Firebird: A New Line of Young Adult Speculative Fiction
Reviewed by Mary Anne Mohanraj
4 February 2002
I was delighted to hear that Penguin Putnam was coming out with a new line of young adult science fiction and fantasy, entitled Firebird. Firebird is an ambitious project, with fourteen titles scheduled for the first year. It's aimed at a crossover market -- young adults who read adult speculative fiction, adults who read young adult spec fic. Firebird will be mixing classic reprints with new titles. Since this is one of my favorite sub-genres, I'm thrilled to see the older stories that I grew up with becoming available once more, and I'm very hopeful about the new titles. In Spring 2002, Firebird is launching with four titles: Westmark, I Am Mordred, Fire Bringer, and The Eye, the Ear, and the Arm. I'll briefly review each of these.
Westmark, Lloyd Alexander
This is one of those books that I read as a child, and have re-read every few years since. The story of Theo, a printer's devil (apprentice) who sees his master unjustly killed and is then forced to flee for his own life, holds up remarkably well to repeated re-reading. The king is lost to grief for his dead daughter, the land is in the grip of an murdering minister, and Theo becomes involved with various people who are all resisting oppression, each in their own way (which sometimes work at cross-purposes). The book is a rousing adventure tale, with mystery and even a little romance at the heart of it. But it's more than that -- Theo has to wrestle with difficult moral questions, and while the end of the book provides a satisfying resolution, it's not really a final ending. Westmark is the first book in the Westmark trilogy, and is followed by the marvelous sequels, The Kestrel and The Beggar Queen (forthcoming from Firebird in Summer 2002). Those books continue the difficult moral questioning begun in Westmark, as Theo must try to decide what exactly he believes in, while his friends take different political sides.
My only slight confusion is with the question of why exactly this book is in the Firebird line, given that there's no actual speculative element in the entire book. But perhaps that's quibbling -- Lloyd Alexander is justly well-known for his marvelous fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain, and I think any reader who enjoys those books will enjoy the Westmark trilogy as well. (It has a flavor very similar to Joan Aiken's Black Hearts in Battersea series, which is also very popular with fantasy readers, despite the lack of any actual magic). Highly recommended.
I Am Mordred, Nancy Springer
Springer takes on a difficult task with this novel, giving us Mordred from the inside, and attempting to create a sympathetic character out of someone who has traditionally been portrayed as a black villain in a tragic tale. She manages to keep Mordred human (with the help of a little magic towards the end), but perhaps more impressively, she doesn't pull any punches with the actual story. Typically, Arthurian retellings for children and young adults have been rather watered-down; even when the tragedy is presented, it's presented with some of the roughest edges smoothed down. Springer doesn't pull any punches, in this story that starts with the young King Arthur murdering the babies (because the wizard Merlin had foretold that one of them would eventually be the destruction of Camelot and all the bright kingdom that Arthur hoped to create).
Mordred, child of Arthur and Arthur's half-sister, Morgause, is one of those babies, and he survives to grow up both loving and hating Arthur. Loving him because he is, indeed, perhaps the greatest and noblest king the land has seen. Hating him because Arthur will not, cannot, acknowledge that Mordred is his son -- and so Mordred is forced to grow up with the sneering comments of those who know the truth of his bastard and incestuous parentage -- which soon becomes everyone. He also grows up with the fear and distrust of those who know the prophecy, that he will eventually destroy them. Mordred tries to find a way to escape that terrible fate. Springer comments in her bio that she wrote this story in part for all those teenagers who grow up in a world that expects them to turn out badly. I can applaud that sentiment . . . though I have to wonder what message this book sends, ultimately, since Mordred doesn't actually end up escaping his fate. He is doomed to destroy Camelot, and in the end, does so. Still, a fascinating read, quite compelling and thought-provoking. Well worth a look, and I plan to look for her next title in the series, I Am Morgan LeFay, coming out in Fall 2002. Recommended.
Fire Bringer, David Clement-Davies
I was a little disappointed by this title, in part because of the comments on the cover that compare it to Watership Down, Richard Adams' truly brilliant saga set among rabbits. Fire Bringer takes us to the world of red deer, set in the early days of Scotland, when Edinburgh was just being established. It's an epic tale, complete with heroes, scoundrels, friendship and love, and generally a pleasant and fast-moving read. But it was also fairly predictable -- in part because there's a Prophecy early on that just comes true, step by step, with few interesting turns. It also lacked the depth of Watership Down -- the protagonist, Rannoch, does struggle slightly with some moral issues, but at the crisis point, his struggle ends fairly quickly and easily.
I have to admit to also being a bit uncomfortable with the gender politics. Given the nature of the animals, I certainly don't object to a fairly patriarchal set-up -- the stags generally running things, most of the hinds (females) content to be told what to do. Clement-Davies had to work within the constraints of the species, after all. But two of the groups that Rannoch encounters in his travels are groups that have gone very wrong -- and in gendered ways. One group is entirely composed of mindlessly violent males; the other of dominant females who treat their males very badly. These two groups work to reinforce the idea that the original set-up was the natural and healthy one. . .and I'm not sure why the text needs to spend time reinforcing gender roles? I'd be happier if this hadn't been a major issue in the story. Aside from that issue, though, and from perhaps unfair comparisons with Watership Down, Fire Bringer is a pleasant and readable book. It did do a rather nice job of simply conveying a great deal of information about the habits of deer and other forest creatures. And there are some delightful moments in the story, such as the meeting of Rannoch and Rurl, a wise and helpful seal. Worth a read, especially if you like the Redwall books by Brian Jacques.
The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Nancy Farmer
I've been saving the best for last. This title is apparently a reprint from 1994, but I must have missed it the first time around -- so I'm particularly delighted that Firebird has brought it to my attention. This is a marvelous book, from start to finish. Set in 2194, it's the story of the three children of the General who rules Zimbabwe. They've been neglected by their busy parents and overprotected by their stern father, who never lets them leave their heavily guarded compound, where robots serve their every need. The children, led by the oldest, Tendai, badly need an adventure -- and they want to get their Scout Explorer badge. So by slightly devious means, they manage to set out into the nearby city -- and are promptly kidnapped, just as their father feared. The story from that point on is a delightful mix of chase and adventure, as the children manage to rescue themselves, only to promptly fall into a worse trap, over and over again. Their parents are right behind, aided by three detectives, known as The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, who are thoroughly charming in their own right.
Perhaps the best part of this particular story, in my opinion, is that while the children do manage to have their adventure, learning strength and cunning and self-reliance along the way, we also get to see their parents and other adults working desperately to save them. This was a refreshing change from all the classic fantasy novels where the children save themselves (and sometimes the world) while the inattentive adults barely notice. This structural difference seems in keeping with the story's thematic focus on community -- many of the difficulties in the book arise from various separate communities and their disparate needs and desires; an apt theme for a story with strong political elements.
As with Westmark, the children quickly get caught up in larger political issues beyond their own personal needs and interests. Unlike Westmark, this book is certainly speculative fiction, as it's set two hundred years in the future. The world has changed significantly in that time, as might be expected, and as is indicated to the reader in brief comments from the children. There are also some interesting supernatural elements, but they have more of a miraculous flavor than a magical one. They are intimately connected to the living religion of the country, with ancestor-possessions (generally quite helpful), the presence of various gods, and an overall sense of Zimbabwe's collective soul. They remind me a little of magical realistic writing in that regard. Overall, the language, terrific details, and warm humor of the story help to carry the reader along, making the book almost impossible to put down. Highly recommended.
Overall, there are some strong stories in the Firebird line, and we can expect more terrific tales to come. In Summer 2002, they'll be publishing Robin McKinley's charming Spindle's End (a Sleeping Beauty retelling), along with The Outlaws of Sherwood. They'll also be publishing the rest of the Westmark trilogy, and Sherwood Smith's Crown Duel. In Fall 2002, we get the aforementioned I Am Morgan LeFay from Nancy Springer, along with The Hex Witch of Seldom. We also get two of the wonderful Charles de Lint's novels -- The Dreaming Place, and The Riddle of the Wren, along with Laurel Winter's Growing Wings, which will be new in paperback, and which has been receiving heaps of praise in hardcover. Hopefully this will be part of a renaissance in young adult speculative fiction. Fingers crossed.
Mary Anne Mohanraj is Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.