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Firethorn    by Sarah Micklem order for
by Sarah Micklem
Order:  USA  Can
Scribner, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I always enjoy discovering an excellent new author. Sarah Micklem gives us a meticulously realized fantasy world in Firethorn. It's somewhat medieval, with a conquering people, 'the Blood', lording it over the land's original inhabitants, whom they call 'mudfolk'.

Firethorn, once named 'Luck' is a drudge and an orphan with the obligatory mysterious origins for a fantasy heroine (the author draws out the puzzle, only hinting at the truth in this first episode). Firethorn was raised kindly by Dame Lyra (lady of a small manor) and taught plant and herb lore, but when her lady died, she became 'just another drudge' and eventually fled to the Kingswood. There she barely survived, but 'caught the eye of Ardor, god of forge and hearth and wildfire.' She returned to the village, and there spent Carnal Night with highborn ('cataphract') Sire Galan. He asked her to follow him on campaign, and so Firethorn became his 'sheath'.

They're waiting in camp for the campaign to start for most of this book, which reminded me a little of Alison Spedding's A Walk in the Dark series (though Firethorn is not a fighter like Spedding's heroine). But there's plenty of action, despite few battles. Firethorn is unsure of how long her relationship with Sire Galan will last, doubting his constancy. Rightly so, it turns out, when he makes a rash bet to deflower a lady of the Blood and so launches feuds, with serious consequences for Firethorn as well as himself. His sheath also has trouble with Sire Galan's vicious 'armiger', a bastard relation.

Micklem gives us an indomitable red-headed heroine, a 'hawk by nature', who survives and whose love flourishes in the seedy, chancy world of the camp follower. It makes for a thrilling, and surprisingly romantic, read. This first episode leaves Sire Galan and his peers about to attempt to take by stealth the city of Lanx, 'the key to unlock a kingdom'. He has made arrangements for Firethorn's safety, but will she cooperate? She muses that 'the gods will have their way with us' and I very much look forward to her subsequent adventures. If you enjoy fantasy, don't miss this remarkable debut.

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