Wednesday 19 January 2011

Review: Firebrand by Gillian Philip

It is the last decade of the sixteenth century: a time of religious wars in the full-mortal world. But the Sithe are at peace, hidden behind the Veil that protects their world until their queen, Kate NicNiven, determines to destroy it. Seth MacGregor is the half-feral son of a Sithe nobleman. When his father is assassinated, and Seth is exiled with his brother Conal to the full-mortal world, they vow not only to survive, but to return to reclaim their fortress and save the Veil. But even the Veil s power cannot protect the brothers when the brutal witch-hunts begin...

I first heard about this book back in the summer, with a fair number of reviews for it appearing on blogs that I occasionally pop by. Without exception these reviews were written by female reviewers, which surprised me somewhat as the publisher's blurb and the various reviews suggested that the book would likely be enjoyed by boys just as much as girls. Sometime later I was asked by the author if I would like a copy to read, and I decided to go with my gut instinct and said yes, although a small part of me was expecting (and dreading) a romance-ridden Twilight set in the faerie lands of Scotland. I am glad I trusted my instincts as this book is nothing short of brilliant and most definitely suitable for fantasy loving boys.

I wonder how many boys read that first paragraph, saw the word 'faerie' and immediately decided that this book wouldn't be for them? It is a sad fact that many boys (including some at the school where I teach) see that word and immediately assume the book will be full of girly-girly Tinkerbell fairies, fluttering around on gossamer wings. Let me tell you - Seth MacGregor is a fairy and he is certainly no girly-girly possessor of delicate wings. He is a man's man with sword skills and agility greater than even the greatest of human fighters. His is a magical but brutal world, where all must swear fealty to Sidhe Queen, Kate NicNiven, or face the consequences. Unfortunately for Seth and his brother, they fall foul of their volatile Queen and find themselves exiled to the land of mortals (i.e. our world); even more unfortunately for them it just happens to be at a time when witch-hunts are rife, with many innocents finding themselves burnt at the stake, often inly because they upset the wrong neighbour. I am sure you can guess that life very soon becomes rather uncomfortable for the two brothers.

The world in which Gillian Philip has set her story is incredibly well imagined, although being the first book in a series there are several areas that I am looking forward to finding out more about in the sequel. The land of the Sidhe is not entirely different from our own, with the lochs and hills that are typical of the Scottish landscape, but the author has a real talent at making it seem like a truly magical place and as I was reading it I became so fully immersed in the story that I had no trouble picturing every small detail of each scene's setting. Ms Philip is also very skilled at plotting a story, and as far as YA fantasy is concerned plots don't come much better than this. You want exciting action scenes? It has them. Political intrigue? Ditto. Exciting, full-developed characters? Check. This story has everything, yet Gillian Philip accomplishes this in less than 400 pages. I reckon a few established fantasy authors, who regularly churn out 600-700+ page so-called epics could learn a thing or two from Ms Philip about pace and how sometimes less is more. 

I know some reviewers have suggested that this book may not be suitable for younger teenage boys, but I would disagree here. Admittedly, the language at times is a little ripe, and the Sidhe approach to sex is rather liberal, with Seth losing his virginity not long after he had entered his teens, although the several "wink wink" scenes (as one of my blogger friends would say to me) are not at all graphic and the language no worse than they would hear from their mouths of their friends at school. In my experience this is the sort of book that 13+ confident reader male fantasy fans will love, and if they wait until they are older teens they will generally have already progressed to more demanding adult fantasy books. Yes, some less mature boys will struggle with it and some of the content may be unsuitable for them, but to generalise in this case would be a mistake I feel, although I also completely understand the natural hesitancy some librarians may feel about allowing younger teen boys access to this book.

Firebrand is published by Strident and is available to buy right now. My thanks go to Gillian Philip and Strident for the copy I was sent.    


  1. I read and reviewed this in summer at and saw it mainly as a boy's book. Obviously my review missed your attention but on the subject of faeries then boys would miss out on Artemis Fowl - nothing like Firebrand but funny and appealing as much to boys as girls - and why stop there? adults too.

  2. Apologies for missing your review. I had an email conversation with the publishers at the beginning of the summer and they suggested that all their early proofs had been sent to female reviewers. Having read the book I would agree with you - it is definitely more boy-friendly, although I can imagine legions of women swooning over Seth's character.

    In my experience at school boys tend to either love or hate the Artemis Fowl books. I know some very confident readers who love fantasy, yet they just don't 'get' the AF books and much prefer Pratchett when they want some humour in their fantasy.