Firethorn, by Sarah Micklem

Firethorn, by Sarah Micklem book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: 2004
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Jeff Edwards

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Sarah Micklem breathes life into a medieval world and introduces a heroine in her debut novel, Firethorn.

Unable to bear her new master, a fifteen-year-old handmaid named Luck exiles herself to the Kingswood, gathering and stealing food to survive. The girl suffers through a harsh winter until hunger drives her to eat berries from a firethorn tree. Recovering from severe fever and hallucinations, Luck believes that the god Ardor has granted her strange powers: “I could see by shadows, travel by shade, I could draw fire and give warmth.” She adopts a new name for herself — Firethorn — and returns to her village, living as a drudge until she meets Sire Galan, a highborn warrior. When Galan asks her to travel with him, she quickly agrees: “I was ready to follow. It was worse to think of staying behind, to grind one day upon another.” But the journey is difficult, and one of Galan’s reckless wagers sparks a bitter feud, endangering the lives of everyone in his clan — including Firethorn. “[O]ne base act was answered by another, and where would it end?”

Micklem’s novel depicts an unyielding patriarchy and a rigid caste system that values Blood over mudfolk. Fighting to maintain her dignity with the odds stacked against her, Firethorn refuses to accept her status as second-class citizen: “The world had its order and I my place in it, but I could not whittle myself small enough to fit.” She knows first-hand that a lowborn woman in this world is at the mercy of the men around her. At the beginning of the story, Firethorn’s master forces himself upon her, even though he already has a thirteen-year-old bride and a concubine. Firethorn’s friend tells her, “You must bred or wed,” and it seems that she has no choice but to accept a partner in order to secure a precarious foothold in society. After leaving her village with Galan and setting up camp in the Marchfield, she finds herself an easy target for soldiers and is warned never to travel without an escort for protection. Firethorn does find a small measure of independence and income as a “greenwoman,” using her skills with herbs and roots — but even that is tinged with bitterness when a harlot asks for the ingredients to add luster to her hair, and a ten-year-old girl requires healing after her mother puts her to work as a prostitute.

Readers may struggle to understand the pantheon of gods in Firethorn: “Each of the twelve gods has three avatars…but in truth the gods are so far beyond us they are unknowable.” Micklem does her best to explain — she includes a Divining Compass at the front of the book, and her characters frequently discuss the deities — but readers will find themselves flipping back and forth between the Compass and the story until becoming familiar with the mythology. Minor characters in the book also tend to blend together, with few personality traits to distinguish a drudge like Rowney from others such as Spiller or Flykiller.

Sarah Micklem proves to be a gifted first-time novelist, filling her pages with strong writing. She has crafted a tale of genuine human emotions — passion, jealousy, longing and love — and yet her depiction of Firethorn’s bleak world may be too vivid: one feels claustrophobic within the book’s oppressive atmosphere. Once they reach the final chapter, however, readers will be eager to plunge into the second volume of the trilogy, bound to the story of Galan and Firethorn.

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