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Firethorn by Sarah Micklem

01/11/2008. Contributed by Sue Stewart

Buy Firethorn in the USA - or Buy Firethorn in the UK

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pub: HarperCollins. 383 enlarged paperback. Price: 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-00-719306-8.

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'Firethorn' is a historical fantasy in a setting reminiscent of the late Middle Ages and the first thing that struck me once I got into the story proper is how familiar the world sometimes seems. There's an earthiness and veracity about it, not least because the protagonist is one of the 'mudfolk', the underclass of peasants and 'drudges' who serve the aristocracy who are known in this work as 'the Blood'.

The story is told in the first person by a young woman whose name isn't given when we first meet her. We learn later on that she has been known most of her life as Luck because of her red hair. At the beginning of the story, she's living wild in an area called the Kingswood. Soon, we find out that she used to live at the local manor, whose Dame she served and received an education beyond that given to the other drudges because the Dame was fond of her. We also learn that she was a foundling with nothing of her own not even a name. This lack of connection informs all her actions, shapes all her choices. Often they are reckless.
On the verge of starvation in the Kingswood, Luck eats what she knows are potentially deadly berries from the firethorn tree and although she survives, she is changed. Luck is convinced that one of the gods has spared her and touched her for a reason, though she doesn't know what it is. She takes the name of the tree as her own - Firethorn.

It wouldn't be much of a story if Firethorn stayed grubbing around in the Kingswood so, of course, she returns to the manor so that things eventually will change. They do, thanks to the Upside Down Days. These are the few days and nights of the year when the mudfolk are allowed freedoms that would normally cost them dear. On Carnal Night, Firethorn meets Galan, the man that she willingly takes to her bed and who will refuse to give her up.

This isn't a tale of hearts and flowers, however. War is declared and Galan, naturally, has to go with the army. Firethorn, rather less naturally, goes with him. Not as a blushing young bride, but as a camp follower. Hardly the stuff of romance, but that's what I mean about this fantasy being grounded in reality. Life in the army camp is seen close-up. You're aware of the bigger picture, but it's the details that keep your attention. Often the details are colourful and exciting. Just as often they are dark and rather disturbing.

Although I occasionally felt inclined to yell at Firethorn and Galan to sort themselves out, I never lost interest in them. She's not a helpless little fool, however much she may feel like one. She is very young and has a lot to learn. Usually she learns the hard way. The intimacy of the first person narrative means that we see Firethorn mistakes up close (hence the occasional impulse to give her a shake) and as her awareness grows, we see more of the world she's been plunged into.

It's a lovely piece of writing. Sarah Micklem has taken lots of different historical elements and combined them smoothly to make a very convincing world. As this is the first novel of a trilogy, I'm really looking forward to a re-visit.

Sue Stewart

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