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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

"Firethorn and Wildfire" by Sarah Micklem (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Sarah Micklem Website
Order "Firethorn" HERE
Order "Wildfire" HERE(US) and HERE(UK and Overseas)

INTRODUCTION: I found out only several weeks ago about these two books when Robert Thompson told me about this 2004 fantasy "Firethorn" that may appeal to lovers of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series and that had a sequel scheduled for early July (09) publication. I was intrigued and courtesy of Amazon 1-click first chapter preview for iTouch/Kindle owners I instantly had a sample of the book at my disposal.

While I could not say anything about the similarity above, the writing in the extract entranced me so I bought "Firethorn" on the spot and when I finished it, I immediately wanted the sequel "Wildfire". I asked for a review copy and the kind folks at Scribner sent me one the next day and I have to say that "Wildfire" was an amazing book taking the series to a different level.

"Firethorn" is to a large extent a voice novel, a romantic fantasy
in an army camp with the romance more of a down to earth one (with the dirt, smells, fluids and all) than a courtly one, that depends a lot on the narrator Firethorn herself. "Wildfire" segues from "Firethorn" picking up where that one ends but expands the universe considerably, adds extra depth to the heroine, while keeping the same emotional and entrancing narration style from the first novel.

"Wildfire" packs a lot in its 520 pages as well as being a page turner with some big twists and turns, so on the first read I could not put it down eager to find out what happens, while on the immediate second read I enjoyed its details and texture at leisure.

The ending was absolutely great and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next since there are so many possibilities. In the following I will give an overview of the series setting and characters and then talk about the two novels trying to avoid spoilers for "Firethorn" except for some inevitable ones that are included in the blurb of "Wildfire".

OVERVIEW: The kingdoms of Incus and Corymb stand opposite on the shores of the Innward Sea. Many generations ago the Twelve Gods incarnated themselves in Incus
with three avatars each, mated with locals and the noble Clans of Blood that rule the kingdom from Malleus were created. Later, some six generations from the start of our story, the Bloods conquered Corymb but they split into Corymb branches with the same feudal structure and the two countries remained separated by the sea though sharing language, customs and Gods.

Currently the heirless King Thyrse of Corymb famous warrior of the Prey Blood rules unchallenged but in Incus the situation is muddled. The warrior king Voltur has been assasinated some 12 years ago after he defeated the powerful but decadent Southern state of Lambanein and his young son Corvus became king under the regency of Queen Mother Caelum, sister of Thyrse. When Corvus came of age and married a Lambanein princess he deposed his mother and sent her in exile in a remote province.

Helped by her "Wolf" guard of personal warriors independent of any clan, Caelum fled to Corymb, pleaded with Thyrse and so after six generations from the Incus conquest, Corymb is prepared to pay it back ostensibly to restore her and bring Corvus to his senses from his "enchantement" by the "Lambaneish witch".

Thyrse calls his Bloods in camp at Marchfield to prepare for the invasion and "Firethorn" essentially takes place there except for the first several introductory chapters, while "Wildfire" starts with the invasion itself but later expands the universe quite a lot.

In an obscure keep of the Crux Blood, our heroine and narrator Firethorn has been brought at age 3 or 4 as spoils of war of the local lord, though he died in that campaign and only his retinue returned. His wife, the Dame who assumed control of the estate named Firethorn based on her red hair and unusual complexion and kept her as a favored companion until her death some 12 years later. Sire Rava her nephew and new lord (legally) raped her while his wife mistreated her despite the late Dame's wishes, so Firethorn fled into the woods though she later returned to the main village of the estate and made herself a name as a healer.

When the Crux Blood contingent came to pick up Rava for Marchfield, Firethorn attracted the eye of Sire Galan, nephew of the Crux First and she fell in love or lust with him too so she agreed to follow him as a war-concubine, a "sheath". And so her saga began...

Both "Firethorn" and "Wildfire" stand at over 500 pages and there is the important Divining Compass with the 12 Gods and their avatars at the beginning. I referred to it throughout the novels, especially in "Wildfire" where the Gods start playing more important roles directly. As mentioned both books are narrated by Firethorn, but you will encounter a large variety of characters from all walks of life.

ANALYSIS: Here I want to touch on several things that made these books such special ones with an emphasis of "Wildfire" and how it took the series to a next level in so many ways.

The world building is extremely detailed and realistic. In Corymb (and Incus) nobility rules in a clear pyramidal structure. Each noble of the Bloods marked by tattoos on his cheek has a large entourage consisiting of one or more lesser Bloods usually from a bastard line as "armiger" and a bunch of "drudges" ie commoners as varlets, "jacks", messengers, horse boys. Then there are the concubines, the prostitutes and other camp-women that do the menial tasks.

The Crux Blood for example comes with 17 heavy armored nobles - cataphracts - at Marchfield but the total fighting contingent is over 200 plus their women and other followers. The society is strongly patriarchal too, wives stay home and have children in the noble case, or work in the village and fields in the drudge case. There is no sentimentality and a drudge lives at the whim of his master. Only Queen Caelum and her "wolves" soldiers challenge somewhat the male dominance though that is in keeping with powerful women from our Middle Ages like Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The medieval-like life is described in details from food, to smells, to dirt to tent-living and even coupling. So is medieval combat as well as the famous custom of trial by ordeal. Also the petty jealousies between clans, within clans, between drudges and regarding their standing in the pyramid are so well described that the people of Corymb and later Incus vividly come to life.

The major difference with our medieval history is in religion since the 12 Gods of Incus/Corymb and their avatars feel real, influencing the character of the corresponding Bloods as well as events. Priests, augurs and priestesses - the temples hierarchy is less strongly patriarchal, while in some cases like for the Gods Carnal or Ardor even being mostly female - play an important role in society and in our story. While Galan desires Firethorn carnally, he is also attracted strongly by her red-hair thinking that she is loved by the God Hazard and his avatar Chance so she will be an asset in the coming war from that point of view too.

However when we feel we got the sense of the world, the author pulls to some extent the rug from under us introducing completely different societies and customs.

The characters are superb. Firethorn with her combination of naivety and trustfulness, love and lust, as well as her special abilities grows as a character throughout the two novels and her gradual and sometimes not so gradual transformation is just stunning. When she gets hit by lightning (wildfire) at the start of the second novel she becomes truly touched by the gods, a seer and dreamer but also starts having trouble articulating her thoughts in words as befits an oracle, while going blind in one eye too.

Galan with his combination of haughtiness, love of wagering, courage and changing moods is portrayed very well while quite a few of the many characters encountered stand out. There are no real villains outside of the despicable Sire Rodela, Galan's armiger who deeply resents being born on the wrong side of the pillow and wants to get remarked in the war to advance, but cannot help envy and bait Galan and later try and destroy Firethorn.

The narration is strongly emotional, sometimes overwhelmingly so and you *feel* the world through Firethorn's eyes. No ironic detachment here! But there is action, from tourneys to ordeal by dogs, while Galan's love of outrageous wagers leading to him trying to seduce a lesser Ardor Blood girl and the ensuing consequences, especially since Crux and Ardor are big time rivals, form a lot of the narrative tension in Firethorn.

is somewhat different, action end to end, real battles, real consequences. Touched by the gods on the ship, Firethorn "witnesses" many of these events in "true dreams" and premonitions as well as in "real life" while pursuing her healing career among the camp followers and trying to help her friend and protector Mai survive one more childbirth.

And the ending is just superb, one more big twist followed by a natural stopping point from where the series can go many places.

Just an amazing series, I could not leave its universe for several days until I re-read "Firethorn" too after my re-read of Wildfire and the next book is going to be one of my most expected book whenever it will be published.

Before re-reading "Wildfire" I was not sure if it would be my #2 or my co-#1 fantasy this year (so far and very, very likely to stay there), but now I cannot rank it below co-#1 alongside "Naamah's Kiss" with which it shares some similarities but is different in so many ways also that I would hesitate to really compare them.


suzie townsend said...

Wow, great review. I loved Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, so I will definitely have to check these two books out!

Memory said...

I took note of FIRETHORN during a recent bookstore trip and have been wondering about it ever since. It sounds amazing. Thanks for the review!

Jo said...

great review! I just ordered both of these for our library!

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; very emotional but astounding, I spent a lot of time with these two books and barely could leave their universe.

Now if we could get book 3 soon...

Patrick said...

I actually took a creative writing class at Notre Dame taught by Sarah. She talked about the difficulties she was having finishing the book to her satisfaction. I'm glad to see she finally finished it and that it's worth the read.

That was such a fun time.

sarahsvegetablepatch said...

I've just finished reading Wildfire. What a wait, every year I was hassling my local book seller. Now I'm impatiently waiting for book 3. I just wanted to say that in your review of Firethorn, you said that she received her name because of her hair colour and complexion. Actually the Dame called her Luck. She named herself Firethorn after eating the Firethorn berries in the Kingswood after the Dames death.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the observation - I agree completely about waiting impatiently for book 3 and I wish this series would be much, much better known

Unknown said...

i really hope the third one comes out soon! any idea when that will be?


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