In the last book in the Firebringer trilogy, we finally come to the event that the two previous books have been steadily building toward: the retaking of the unicorns’ ancestral home from the treacherous wyverns. As the prophesied ‘Firebringer’, Prince Alijan is looked to as the means of regaining their Hallow Hills and Jan is certainly up to the challenge. Having finally made peace with the marauding gryphons, and finding happiness in his beloved Tek and their twin children, Jan has readied his tribe to march out to their homelands and do battle.
But there is one matter of business not yet dealt with — that of Korr, the mad once-king of the unicorns. Knowing his father to hold a terrible secret, Jan vows its discovery and leaves the herd under the power of Tek whilst he chases his father across plains and deserts. It is here the story splits into two in order to follow two separate narratives (much as it did in Dark Moon), that of Jan’s journey, and that of Tek’s actions against the wyverns. Some readers may be surprised at the course the story takes, for in many ways Tek becomes the central figure of the action whilst Jan simply watches from afar, but this I believe pays credit to Meredith Ann Pierce’s innovative take on the typical fantasy genre.
To have a fantasy novel without human characters is unusual enough, but even more so is Pierce’s treatment of Jan’s role as the “hero” of the books. His destined role as Firebringer is not one of violence or conquering, but of enlightenment, understanding and peace — and in fact his close relationship with the goddess Alma puts an almost religious spin on what is expected of him. Throughout the trilogy, his greatest achievements have nothing to do with battles or warfare, but with learning and accepting others, forging friendships with enemies (in particular the gryphon Illishar), exploring new worlds and destroying barriers and superstition that stood between his tribe and other cultures. Jan’s experiences widen even further here, as he integrates himself among the plain-dwelling unicorns and then amidst the magnificent dragons across the desert.
And of course there is the matter of Korr’s secret. Although Korr himself sadly becomes a rather one-dimensional villain by this stage, the knowledge he carries certainly packs a punch. Perceptive readers will have undoubtedly unraveled Jan’s mysterious past before the denouncement is made, (as well as the second twist that is still to come), but it effectively shakes up several relationships within the herd and brings new perspective to many of the actions and thoughts of individuals in the previous books. (Although Pierce makes an odd move in introducing another unicorn couple that seem to have the same dilemma as Jan and Tek — although to this couple, the situation is not a dilemma at all. However, since the problem is resolved in an entirely different way for Tek and Jan, one has to wonder why Pierce includes this other couple at all).
As usual, Pierce’s strength is in her visual style and world-making techniques. We are treated to a beautiful retelling of the creation of the sun and moon by the goddess Alma, as well as the culture and lifestyles of the plain dwelling unicorns. But Pierce outdoes herself in the creation of the Smoking Mountains and the lives of the dragons that dwell there — it is imaginative writing at its very best. As for characterisation, Jan and Tek are as strong as ever, as is the mystical Jah-Lila, who also acts as the narrator of the story. Sadly Dagg and Ryvenna are relegated to the background and an interesting bond that grows between Jan’s little sister Lell and the proud Illishar is established, but not taken anywhere. However Jan’s mother Ses — who has been a mere cipher in previous books — is now given a poignant and memorable story of her own.
The Firebringer trilogy is not Pierce’s best (that honour belongs to the Darkangel trilogy) but it stands as a beautifully written fantasy series that transcends the standard expectations of the genre. Especially relevant is Pierce’s treatment of the unicorns themselves; in a world of cutesy portrayals, tacky figurines and various shades of the colour pink, Pierce gives the unicorns back some of their past dignity — as noble, fierce and even dangerous creatures, not as “My Little Pony” version.
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?