful narratives of Jacqueline Carey—a passionate tale of love and war in which the gods grant a common girl uncommon gifts… Before she was Firethorn, she was Luck, named for her red hair and favored by the goddess of Chance. A lowborn orphan, Luck is destined to a life of servitude. But when her mistress dies, Luck flees to the forest, where she discovers the sacred firethorn tree, whose berries bring her fevered dreams, a new name…and strange gifts. When she emerges from the woods, Firethorn is a new woman, with mysterious powers.
And soon, in the chaos of the UpsideDown Days, when the highborn and the low trade places, Firethorn couples with the warrior Sire Galan, whom she follows to camp with the king’s army. There she learns that in her new role as a sheath, a warrior’s bedservant, she is but one step above a whore. By day she uses her gifts as a healer to earn a place among the camp’s women, and by night she shares Sire Galan’s bed, her desire equal to his. But the passion they feel for each other has no place in a world ruled by caste and violence. When her lover makes an ill-considered wager that chances her heart, the consequences are disastrous—and Firethorn will learn how hard it can be to tell honor from dishonor, justice from vengeance.
A striking young orphan and peasant girl, Luck serves as handmaiden for her Dame, whom she loves (and who loves Luck in return) for a few happy years. But when Luck’s Dame dies and cruel new master Sire Pava and lady inherit the home, her life changes forever. Fleeing from the manor, Luck takes refuge deep in the neighboring Kingswood. As the weeks pass, without food or proper shelter from the harsh winter, Luck is driven to eating whatever she can forage – and when she sees a lone Firethorn tree in dappled sunlight, she takes it as a sign and eats its poisonous, potent berries. When Luck finally emerges from her fever dream stupor, she believes she has been reborn, reshaped by the god Ardor’s hammer into something with a purpose. Luck changes her name to Firethorn, and discovers that she possesses a god-touched destiny and newfound magical abilities. Thus, she leaves her lair in the Kingswood and returns to the village for Midsummer’s Eve. Her return is shortly followed by the UpsideDown Days – a celebration where the Blood (nobles) must serve the mudborn drudges in a reversal of the “natural order” of things. During the celebration, Firethorn meets a handsome knight named Sire Galan, and they quickly tumble into lust with each other. Firethorn feels a connection to the knight, and agrees to follow him as he goes to battle as his “sheath” – the name given to women who follow knights on the road to battle, sharing their beds at night. Firethorn and Sire Galan are tested by the harsh reality of this medieval society, on a rocky path full of danger, mistrust, and jealousy – though their fates are inextricably bound together.
Firethorn is the first in a planned fantasy trilogy, and is author Sarah Micklem’s debut novel. This is astounding, because the book is incredibly polished, both in form with Ms. Micklem’s exquisite prose and also in terms of conception and gritty, uncompromising cruelty. Many reviews I have seen for Firethorn (on amazon, for example) deem this novel a “medieval fantasy romance” – but I have to say that this is a gross simplification, verging on complete miscategorization. Firethorn isn’t really “romantic” at all, and certainly not in the traditional sense. It’s much more of a character-driven novel that takes a long, hard look at gender roles in a medieval society. With her heroine Firethorn, Ms. Micklem shows a female character who is undeniably a strong woman, but within the constraints of her time. She isn’t some emancipated, modern I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-ROAR! feminist character; rather, she makes her way in the roles society has given her, resisting in the small ways that she can. Though there is passion, emotion, even what could be called love on both sides of this relationship, it isn’t exactly a fairy tale romance. No, Firethorn isn’t your heartwarming tale about a young girl swept away into the arms of her gallant knight in shining armor, her troubles forever forgotten as they ride off into the sunset together and live happily ever after in a castle in the clouds.
What Ms. Micklem does with Firethorn is much more impressive than rehash some simplistic, silly romance tripe. She takes this ideal of the Gallant Knight and the damsel and subverts it, creating a powerful novel so gritty and realistic in its world and characters that it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy.
Firethorn‘s strengths lie with its characters, its gorgeous writing, and its grimly detailed world. As I’ve mentioned before, Firethorn is very much a character-driven novel. Narrated in the first-person, Firethorn’s tale isn’t based on action, but character growth and revelation. As a narrator and protagonist, Firethorn is a strong, undeniably captivating heroine. At first glance, or on a superficial level, Firethorn seems weak and powerless by modern standards. She follows her highborn knight out of the loving emotion she feels for him, and a belief that he will take care of her (though she knows nothing of the grim reality of soldier camps and sheaths). While Firethorn feels love for Galan and comes to him of her own free will, being a “sheath” means that she is bound to him in a very tangible way in the eyes of the men of the camp. In the case of Sire Galan, however, he is much less constrained; he can tire of Firethorn and cast her aside, or beat her, or do whatever manner of thing to her as he wishes. Firethorn is Galan’s property, not to be touched by another man until she no longer is his sheath. But even as Firethorn is a willing subject in her bedservant role to Sire Galan, even as she is abused by the men in her life (including Galan himself), she is never weak. The book begins with Firethorn being raped (an unfortunate and frequent reality in this word) – but she chooses to run away, a position of defiance, even though it may mean her death. Even when Firethorn and the other sheaths in this novel submit to the mores of their male-centric society, she is defiant in her narrative. She chooses to bind Galan to her, and she chooses to help him even when he doesn’t really deserve her. Gifted with powers of herb and medical healing lore, she also has the more mystical ability to travel outside her body and create warmth, which she uses to set the wrongs that Galan’s pride have caused.
Which brings me to the other main character in this book – Sire Galan, Firethorn’s handsome, charming knight. If this were a romantic novel, Galan would be the gallant, shining, honorable hero to Firethorn’s beautiful, virginal innocence. But he’s not. Rather, I found myself despising Galan as I read this book – he’s abusive, arrogant, and self-entitled. But again, that’s the point of Ms. Micklem’s writing; she embraces harsh, stark reality. Galan isn’t very honorable and is driven by his own selfish whims, though he does obviously care for Firethorn somewhat.
In terms of world-building, Ms. Micklem does a fantastic job of creating a gritty, muddy world with an intriguing mythology, but is firmly grounded and realistic. The amount of research and detail put into creating this world is staggering. The “magic” of this fantasy novel is apparent, but contrasted against the stark reality of the society of the soldier camps, it’s tempered and believable. There’s violence, rape, and abuse aplenty in this book – much of it aimed at Firethorn herself. But it never feels exploitative or sadistic, rather, Ms. Micklem uses violence as a lens to examine this harsh, cruel world she has created. It’s not a book for the faint of heart, but it isn’t overtly nasty or written with malicious intent, and I appreciate this unrelenting, unflinching look that Ms. Micklem takes at a harsh society that could be representative of many civilizations in times passed.
In all, Firethorn is a beautifully written novel, with rich, flawed characters. The only problem I had with the book was with its lack of action (I am and always will be a sucker for complex plotting), and more importantly the fact that I didn’t particularly love reading this book.
I can objectively appreciate everything that Ms. Micklem has done with Firethorn, with her subversive themes and impeccably detailed world…but I didn’t really like it. For me, it’s the literary equivalent of films by the Coen Brothers. Intellectually, I know that The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man are important, beautifully shot, impeccably acted films. They are at times nihilistic, at times post-modern, and at times brilliant. But, I don’t particularly like any of their movies.
This is the way I felt about Firethorn – all the components are there, and it is an undeniably Good Book. But it never swept me away, or fully engrossed me as a reader.
With that in mind, I can end this schizophrenic review by saying that while I appreciated and admired Firethorn, it wasn’t really the book for me. But I wholeheartedly recommend it to readers who are looking for a gritty low-fantasy read. I will be checking out Wildfire (book 2 in the series), but with these mixed emotions.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the prologue:
I took to the Kingswood the midsummer after the Dame died. I did not swear a vow, but I kept myself just as strictly, living like a beast in the forest from one midsummer to the next, without fire or iron or the taste of meat. I lived as prey, and I learned from the dogs how to run, from the hare how to hide in the bracken, and from the deer how to go hungry.
I was then in my fifteenth year or thereabouts. I had been taken into the Dame’s household as a foundling, and when I came to a useful age, she made me her handmaid. I was as close to her side as a pair of hands, and as quick to do her bidding without a word having to be said. I stood high in her regard; many a daughter of the Blood is not so well regarded, being counted more a debt than a gain to her house until she is safely married and gone. When the Dame died, and her nephew and his new wife inherited the manor, I became just another drudge. The world had its order and I my place in it, but I could not whittle myself small enough to fit.
In sorrow and pride I exiled myself to the Kingswood. I shunned fire for fear the kingsmen would hunt me down, and so by way of cold and hunger, I came near to refusing life itself. I never thought to anger or please a god by it. Sometimes I wonder if it was my stubbornness that caught the eye of Ardor, god of forge and hearth and wildfire. And sometimes I wonder–was it by my will alone that I fled to the Kingswood? Maybe Ardor had already taken me in hand, to test my mettle as armor is tested, under blows.
You can read a full excerpt online at the author’s website HERE.
Additional Thoughts: If you’ve read Firethorn and loved it, and like this style of fantasy (or if you read it and were impressed but also had mixed emotions like myself), then you may want to check out some of these other fantasy titles and authors…
In particular, the Kushiel’s Legacy/Naamah books by Jacqueline Carey and the Melusine books by Sarah Monette immediately spring to mind. Both authors have a skill for worldbuilding and flawless storytelling. Others to try include Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age fantasy series, Lane Robins’ Maledicte or Kings and Assassins, or Jo Graham’s Black Ships.
Rating: A schizophrenic rating for me – an 8 – Excellent based on objective merit; but also a 5 – Meh because I couldn’t bring myself to like or truly care for the book.
Reading Next: Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier