Meredith Ann Pierce is best known for her wonderful Darkangel trilogy, which sadly is not as renowned as it deserves to be. Even lesser known is Pierce’s Firebringer trilogy, based on stories she wrote and dreams she experienced as a young child, which chronicle the lives and adventures of a tribe of unicorns exiled from their home.
Legend tells of how the unicorns were driven out from their Hallow Hills by the serpentine wyverns, who by trickery, superior numbers and mastery of fire, forced the Princess Halla to remove her people from their ancestral home and find new feeding grounds in the Vale. But all is not well; the unicorns pine for their true homelands, especially the Mirror of the Moon, to which a dangerous pilgrimage is done every year so that the young unicorns may drink and glimpse their destinies in its waters. As well as this there are pans (basically fauns, though they are never named as such), and vicious gryphons who terrorize their life in the Vale, and dangerous renegade unicorns that gallop the plain lands.
One hope lies upon the unicorns that they may one day reclaim their homelands; a vague and contradictory prophecy regarding a Firebringer, who will win back the Hills for his people. It is into this rugged landscape that the young Prince Alijan lives, who accompanies his father and fellow unicorns on the dangerous rite-of-passage to the Mirror of the Moon with his friends Dagg and Tek.
Jan has a lot to learn; about himself, his relationship with his father, and the world. Guided by both the mystic Jah-Lila, and the unicorn-goddess Alma, Jan begins a journey of discovery (continuing into the next two books) that will change his entire tribe’s existence. In this volume, dealings with gryphons, pans and renegade unicorns all lead to a final confrontation with the manipulative wyvern queen, who holds for Jan a terrible truth.
Without close reading, the structure of the novel can appear painfully predictable; the young prince is headstrong and reckless, with a devoted sidekick, a strict father, a fiery love interest and a set destiny laid before him — you’ve read all this before, right? Wrong. Pierce displays a masterful stroke when it comes to portraying the forces of good and evil, mostly in regard to the fact that there aren’t any. Throughout his journeys Jan becomes steadily aware of prejudices and assumptions within his own tribe, that many of their sacred beliefs are but superstition, and that perceived ‘enemies’ are only acting accordingly to their own natures, their own points of view. Even the wyverns, who are the undisputed villains of the novel, are given a place within the natural order of things. An underlying theme of pacifism, understanding and democracy is something rarely to be found in fantasy novels, especially as Jan’s role as ‘hero’ has less to do with fighting than with enlightenment.
As well as this other cultures are handled with exceptional variety; the pans with their darts and story-telling dances, the gryphons with their warrior females and stay-at-home males, and of course the unicorns themselves with their traditions, lore, and activities. Also worth mentioning is the use of narrator within the novel, an anonymous and mysterious presence that is revealed only at the conclusion of the story and guides the reader through the lessons and wonders that Pierce has to share.
Though it’s possible that Pierce will never outdo her first novel The Darkangel, this Firebringer trilogy makes a great read, memorable, original, poetically written and unique to the fantasy genre.
Firebringer — (1985-1996) Young adult. Publisher: Jan, the prince of the unicorns, is high-spirited, reckless — and the despair of his mighty father, Korr. Reluctantly, Korr allows Jan to accompany the other initiate warriors on a pilgrimage. Soon Jan’s curiosity leads him, along with his friend Dagg, and their mentor, the female warrior Tek, into the greatest dangers — deadly gryphons, sly pans, wyverns, pards, and renegade unicorns. Yet time after time they are rescued, leading Jan to wonder: Am I the heir to a special destiny?