Series: Rebel Angels (Book 1) | Edition: Kindle | Publisher: Strident | Published: August 2010 | My rating: 5/5
Seth MacGregor is the half-feral, bastard son of a Sithe nobleman. It’s the last decade of the sixteenth century: a time of religious wars and witch-hunts in the full-mortal world. But the Sithe are at peace – until their queen, Kate NicNiven, determines to destroy the protecting Veil.
When his father Griogair is assassinated, and Seth is exiled with his brother Conal to the full-mortal world, they vow to survive, to return to reclaim their fortress and save the Veil.
But even its power can’t protect the brothers when the witch-hunts begin.
My encounter with this book, and with this series, is a bit of an odd one now that I’ve thought about it. I first discovered Firebrand around the time it came out, back in 2010. I remember liking it enough to buy the second book, but for whatever reason I never quite got around to picking the second one up to read it. This was probably during a period of reading practically nothing but urban fantasy, so I suspect I’d been expecting more of the same from the Rebel Angels books.
Firebrand was a pleasant surprise, but that pleasantness was nothing compared to what I got out of reading it a second time. Put it down to maturing tastes, the right time for the right book – whatever the case may be, I feel quite foolish for having sat on this series for so long. If the time is right to return to it, then I intend to do so with unabashed glee – and with all of the appreciation that it deserves. If Firebrand is any indication of the standard for the rest of the series, I can hardly wait to sink my teeth into it again.
The setting for Firebrand is among the main reasons I found to love this book. The mortal world into which Seth and Conal are exiled is the one referred to by the Sithe as the otherworld – in a cleverly fascinating flip of the usual approach to faerie fantasy stories, we get to see the world not from the perspective of a clueless human stumbling across something fantastical, but from the other side. From Seth’s perspective, and in the opinion of most of the Sithe, our world is the alien one, the one that’s horrific and dangerous, and to be avoided if one is smart. Hence why exiled Sithe are sent there as a punishment …
More than just this perspective-switch, though, I loved the way Ms Philip brings her settings – both the otherworld and the land of the Sithe, similar as they are – to life. A clear, almost poetic writing style makes something really special of this book, with or without the larger-than-life character of Seth to carry us through it.
And what a character he is. Born outside of the union that binds one Sithe to another, the result of a fling between his father and the Sithe sorceress Lilith, Seth spends his earliest years being mostly ignored, and he grows up almost feral as a result. Even after finding his brother, Conal, and learning how to love and be loved, Seth remains a rough-edged, hardened, cynical young man. He needs nothing and no one – except his brother. This is what leads both of them into exile when Conal crosses their queen, and it becomes a constant throughout the story – the one truly reliable thing about our protagonist, other than his volatile temper. Seth loves as fiercely as he hates, and for me he is one of the most memorable, moving characters I’ve come across in fantasy fiction. Given that the story is told from his point of view, in a first-person narrative, having him be less than compelling would be something of a failure on the author’s part, so thankfully this is certainly not the case.
Now, let’s go back to the world that Ms Philip creates for a minute. As anyone who knows me will be aware, I love me a good faerie tale. There are countless variations on ‘faerie’ out there and I’ve explored (and loved) a good few of them, but so far there have been none which come quite so close to the kind of raw-boned yet still somehow elegant simplicity of this mythology. The ‘Rebel Angels’ of the series title are the Sithe themselves – the story goes that when the angels rebelled and fell from Heaven, the ones who fell to earth became the Sithe (or the Sidhe, in most other mythologies). Their world and ours are separated (and protected) by the Veil; they are incredibly close, but never quite touch one another. The Sithe can live for centuries, and any full-mortals who visit their world can also keep their youth – but should they return to their own world, that extended youth is taken back …
All of this is familiar to me, but Philip uses it all to such wonderfully unique effect that, for me, it puts Firebrand head and shoulders above most of the rest in terms of both faerie fantasy stories, and epic adventures. I’d even say that it’s on a par with, if not a notch above, the work of Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch. For all of the lyricism to be found in the prose in their books, I think there’s a lot to be said for any author who can cut her prose almost right to the bone and still produce something that’s both easily visualised and deeply, profoundly affecting. Gillian Philip does exactly that – I was very quickly hooked on Seth’s story and on the world he comes from, and I can’t wait to dive back into it with book two (Bloodstone).
Whew! Okay, I should probably draw this fangirly ramble to a close. I loved Firebrand, plain and simple. Absolutely loved it, and I would thoroughly recommend it. Five stars, and a definite favourite.