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Firethorn
Sarah Micklem
Scribner, 383 pages


Mark Stutzman
Firethorn
Sarah Micklem
Sarah Micklem had jobs in a restaurant, printing plant, sign shop, a refugee resettlement agency before spending the last 20 years making a living as a graphic designer. She wrote Firethorn while working as an art director for children's magazines in New York City. She lives with her husband, poet and playwright Cornelius Eady, in Washington, DC, where she is writing the second book of the Firethorn trilogy.

Author/Firethorn Homepage
BOOK REVIEWS:
Firethorn - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Note:
This review is an bilateral reviewer-author experiment. After writing the draft of this review, I sent a copy to the book's author, Sarah Micklem, mainly for her to check for any factual inaccuracies and make any comments she wished. From her reply it was clear that our opinions differed in some respects regarding how, in recent fantasy novels, she and other authors employ a woman's rape as a plot element. Consequently, in an effort to allow Ms. Micklem to respond to my specific criticisms of her work, and present her thoughts on the more general issue of the inclusion of rape in literary works, her response to my comments is included in a separate window accessible through a link located beneath the penultimate paragraph of the review. I hope you will take the opportunity to read both our views.

In a mediæval setting, where those of the feudal aristocracy, "the Blood," lord it ruthlessly over a conquered agrarian class, the "mudpeople," and where women are largely heir-bearers or drudges, an unusually red-haired foundling girl is raised by a well-meaning high-born female herbalist. Upon the latter's death, and after being raped by a man of the Blood, the now teenage "Luck," rather than becoming just another drudge, flees to the woods, where she overwinters and undergoes a physical and spiritual ordeal to be reborn as "Firethorn". Upon her return, during midsummer revels she is bedded by Sire Galan, and becomes his disposable lower caste sex-object, or sheath, eventually following him to the massing of troops for war, rather than remain behind. Rather smitten by her, Sire Galan, impetuous and devil-may-care, nonetheless deflowers a
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virgin of the Blood, precipitating a feud which will leave many dead, and Firethorn at the mercy of yet another vicious male predator. Still, whether it be through conjuration or some sort of emotional attachment Sire Galan and Firethorn remain linked -- but what will happen when he leaves on a delicate war-time mission?

Firethorn is Sarah Micklem's first novel, and certainly her imaginary world is well developed and well researched, the characterization of the main players thorough, the writing fluid and the tone and vocabulary appropriate to the genre. While termed "the first volume in an epic trilogy" [how unique!], suggesting a fantasy novel, the material is far more a realistic feminist mediæval romance than a tale of wizards and sword-wielding superheroes (i.e., she's no Jirel of Joiry). Certainly the developing but difficult romance between Firethorn and Sire Galan is well handled, showing, realistically, that relationships are not all about lust, nor are such relationships an endless time of wine and roses, but bear their lot of disappointments, disagreements and issues of trust, and loyalty.

The book is realistic to the times and society (mediæval feudal) it portrays, and well detailed with respect to the state of advancement of medicine -- a combination of herbal lore and faith healing, and with respect to the superstitious belief in a pantheon of gods and avatars of the author's creation. In terms of realism, Firethorn is brutally so with respect to the physical and sexual abuse of women. The frank sexual nature of a number of passages clearly makes this a book for adults. However, with a heroine with a sense of liberty and self-expression much more rooted in modern feminism than subjugated under patriarchical traditions, it's no surprise her progress among the elitist and male-dominated and mysogynistic Blood earns her a number of scrapes. However, unless one postulates her post-rape woodland ordeal brought her superhuman god-granted powers of endurance, that a fifteen year-old woman, as inured as she might be to the position of women in her society, could psychologically survive a second sexual assault, the second involving a severe beating and the bloody scalping of her pubic hair, while maintaining regular sexual congress with a man who is off deflowering a high-born virgin, seems rather far-fetched to me. Nonetheless, Firethorn, while certainly unhappy and full of vengeful rancour, continues to function with no mental breakdown or overt symptoms of abuse.

And now for my avowedly male reactionary viewpoint: Rape is a reprehensible unmanly act. That said, with the advent of a far greater number of authors of the female gender among the providers of fantasy literature, compared to the era of Morris, Dunsany, Eddison and Tolkien, the number of strong women characters who are more than just a fierce male swordman having undergone a costume change, has seen a sharp rise -- and all the better for fantasy literature. However, as I pointed out in a review of Anne Kelleher Bush's The Knight, the Harp and the Maiden, the use of rape, free of its psychological or physiological consequences, as a plot device to draw sympathy to or to steel a female character seems reprehensible to me. While one might argue that modern women would experience rape as a much greater affront to their hard-won emancipation and expanded personal liberties than might have women born to the subordinate womanly role of mediæval times, I doubt whether women in the latter era were any less psychologically damaged by rape -- only the symptoms they showed might have differed. While its use as a mere plot device is certainly less blatant in Firethorn than in Bush's The Knight, the Harp and the Maiden, and one could argue that Firethorn's desperate attachment to Sire Galan is perhaps somewhat symptomatic, given the attention to realistic detail in Firethorn, and the character embodying many traits of modern emancipated women, it is perhaps even more unfortunate that this aspect is seemingly not considered.

Author Sarah Micklem's Response

As I stated above, the book is very well written and researched, and the characterisation excellent. On that level, I would most emphatically term Firethorn a character- rather than plot-driven novel. One doesn't read Firethorn for the battle scenes, or for edge-of-your-seat swashbuckling adventure, but to see the characters develop and interact. Being a man and raised on a diet of Haggard, Burroughs, Howard and Mundy I could certainly have used a bit more action, but then I suspect Firethorn is more targeted to women readers than my sort. Nonetheless, Micklem promises to be writer of note in the genre, and Firethorn and its sequels more than your average mind-candy "epic trilogy."

Copyright © 2004 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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