Debra A Kemp, The Firebrand (The House of Pendragon, Book I) (Amber Quill Press 2003)
I've nursed a passionate interest in the Arthurian legends, the Matter of Britain, for years. It's a passion that has waxed hot and cold since its first kindling, when I found a worn copy of John Steinbeck's The Noble Acts of King Arthur and His Knights in a box in the basement. I've read versions of the legend that deal in wizardry and magic, and I have read versions that eschew magic entirely for gritty Dark Age realism. I've read versions of the story in prose, and I've read versions in verse. And over the course of all that reading of the same root material, the inevitable problem eventually creeps in: the loss of surprise. The joy of "What happens next?" pretty much disappears, and the focus instead becomes, "How will this author convey the tragedy of the tale? On whom will the blame fall? Will it be Arthur's, or Lancelot's, or Guinevere's, or Mordred's? And when the end comes and Camelot falls and the King himself is taken to wherever it is he goes -- be it Avalon or a mere grave to be shrouded in legend -- will the story end on an uplifting note of hope, or on a bleak note of a once-hopeful realm in ashes?
No, I don't find much surprising in Arthurian storytelling anymore, amongst those works purporting to retell the legend itself, with Arthur as the main character. Where I do find surprises in store is in the works by authors who choose to work along the Arthurian periphery, focusing their tales on characters who may or may not play a role in Camelot, characters who may come to greatness on their own or who may simply watch the rise and fall of Camelot's "one shining moment" from afar. Debra A. Kemp tells -- or, more accurately, begins -- such a tale in The Firebrand, which is billed as The House of Pendragon, Book I.
The Firebrand tells the story of a slave girl named Lin, who toils for the family of King Lot on the Isle of Orkney. That locale will be familiar to experienced readers of Arthurian matter, and sure enough, we meet all the sons of King Lot and Queen Morgause (Gawain, Agravain, Gareth and Gaheris). And we meet the fifth son of Morgause, Prince Modred. Lin struggles, along with her older brother, to live with dignity even as she resists the life of a slave as best as she is able. However, Lin soon runs afoul of Modred, and thus begins one of the most brutal master-slave relationships I have ever read about.
Modred is, as he is almost always depicted, a complete bastard. The way Kemp depicts him, he may the be the most spiteful, hateful character I've ever encountered in a fantasy. There is nothing whatsoever about Modred that is redeemable, and his behavior toward Lin is so horrible as to border on psychotic. Lin, though, is Modred's polar opposite, a woman of such inner strength as I've rarely seen in a fictional character. The reasons for the way Lin and Modred are such polar opposites in character are explained toward the end of the book, when Lin's parentage is revealed. (A quibble here. The way the book is constructed, it seems clear to me that Kemp intends Lin's parentage to be something of a surprise, but the blurbs of advance praise for the book inside the front cover spoil it outright. A book that is saving a key revelation for its final chapters rather loses a bit of its effectiveness when the promotional materials accompanying the book give away that revelation on their own. This was a huge mistake. But then, the very title of the series of which this is the first book probably gives it away as well. Nevertheless, I shall not reveal it here, except to say that hardcore Arthurians may find the "secret" more revisionary than they are willing to accept.)
There isn't a whole lot of plot in The Firebrand. The book settles into a pattern in its middle section, which probably goes on a bit too long, in which Lin antagonizes Modred to the point of him nearly killing her -- but he never does, for reasons passing understanding; then Lin is taken to task by her fellow slaves for her headstrong nature, and she heals and the cycle begins again. This is a bit of an oversimplification, of course, and the reasons for a lot of the subtext is made clear when Lin's bloodline is revealed. That problem aside, Kemp does a very good job of conveying the hopeless drudgery of a slave's life in a far-flung castle; I especially liked how little the slaves really seem to know about the world around them, because no one thinks it worth the time to tell them of the world in which they live. Kemp's setting clicks here, very well.
My other main problem with the book would be its beginning. The Firebrand doesn't actually start with Lin on Orkney; rather, the book begins with the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Camlann, with Arthur dead and Camelot -- the kingdom, if not the castle itself -- in ashes. To my knowledge, I've never read an Arthurian story that started after Arthur's demise, and this prospect thrilled me greatly: What was Britain like after that wicked day? How did the citizens of the land, the farmers and the cobblers and the tinkers and the traders, react to the ending of that "one shining moment"? Beginning Kemp's book, I thought that perhaps I was about to finally read that story -- but instead, after the fascinating prelude set after Camlann, an adult Lin takes her child aside to tell her life's story. Thus, the entire book is told in flashback. But then, since this is only Book I of The House of Pendragon, I wonder if Debra Kemp doesn't have post-Camlann in mind after all. Time will tell, I suppose.
Despite the detour into flashback, and the somewhat repetitive nature of the book's expansive midsection, I enjoyed The Firebrand a good deal -- certainly enough that I want to know more of what happens to Lin, both at the end of the story Lin tells in this book and in the days after Camlann -- i.e., the book I was hoping Debra Kemp had written.
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