I went to the library last week for the first time in too long. I got 14 books, most of them added to my to-read list in 2009. I love that Goodreads lets me never forget which books I want to read, but sometimes I still forget the why. Such is the case here.
Firethorn begins with 28 pages of the protagonist alone in a forest for a year. She eventually eats some berries from the firethorn tree, passes out from hunger, decides when she wakes up that her new name is Firethorn and it’s time to go back and live among people in a village. It was a long, dialogue-lacking first chapter, and I was bored out of my mind. This summarizes two of my major complaints about the book: the chapters are too long, and we spend too much time in the narrator’s head and not enough interacting with other characters.
Chapters are, for me, session markers. I try not to interrupt my reading unless I hit a chapter break (getting tea before it has oversteeped is probably a notable exception). Chapters that are too short can be annoying, but overly long chapters are just evil: there’s nothing worse than slogging through a book one isn’t enjoying and flipping forward only to find there are twenty more pages until the next chapter. Unfortunately, the massive chapters in this book are more of a symptom of its glacial pacing—more on that in a moment.
Firethorn is a nice enough person. She cares for people and uses her knowledge of herbs to help them. However, the interface that Sarah Micklem provides between the reader and Firethorn is cumbersome. It’s laden with a lot of archaic terms, such as cataphract and armiger, and a conflation between the names of gods and the houses that claim to be descended from those gods. (That is, there is a god named Arbor and a house/clan named Arbor, and sometimes when Firethorn ascribes an action to “Arbor”, it is difficult from the context to know to which Arbor she refers.)
Micklem borrows a lot from British history (and British slang) but never delves into the details behind her faux medieval world in any satisfactory way. I suppose one might try to justify this by saying that this is how Firethorn would understand what’s going on; peasants don’t really grasp the intricacies of the conflicts between nobility. If we accept the premise that this book is an attempt to show us a “woman’s perspective” of life in a camp as soldiers march to war, then perhaps this is a satisfactory explanation. However, I’m not so sure peasants would be that ignorant. With no TV and the population functionally illiterate, it seems like they would have the time and the memory to parse out all those details.
I wish I could follow Booklist is praising Firethorn as “a great piece of gritty, feminist fiction”. But it’s not all that gritty. Grim and sometimes brutal in its portrayal of men’s attitudes towards women like Firethorn? Yes. Yet in my opinion, grittiness has an element of language to it—an element that Micklem conceals beneath layers of slang terms for genitalia and prose that is overly formal to the point of being stilted. It’s difficult to feel connected to Firethorn or any of the other characters, because I feel like I’m reading the book through a very thick fog.
I’ll tiptoe around whether this work is “feminist” and instead look at the related question of how well it presents a woman’s view of marching to war. Obviously I am ill-suited to such a discussion, being neither a woman nor a medieval peasant going to war. In many respects, Micklem captures the sense of tension that must exist for someone in Firethorn’s position: she is at the mercy of her patron, this Sire Galan, particularly when it comes to whose bed she shares. Our society is very enlightened by comparison and women still face a number of challenges to their autonomy and self-determination. So in this sense, Firethorn deserves its praise.
But what a long journey it is to reach such a conclusion!
Firethorn’s downfall as a book is that nothing happens. It is most definitely not “a sweeping adventure saga as mystical as it is raw”, Publishers Weekly. Sweeping adventure sagas require adventures to be had on a sweeping scale. While I understand that this is a character-driven novel and the events are all about Firethorn’s experiences, I wouldn’t describe them as “sweeping”. As for “raw”, refer above to my discussion of grittiness in relation to language.
I spent a great deal of time lightly skimming, because most of this book feels like filler. It could be slimmed considerably and would probably pack a greater punch as a result. As it is, I had a very difficult time with this book: every time it betrayed a glimmer of promise, Firethorn strangles it to death with purple prose and poor pacing. She’s a nice person but a poor narrator. Firethorn shows all the signs of sincere effort, but it doesn’t deliver the excitement that needs to accompany its emotional depth. Firethorn might be feminist … but it’s also boring … and when it comes to reading, the latter trumps any other consideration, every time.