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Am I not gritty enough? January 22, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: , , , , ,

Over the summer, I read a new series of fantasy novels, Firethorn and Wildfire by Sarah Micklem. As I was reading them (and thinking about how to review them on this blog), I realised I was about to commit the cardinal sin of reviewers: I was preparing to criticise the second book for not being the book I thought Micklem should’ve written, rather than reviewing it for what it actually was. I’m sufficiently self-aware as a reviewer to realise that this was completely wrong and unfair, and yet I couldn’t help myself. With that in mind, please prepare to read Ronni’s Completely Unfair And Incedibly Biased Review of Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn Series.

I should probably point out here that there will be spoilers.

Firethorn was one of those books I’d been considering reading for years. You know how you wander into a bookshop, browse idly, pick up a book, read its blurb, hesitate, and then put it back? I did this with Firethorn every single time I came across it in a bookshop for about two years. Something always put me off. So over the summer, when I had access to a decent public library, I finally bit the bullet and borrowed it.

I shouldn’t have been so cautious. Firethorn is excellent. I have very strong opinions about the depiction of war in fantasy novels. Far too many, especially of the high fantasy sub-genre, but some romantic fantasy books as well, seem to glorify war unintentionally. Oh, I’m not saying that Tolkien and his ilk say that war is a fabulous and wonderful thing, and wouldn’t it be great if we had more wars, but they depict war as an inherently honourable passtime, something that enobles people and makes them heroic. When such authors want to show the cost of war, it’s all about the glorious sacrifice of the stoic old retainer, or the raw young recruit finding the courage to save his comrades with no thought to his own safety. If they mention the casualties, it’s always in a highly impersonal way, piles of dead bodies left on a battlefield, mourning the unnamed dead after the battle is won – that kind of thing.

Micklem joins a small group of exalted authors who choose to present combat in a much more realistic way. Whether it’s Jo Walton, whose Tir Tanagiri Saga contains endless scenes of tactical planning sessions, arms training and conversations among quartermasters about food caches and supply lines, Kate Elliott, whose Crossroads trilogy shows the way ordinary middle class people cope with and react to war or George R. R. Martin whose A Song of Ice and Fire so brutally portrays the inhumanity visited upon everyone who gets caught up in a conflict, there are some authors who bother to get it right when it comes to writing about war. Firethorn is another such book.

The causes and major players of the war are unimportant. Firethorn is concerned instead with its eponymous heroine, a ‘Mudborn’ (in a world where people are either – shades of J.K. Rowling – ‘Muds’ or ‘Bloods’) who attaches herself to Sire Galan, a noble warrior as a sort of wartime concubine. Note that in her world, this is the best prospect she has of escaping her squalid circumstances. Firethorn deals with the relationship between Galan and Firethorn in a realistic manner. The word ‘love’ never passes either one of their lips. They both recognise that theirs is a relationship of convenience and compromise, with each getting something out of it. They are both practical, unsentimental people. Against this unconventional, unromantic backdrop, Micklem explores the effects of war on ordinary people, conveying with great accuracy the ways in which such people struggle to survive and flourish in trying circumstances. Hers is a world of cooks and armorers, laundresses and camp followers, all of whom orbit around their more elevated companions, living a kind of desperate, hand to mouth existence where every day is a gamble and where ingenuity, evasiveness and flexible morals are required in order to survive. It’s refreshingly honest, both in the handling of the relationship between Galan and Firethorn, and in the depiction of life on campaign.

Why oh why, then, did Micklem feel the need to write a follow-up novel that nearly destroyed all my good opinion of her as an author?

Wildfire, the second novel, sees the campaign actually begin. Firethorn herself had been packed off to an estate that Galan gave her as a present at the end of the first book, but she was determined to follow him to war. However, after being struck by lightening (and left with supernatural abilities), Firethorn and Galan are reunited, only to be parted again when she is captured by the enemy side. So far, so redeemable. But then things start to get a little bit odd.

It’s almost impossible for me to fathom Micklem’s authorial choices from this point on. Why, for example, does Firethorn suddenly turn into an utter Mary Sue, beloved by all around her, possessing over-the-top magical powers and randomly winding up meeting (and manipulating) just about every powerful person on the enemy side? Why does Micklem see the need to create a society that’s half-Greek, half-Japanese, and entirely Orientalist? Why would Firethorn’s captors see the need to train her as a kind of geisha? It’s as if Micklem got overawed by her powers of worldbuilding, and forgot the strengths of the previous book: solid characterisation, gritty, realistic depictions of war, and a focus on the ‘ordinary people’.

The sudden switch in focus and tone from one book to another really bothers me. It’s rare that I find a series where the first book is everything I could hope for, and the second is something that sends me fleeing for the hills, but that’s the case with Firethorn and Wildfire. I’m reserving opinion of the series until the third and final book is published, but I fear it will take an author more talented than Micklem to turn this trilogy around.