Firebrand (Rebel Angels #1) by Gillian Philip
Strident (Aug 2010) | Paperback, 384 pages | Fantasy
Before reviewing this book, I have a confession to make. Every time I hear the term, “Young Adult”, I run screaming from the book. Mainly due to the fact that most of the books in this genre seem to be a variation of Twilight or Vampire Diaries (well, the one’s I’ve read anyway). Though there are people my age who still like these books and find them entertaining, I am past the teenage angst stage and prefer my tension more gritty.
However, my pre-conceptions of this genre were blown out of the water after reading the first chapter of Firebrand. This was no Twilight or Vampire Diaries. This was something altogether a bit more special.
We open to the infamous Witch Trials of the 16th century and within the first few pages, we are introduced to the two main players in this brutal and compelling tale. These are Seth MacGregor and his elder half-brother Conal.
In the very first scene, the author puts you right beside Seth, just as he is waiting for the right time to shoot Conal in order to prevent him from suffering by being burned at the stake. Seth had already seen the horrific deaths of others put to death in this way, for being identified as witches. He knows that he cannot save Conal and that this is the only way to prevent him from feeling the flames lick his skin. What is very interesting is the fact that Conal is not alone and that there is a young woman beside him.
While waiting to take his shot Seth apologies to the woman for choosing to shoot Conal first. It implies that there is some sort of agreement, but since it is the beginning of the book, we don’t know how it has come to this. Its edge of your seat stuff and I held my breath as the prologue closes with Seth readying to pull the trigger of the crossbow, just as the guards are about to light the pyre that Conal and the mysterious young woman are tied too.
The prologue ends with Conal’s life hanging in the balance. We don’t know if Seth has taken his shot or if something has happened to prevent him from doing so. Instead we go back a few years to when Seth was sent to stay with his father and Conal’s Mother, in the dun. It is from here we see how everything unfolds to take us to the point in the prologue.
At first I thought that Seth and his brother Conal, lived in our world. The differences I noted were the fact that their queen is a ‘Kate McNiven,’ and how the people of their dun live. (A dun is like a medieval town or village, with a Laird overseeing the running of the land for the King or Queen. In this case it is Seth and Conal’s father). This is made clearer by the the women of the dun are almost equals, when at this time in Scotland, they were anything but. This is shown by the fact that the women fight along side the men and also undertake more masculine jobs, such as a blacksmith.
The animosity between Leonnora, Conal’s mother and Lilith, Seth’s birth mother is clear to see. It is all due to the fact that Lilith seduced Lennora’s husband, Griogair. Her hatred ends up being directed at Seth and he feels that he never really fits in with the rest of the clan.
A major sub plot is the fact that the Veil that separates the two worlds is failing. It is hinted that only Kate, Lennora and Lilith are able to keep it in place. Their personal feelings means that it is effectively Lennora against Kate and Lilith, especially when it looks as though Kate wants the Veil to fail. However, we see that Kate fears Leonnora for some reason that isn’t clearly defined. It’s these weaknesses that result in her losing the little loyalty and respect she has from her subjects due to some of the decisions she makes. One such decision involved the punishment laid out against some of Seth’s closest friends. Kate seems to like to rule with an iron fist, but it is this that turns out to be her downfall.
The failing of the veil and the fracturing of the people’s loyalties isn’t the main storyline, but is merely the catalyst for Seth maturing from a headstrong boy, to a man of great strength and honour.
We see the first signs of him maturing when he chooses to go into exile with Conal to our world. Conal is being punished for an act of treason against Kate, though they know that this is not forever as another traitor had been exiled for a length of time before being invited back across the veil, after some intense grovelling. Instead of staying in his homeland, Seth decides to go with Conal into exile. It clearly shows the loyalty Seth has to his brother.
The stark contrast between Seth’s world and the human world is vividly drawn by the author, to the point you can imagine what 16th century Scotland was really like. It is a time of suspicion and where the church is scared it is losing its hold over the people. Anything strange is questioned and at times pits family members against each other. At first Seth and Conal are treated with caution. Since they keep themselves to themselves most of the time, they are accepted, if not welcomed fully into the village in which they are exiled to.
While Conal seems to adjust to life with ease, Seth finds it more difficult to blend in. Conal knows that there is a real threat in this land and does his best to try to school his brother in the art of camouflage. Unfortunately, Conal ends up being found guilty of witchcraft due to the hysteria of the time.
When the kindly minister, who has helped them to adjust to their new lives, dies suspiciously and his very shady replacement arrives, we see the dominoes begin to tumble towards the events at the beginning of the book. There is no sugar coating it and although Philip never goes into full detail, like you’d maybe find in an adult book, there is no pulling any punches on how cruel these inquisitions really were.
After the intervention of the Laird returning to his lands, just in the nick of time I might add, Conal, Seth and Catitonia, Conal’s fellow prisoner, all cross the veil. Conal only just manages to cross. Lennora’s distrust and dislike of Seth returns when she makes the comment that had Conal not returned alive, Seth would have been the heir to the dun. On there return Lennora all but blames Seth for Conals exile.
Everything comes to head with a climax that had me on tenterhooks. I didn’t know who would live and who would die. The horrors of true warfare are shown, yet not in a graphic way. Everything is hinted at, but sometimes that is worse for your mind and can be much worse than any description in a book.
The end of the book is tragic, after Seth and Conal are once again in exile in the human world. I am not going to spoil it, all I will say is hankies at the ready. It’s this one scene that demonstrates how far Seth has come on his journey.
I can’t put across how much I loved this book and urge anyone who wants something that little bit different to read to pick it up. I have pushed up the second book Bloodstone in my TBR pile and I can’t wait to read it. Philip is definitely a hidden gem that deserves the recognition for this book. I would recommend it to anyone who likes the dark and broody world of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and is a good introduction to this type of book for younger readers.
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