From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Book Review: Wildfire by Sarah Micklem

Where do I begin with this wonderful novel? First and foremost, it is different. I can’t quite pinpoint why, but I have not ever read anything quite like Sarah Micklem’s work. Her style is descriptive and literary—the genre label “literary fantasy” is largely accurate, as I will discuss later—but on prose alone, the story is not entirely different. Her world-building treatment perfectly straddles the line between derivative and inspired, between historical and fantastical; but on exposition alone, the story is not entirely different. Her people are dear, vicious, and real, right down to the piss and the dislocated shoulder; but on characterization alone, the story is not entirely different. What Micklem has done, in creating such a different novel, is do everything (mostly) right rather than one thing brilliantly, another passably, and the last poorly.

Before I elaborate further, please note that the rest of this review will contain minimal spoilers for Wildfire but major spoilers for Firethorn, the first of the trilogy—which is really good, too, and highly recommended. I’m just kicking myself for not recognizing how original it was when I first read it several years back (it was published in 2005 and reads like a stand-alone with room for expansion).

In Wildfire, Firethorn is not content to stay behind in Corymb as her highborn lover, Sire Galan, crosses the sea to invade the land of Incus. While secretly following on another ship, the god Ardor Wildfire marks her with lightning, tearing through her memory and speech. After briefly reuniting with Galan, a battle between the kin forces of Corymb and Incus causes Firethorn to end up in the south-fleeing entourage of the losing side, which takes her to Lambaneish, land of her true heritage and birth. While she lives in the highly civilized Lambaneish society, Galan remains a distant dream in Incus beyond the snow-chained Ferinus mountains.

I’ve done a terrible job of summarizing the plot, although the back cover blurb of my advance copy doesn’t do much better. The story is complex yet linear and easy to follow; it took me some time to fall apace with Firethorn’s journey, but once I acclimated to Micklem’s style—which is beautiful and epic but emphatically not action-oriented or panoramic—it felt like Firethorn’s adventures never ended, could never end.

As I said earlier, the marketing department has decided to bill Micklem’s trilogy as epic literary fantasy. I agree with both descriptions, though the “literary” more than the “epic.” The world is clearly vast and these characters are but a few cockroaches scrambling for survival; in this sense, the tale is epic indeed. But in another sense, the tale is anything but epic: scope may be endless, but focus remains forever upon the individual. Firethorn alone is the main and most important character of this story; the others are fascinating in what glimpses they reveal, but without Firethorn, the illusion (the semblance, the creation of an autofictional reality) would fail utterly.

There is a certain quality to the tale that I’m failing to capture, a hyperrealistic sensation wherein I’m never certain if the magic will work, if Firethorn’s faith leads to her miracles or the gods really do touch her. The supernatural abounds, but never beyond the realm of believable folklore and legend. Yet whenever I remind myself that this is fantasy, along comes a gritty hallmark of real life—a protracted childbirth, the dangers of self-taught “greenwoman” healing, and lots of sex. Micklem’s treatment of sexual consent in both Firethorn and Wildfire is commendable; she stays true to the period and expectations of her world without ever alienating the modern reader. Of the good, the bad, and the ugly, this definitely lays claim to the “ugly”—but what a gorgeous ugly it is!

Micklem’s prose flows effortlessly from this:

Always before us reared the true mountains, fortresses with spires of black granite, fluted turrets of ice, and parapets roofed with snow. Their summits belonged to a realm partly of earth, partly of sky, but altogether hostile to life. They gathered weather around them according to their moods, sometimes appearing as massy bulks, stark black and white, that tore tufts of clouds from the Heavens; sometimes hovering gray and gauzy over mists that hid their heavy earthen foundations. They were called the Ferinus, and after I saw them, the round peaks of the Kingswood were forever diminished in my memory, made small and tame, less deserving of the title of mountains. (233-4 of my copy)

…to this:

Cicadas zinged in the feathery acacia trees, and birds chirped and trilled in the aviary, and water splashed in the tiled fountain, and winds flew by and made off with the flute song. These sounds seemed to fall into the rhythm dictated by the drumming of my heart–even the conversation, which became a wordless music of tones, syllables, and the patter of laughter.”(412-3)

Wildfire is a long book, but dividing it more or less down the middle (where I’m glad the publisher chose not to cut) are the Ferinus Mountains between Incus and Lambaneish. Incus is an experience in foreign-but-family, like moving from Quebec to France; Lambaneish is pure civilization, complete with the hideous side effects of becoming so civilized. In the latter, Micklem draws most obviously from historical roots. The tharos/tharais divide is clearly based on India’s caste system; the whore-celebrants and the poetry contests come from Japanese geisha and haiku, respectively. This could be read as cultural appropriation, but I never felt uncomfortable with the inspiration. Culture is clearly differentiated among the three nations thus far introduced, though lacking explicit color-racial differences. Micklem relies instead on markers like the red hair characteristic of Lambaneish—but I tend to skim physical descriptions, so I may have just missed the different skin. This does not affect the identity conflict, lovely and painful to experience alongside Firethorn, which focuses on foreignness rather than race.

Frankly, I found Micklem’s nod to progressive ideals refreshing compared to both blatantly whitewashed and carefully colored-in stories that often characterize popular fantasy novels. I especially appreciated her acknowledgement of contradictory coexisting religious beliefs and of sexual issues—not just homosexuality but positive polyamory that I really hope doesn’t turn into a love triangle. Morever, Micklem’s skillful use of dialect illustrates the frustrating progression of Firethorn’s “god-touched” afflictions; she has no compunction about delineating sickness and disability (the latter, I hope again, will be satisfactorily continued in the final book of the trilogy). And of course, the inherent risk in narrating from the point of view of an almost-not-quite prostitute was already navigated in Firethorn, although it continues to develop.

To be sure—and to conclude this overlong gushing of praise—Wildfire is clearly the middle book of a trilogy. Even the endless tale must come to an end, and while Micklem provides emotional satisfaction, the plot is wide open. I am looking forward to Sire Galan’s active presence again, since he spends much of this middle segment across the impassable Ferinus. Thus, I eagerly await Micklem’s third novel and the conclusion of this original, different fantasy trilogy.

Lisa Bao is an aspiring writer, amateur reviewer, and expert reader who loves genre fiction for the extra depth (beyond that of silly mainstream “literature”) of otherworldly alienation. She was born in one country, is a citizen of another, and has currently resided longest in a third. She also maintains an informal booklog at a top-secret location and considers herself perfectly unqualified to criticize—thus, who better to be a critic?

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