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Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Ann Pierce

Birth of the Firebringer by Meredith Ann Pierce
4.5
Book Name: Birth of the Firebringer
Author: Meredith Ann Pierce
Publisher(s): Atheneum
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): YA Fantasy / Unicorns
Release Date: 1985

Spoilers Warning: This review contains spoilers. Please read with caution if you have yet to finish the book.

The Firebringer by MNat

“He was born under a dark moon.”

Birth of the Firebringer (cover 2)

First Edition Cover

I grew-up with a hearty, diverse digestion of equestrian nonfiction: Anna Sewell’s Victorian Black Beauty, Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series and Will James’ Western Smoky the Cowhorse. Peter S. Beagle’s classic The Last Unicorn led me into the mystical realm of the fantastical, and Mary Stanton’s Unicorns of Balinor allowed me to get more of my “horsey obsession.” However, Stanton’s children series were too innocent and simplistic, where else Beagle’s tale only momentarily satisfied that itch of the mystical. Deep down I felt a stirring need for the fluid, raw action of James’ or Farley’s prose and the magical wonder of Beagle’s storytelling. It wasn’t till I have read Pierce’s Birth of the Firebringer that I finally found that stirring.

Meredith Ann Pierce’s first installment of the Firebringer trilogy is predominantly a Bildungsroman of a young unicorn named Aljan (or simple Jan), who wishes to embark on a pilgrimage in order to become a warrior. It centers on a prophecy of the coming of the Dreamer/Firebringer who will lead the unicorns to reclaim their lost homeland. This homeland is Hallow Hills, which contains a sacred well called the Mirror of the Moon that a unicorn ceremoniously drinks from to join the Circle of Warriors.

“One day we shall regain the Hallow Hills. Each year some of us must return: quiet, careful, on dangerous Pilgrimage, to drink that drink which makes us what we are, unicorns, warriors, children-of-the-moon.”

This Pilgrimage is vital to the sustenance of the unicorn’s survival due to the war they’ve been waging for four-hundred years against the wyverns. The wyverns were cast-out from their former home world by the red dragons, due to their too fertile nature and voracious appetite for their dragonlings. When the wyverns entered into the unicorn’s realm they sought to feed and re-gain their vast numbers, as well as to guard a secret that could very well be their downfall. Until the prophesized hero-to-be has returned, the last remaining unicorns have adopted a war-like culture in order to survive against enemies that abound in their world: gryphons, pards (saber-toothed cats), pans (fauns) and, of course, the wyverns. The band of unicorns abide by a code dictated by their creator: Álma’harat (or simple Alma). Any that do not stay true to Alma are called Ringbreakers, or more derogatorily, Renegades, who are then outcast to perish on the Great Grass Plain (that makes-up a vast breadth of their world).

Aljan begins to doubt his destiny as a future warrior when he meets another clan of unicorns that deviate from his herd’s war-like principles. This places him at odds with his stern father Prince Korr, who is already under the belief that his son isn’t disciplined enough to join the Circle of Warriors.

“Do you think he’d make a warrior? He’s nearly half-grown, and still he acts like a spoiled weanling. That wildness…”

Also, Aljan is believed to be cursed by being born under a dark moon, causing his father to be wary around him. On top of Aljan dealing with father-and-son issues, he’s having eerie dreams of pale serpents. The only comfort Aljan has are his companions: Dagg “shoulder-friend” (best friend in unicorn terminology), and Tek, a warrior mare. Both act as buffers against Korr’s oppressive nature and supporting characters that contrast between Aljan’s spirited tempest. Tek is mature while Dagg is sensible and playful. They are accompanied by a few other young foals and Aljan’s father Korr as they journey towards the Hallow Hills on the Pilgrimage.

The diversity of Pierce’s unicorn band is illustrated in their range of class and coloring. Aljan is described as a “sable, a rich dark brown like the color of the earth,” Dagg is “Pale yellow and dappled with grey,” while others are spotted blue, piebald pink, earthy brown, fiery red, pretty much every hue of the color spectrum. However, their coloring does not pale in the face of their fierceness: mature unicorns have sharpened, cleft hooves and horns. Tassel-ended tails and beards. And c’mon, who doesn’t like beards? Concerning their class there are healers, singers (akin to bards), midwives, also known as a “magickers.” All collaborate to support their militarist culture. No, these aren’t your gentle, laying-their-heads-into-virgin-maidens-laps unicorns. They’re fierce, magical and unique. Unlike Beagle’s gentle last unicorn and more akin to Farley’s fiery Shêtân.

Pierce’s battle-scenes are fast-paced and exhilarating, but aren’t of a too graphic nature that might alarm a younger audience. It remains tasteful, action-packed, fast-paced and Pierce’s use of informal diction keeps it suitable for its targeted audience.

“Stay back!” Tek shouted. Jan circled downslope, drawing the gryphon after him, toward Tek. “You’re not a warrior,” she cried. “Get behind me. Get back!”

She interposed herself between him and the gryphon. Her backward stepping forced him farther downhill. Too enraged to think of escape, the wingcat lunged after them, screaming and snapping. In the distance behind, he was aware of war cries, the drumming of hooves upon the slope.

“Let me by; let me fight,” Jan yelled at Tek. He dodged, trying to slip past her. Tek sidled and kicked at him one-footed to keep him behind.

“You haven’t the skill,” she snapped, parrying a feint from the formel’s claws. She kept herself squarely between the gryphon and Jan. “If she catches you again, she’ll carry you off. She can’t lift me – stand back! You’re in my way. Keep b…

Her words bit off suddenly. Jan saw a stone skid from under the young mare’s heel. She sprawled sideways, head up, her throat exposed. The formel’s beak darted, and Jan cried out, vaulting forward before he could think…

Particularly wonderful about Pierce is how she utilizes vivid imagery to illustrate the victorious rescue of Aljan and Tek by the rest of the herd:

Then someone was rearing, fighting beside him – massy and powerful, blacker than storm. His [Korr’s] mighty voice thundered, “Alma, great Alma! Stand at my shoulder, O Mother-of-all!” Other warriors took up the cry. The formel [gryphon] shrilled. The sky above spanned amber and amethyst. The sun in the west was fire.

Also, Pierce’s pacing is masterfully structured between scenes of action, character development, lore and worldbuilding. Throughout the story I never felt the prose slog or the worldbuilding become too overwhelming. The characters don’t come-off as being flat or flawless. Aljan is too reckless and harbors fears of acceptance, Korr is too brutal in enforcing his ideology for his son’s future, Tek is a little too matured, Dagg is overly cautious.

I find it very difficult to find anything I strongly disliked in Birth of the Firebringer (hence the 9-star rating). However, I wished Pierce included more tension between Aljan and his father, since a vast amount of Aljan’s character development involved the interactions between him and Korr. However, Pierce could explore this relationship in future volumes, thus, this could be a moot point. Besides character interaction some of the terminology could be confusing to some younger readers, particularly when it came to variation of the names of some creatures. A good example is “gryphon” which is also used in conjunction with “formel,” “tercel,” and “wingcats.”

Ultimately, if you enjoy reading about warrior unicorns doing battle with gryphons and wyverns, you’d probably be satisfied reading Pierce’s Birth of the Firebringer. The first book certainly satisfied this youthful longing I unconsciously had. Infused with the wonder of The Last Unicorn and the powerful rawness of The Black Stallion series, one shouldn’t miss-out on this hidden, fantasy gem. Go accompany Aljan on his Pilgrimage and experience the return of the Firebringer.

Title image by MNat.

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