Reading the publisher’s blurb quoted above, you might expect a very different book from this one. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, per se. It’s just that all of the events in the blurb happen at the very beginning of the story. By page 15, Luck has fled the estate and is hiding out in the Kingswood, trying to survive on what she can forage. After what can best be described as a shamanic near-death experience, Luck believes she has been chosen by Ardor, the god of fire, for some unknown purpose, and changes her name to Firethorn.
Firethorn returns to civilization, where she becomes the lover of Sire Galan, a handsome, reckless young knight on his way to the king’s war. Infatuated with him, and having no better options, Firethorn follows Galan to the Marchfield, where the army is assembling. The rest of Firethorn takes place at the Marchfield, and the main plotline concerns a feud between Sire Galan’s clan and another noble house. As Galan’s mistress, Firethorn is often near the center of the rivalries and hostilities that develop.
Firethorn is an unusual fantasy. There’s no grand quest forming the backbone of the story, and the much-talked-about war is just getting underway as the novel ends. Sarah Micklem zooms in, instead, on day-to-day life in the army camp and how it changes Firethorn. This is a harsh and gritty world, particularly hard on women. Firethorn’s wits, sharp tongue, and herbal skills sometimes enable her to help herself and others, and sometimes get her into deep trouble.
Another focus of Firethorn is the relationship between Firethorn and Galan. By modern standards, this relationship is dysfunctional in the extreme. However, I thought it was realistic, given the setting. This is a society in which love is disdained, and love between a knight and a commoner unthinkable, so when Firethorn and Galan begin to realize their feelings are developing beyond lust, they are unprepared to deal with these emotions. Misunderstandings, jealousy, and fights ensue.
An underlying theme is honor, and the differences between true honor and the way honor is often measured in a violent, sexist society. In the Marchfield, men’s honor is a matter of duels and vendettas, women’s honor is too tied to chastity, and “mudmen” (commoners) are believed to have no honor at all. Firethorn is struggling to do the right thing in a situation where doing the right thing often leads to punishment rather than recognition. It’s an interesting exploration of the theme. Micklem casts a critical eye on ideas that go unquestioned in some fantasies.
If there’s any flaw in Firethorn, it’s that it sometimes seems like one bad thing after another, with few triumphs and no comic relief. The relentless grittiness sometimes made it hard for me to read more than a little at a time. I’m glad I persevered. Micklem’s prose is beautiful, I loved watching Firethorn buck the system, and even though I started out hating Galan with a passion, the love story had some moments that surprised me with their emotional power. Many questions are left unanswered at book’s end, and I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for Firethorn.
I’ll end this review with a quote that displays both Micklem’s prose and Firethorn‘s treatment of war:
When I’d decided to go with Galan, I’d been ignorant of war. It had been no more to me than tales told about the king’s doings, songs about battles so ancient that those who survived them had long since died of old age, tapestries with woven blood spurting from woven wounds. But my ignorance proved to be willful, for surely it was all there in the tales, the songs, the tapestries, if I’d chosen to look: the cruelty under all that splendor. But the songs and stories lied when they gave war shape and purpose. Would I have believed the wanton waste of battle, the squandering of life and suffering, if I’d not seen it myself? And the waste of meaning, for Hazard stalked the field, choosing one to be killed and another maimed and another to go unscathed, and not for anything a man had done or failed to do. Fate gives us what we’ve earned, but it was Chance who held sway, careless and sightless Chance.
Firethorn — (2004-2008) Publisher: A sumptuous love story set in a world as real as history and as marvellous as legend. A foundling child, Luck — named for the colour of her god-favoured copper hair, is fortunate to be taken in by one of the Blood. She remembers little of her past, her parents a vague and teasing memory, but service in the Dame’s household is better than that of most mud folk. She is beaten rarely and is fed well, and, under the Dame’s watchful eye, Luck is even permitted to learn herb lore. But her comfortable world is turned upside when the old Dame dies, and her nephew arrives to claim his inheritance. Choosing to remain with her friends rather than claim her freedom and strike out alone, Luck’s life is calm until her new exotic looks attract the attentions of her new master!