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Wildfire: Sarah Micklem

(this review has taken FOREVER to write. I finished reading this August 27 and it's now October.)

cover of Firethorn, a woman with red hair and haunted green eyes looking up
Sire Galan has forbidden his servant and lover Firethorn to follow him to war, but she disobeys. When the army of Corymb sets sail for Incus, she is aboard a ship of the fleet, gambling on Galan's welcome.

But the gods are as apt to meddle with the schemes of a lowborn mudwoman as the best-laid plans of her betters. The searing touch of Wildfire leaves Firethorn shattered, haunted, estranged from herself, and set apart from others.

She feels cursed, but others see her as blessed. Whores come to her for healing, and soldiers search her every utterance for hidden prophecies. Is she a charlatan or a true seer? Even Firethorn cannot answer that question. And Galan is wary of what Wildfire has made of her.

Synopsis from the book jacket.


This is the sequel of Firethorn, where the protagonist Firethorn, a mudwoman who fled the Kingswood manor, follows Sire Galan as he marches to war. There the armies of King Thyrse assemble, waiting for favourable winds and omens to depart.

Now in Wildfire the armies have decamped, and Firethorn is following in their wake. At sea, the ship encounters a huge storm and Firethorn is struck by a bolt of lightning. It nearly kills her, and when she recovers somewhat she discovers she has severe aphasia and can't read. When they land, they find that the vanguard has already successfully conquered the city of Lanx. Galan takes her in, but without being able to speak coherently she's not capable of doing things she used to. Without literacy she can't read the godsigns when she throws bones to divine; with her memory and voice shattered she can't act as a healer. Powerful men like the Crux and the priests of Rift alternatively use her confused words as an oracle, or suspect she's lying and a spy.

After Firethorn gets separated from Galan - she stays behind to help her friend Mai, another sheath, in childbirth - she is captured by the enemy, King Corvus. Corvus decides to take a risky mountain pass during winter after weeks of harassment from Queenmother Caelum's troops, and nearly kills his army doing so. They pass into Lambeth and Firethorn is sold as a bondswoman, then becomes one of the unclean, and then finally a whore-celebrant.

So this was I never got around to reviewing Firethorn and it was partly because I got bogged down trying to explain the plot (it's not really a plot-driven book and the summarizing part of book reviews are my weakness). But a lot of the context is in Firethorn, especially when it comes to the position of women in this society.

By which I mean they have no position. Firethorn is a mudwoman, a commoner without the blood of the gods, and so she's nobody, and her position as Galan's sheath in a war camp opens her up to any kind of abuse, so long as Sire Galan doesn't care. It's an almost constant assault of unpleasantness of varying degrees, from Galan's bootboy and jacks expecting her to do their work for them to rape and assault.

Much of the first part of this book is similar. When the army conquers Lanx, they slaughter all the noble families, except they keep about three dozen of the young girls. Some they keep for whores, and some they keep to marry--the ones that are twelve or older are marriageable, the youngest are kept until they get old enough. There's a part where an arminger (~squire) who marries one of those Lanx girls is absolutely shocked, shocked, that his bride runs away and drowns herself the morning after the wedding. Firethorn, who helped search, realises that the girl while alive has no power, but as a shade she does. A lot of my motivation for reading Firethorn was the relationship between Galan and Firethorn, and really desperately hoping they'd work out. Some of that was fuelled by the knowledge that if Galan rejects Firethorn at any point she'd be incredibly vulnerable, even with all her knowledge and survival skills.

So there's that, and then when they travel to Lambeth and are crossing the mountains Firethorn is literally shackled to a kitchen girl that Corvus hauled out, so she won't run away. Then once they reach the city both of them are sold as bondswomen to a textile factory, where their activities and time are strictly controlled. After Firethorn finally blows up at the foreman (woman), they make her tharais--unclean. As tharais she is basically stripped of all identity and humanness.

Anyway, to cut the long story short (this novel is really long, and it feels longer because it's so dense and unpleasant and the plot is loose) she eventually makes her way back to King Corvus, who is still in the city. And then he sends her to a whorehouse.

Sort of, anyway. It's very high end. So she learns the important genealogies, cycles and poems of Lambeth's culture, how to interact with different ranks, how to sing and entertain, etc. It's like a total whiplash in terms of atmosphere. In Agkhal's house, Firethorn is treated well, like a fairly well-off and well-connected woman, getting an education, sleeping well, tended by servants instead of being a servant. In fact it reminds me of Kushiel's Legacy. Except without the philosophy of love being everything that KL espouses, the two worldviews presented--Firethorn's old one and her present life with Agkhal--are amazingly incompatible. There's a seediness that doesn't really exist in Kushiel's Legacy because the whole society's ideas of moral/immoral, acceptable/unacceptable is built around love being a good thing, no matter how it manifests. In Firethorn's world love is practically unspeakable. Love--what love? The parts with Firethorn being tharais are almost entirely erased. As a part of Agkhal's household, Firethorn ignores the tharais servants as easily as she was ignored before. I can't decide if this is commentary on Firethorn (and general people's) tendency to forget, or if it's actual forgetfulness on Micklem's side.

Firethorn is fairly well looked after with Agkhal, and the novel slides into a smoother period where Firethorn isn't being actively abused in some way, whether personally or just generally by the entire social structure (being tharais, for example, is to be treated as subhuman). She makes up with King Corvus, who wants her to be sent to his betraying brother as the fake bride. To be honest, I ignored a lot of the high-level politics, because Firethorn's is a lot more important and immediate. But THEN, just before Firethorn starts off, the arthygater (princess) finds out Firethorn was once tharais and maims her by cutting off two fingers so that she can never be mistaken for anything but tharais again. That happened within the last few pages and was a huge, huge shock. I hate maiming, and the impact of it was exacerbated by the shock of going from Agkhal's sheltered home, Firethorn patching things with King Corvus and being entangled in higher court politics, to such a brutal and irreversible and physical act. It happens within the last five or so pages and was just, what. Then Firethorn takes the cut off fingers, boils the flesh off, and uses them as replacement for the fingerbones she'd been using to divine. AHHH! Whiplash! And then the book ended.

Firethorn was published in 2004, Wildfire, 2009, so we are already out of sync because there is no announcement about a third book anywhere. Except for a five-year-old blurb attached to the release of Wildfire that Micklem is "working on the third one". All I want to see is her reunited with Galan with her faculties together (and possibly retiring to that farm she keeps dreaming of). Maybe that book can be called Hearthkeeper, since Ardour meddles so much and it can symbolize her life settling down. I didn't want to hitch myself to yet another fantasy series that may or may not be WIP forever! Nooooo.

Other parts of the book: the religion is based on twelve gods, which each have three manifestations: male, female, and elemental. Each has its strengths and interests, depending on manifestations--Rift warrior is concerned with war, while Ardor Hearthkeeper (not Ardor wildfire) is concerned with the home. Many of the events in the books, Firethorn attributes to the doings of one god or another. The importance of the priests and their divination--which is often done by sacrificing animals--is fairly significant. Those of the Blood are believed to be descended from the various avatars and are therefore better than the mudpeople. I'm not sure about the validity of the divination in the books. Firethorn and the priests and so on certainly think it's true, the social structure is ordered by presence of divine blood, but since it's divination it's very hazy. Firethorn does her best at interpreting what the gods say, but it's really only that: interpretation. You can read the entire thing as her picking out patterns and clutching at straws. I don't think the books really say one way or another.

Other things I noticed: people are sick all the time. Firethorn doesn't tend to the wounded warriors it's believed that women touching men's open wounds will poison them, but the inhabitants of Firethorn's world are mistreated, malnourished, and susceptible to infectious diseases. And as a greenwoman trained in healing she feels duty bound to help them--even if she can hardly remember her learning, or gather the materials she needs. She throws the bones when she can, to get guidance, but the consequences of this doesn't manifest till later.

I don't know how to recommend this book. It was very engrossing but also kind of painful to slog through (and to review, as you can see; the book was rambly and so the review is all over the place too.) I initially picked up Firethorn thinking it'd be a book on peasants in a medieval setting and I did not get that. I've been suckered into them, though, so I'll be checking once in awhile to see if there's ever any news about a third book. Wildfire is most definitely incomplete. 7/10


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/161183.html.

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