Juxtaposition is an finely honed, double edge sword for fantasy and science fiction writers. If it's poorly realized it can produce a jarring, inconsistent read that distracts more than it entertains. Author Gillian Philip shows a natural aptitude for blending disparate elements into the tapestry of a unique new series. Firebrand, the first book in her Rebel Angels series, was first released across the pond in England back in 2010. After receiving rave reviews, and being nominated for awards, Firebrand has been published for American audiences this past week by Tor. Bibliophiles searching for a satisfyingly vibrant world to sink their teeth into will enjoy Firebrand, but there are some pacing issues that mar the overall experience slightly.
The adventure follows Seth, a brash hot head who is a member of the Sithe. The Sithe are a race of nearly immortal beings, possessed of an elvish or angelic sort of beauty, who live apart from humans by the benefit of a magical barrier called the Veil. Time passes at a distorted pace for those beyond the Veil, and the Sithe preoccupy their time with song, and drink, and warrior craft. As the bastard son of a keep captain, Seth is despised or ignored by everyone except his older half brother, Conal. The siblings form an unbreakable relationship, which is tested time and again by the political gamesmanship of their own people. You see the Sithe are a progressive people when it comes to gender equality (women and men become warriors and can hold any station equally), and the bonding of same sex partners (which is not like human marriage, especially in that it's permanent), but they are barbaric and cruel in their political posturing. A thin veneer of class and civility surrounds these high stakes games, which the impetuous Seth was simply not built to play.
When Conal's good nature overwhelms his political sense, and he insults Sithe Queen Kate NicNiven, he's exiled to the full mortal world. Seth immediately volunteers to go with him, braving the dangers at his brother's side. Luckily for both of them they are immune to nearly all of the illnesses of full mortals, and their hearty Sithe constitution allows their bodies to overcome the squalor of late sixteenth century Scotland. They arrive to a country in the midst of a witch hunt, a danger far more dastardly than swordplay: mass hysteria. This covert peril is something to which both broths are completely unaccustomed, and against which Seth is completely ill equipped. Both Conal and Seth have subtle supernatural abilities, and they're quite resourceful, but the younger's reckless nature so overwhelms him, that trouble is inevitable.
The story is unique, the setting untried, and so the explorative reader will be well rewarded with a wealth of new concepts to consider. Gillian Philip has a talent for introducing these new concepts seamlessly into the ebb and flow of the tale. So often in creative high fantasy, there's a learning curve in the initial chapters, where the reader has to adapt to the new world. It is blissfully absent here as Philip expertly weaves this world's realities into the prose. And like a perfectly masoned wall, the seems are invisible.
At the same time, there are certain risks taken in the narrative structure which don't quite come off and harm the sense of pacing. Rather than the standard three act structure, Firebrand instead contains three of them. Seeing multiple conflict resolutions rapidly back to back goes a long way toward blunting the impact of the later ones. Still, the ending is such an effective sucker punch that I can't hold this odd formation against it too much. If we consider the three individual parts of the book (Ghost, Exile, and Firebrand) as their own separate stories, the structure begins to make much more sense.
High fantasy fans who enjoy a thoroughly unique world mixed with a sold splash of historical fiction will really dig Firebrand. Action joins political intrigue to ask tough questions about the nature of a person. Can they change? But it never takes itself so deadly series as to become dry or preachy. Firebrand is a promising open to this new series, which will certainly hook fantasy fans who give it even ten minutes of their time for a test run. It's now available in hardback from Tor publishing for $24.99.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.