When Firebrand opens, Seth, a 16-year-old Sithe, has a crossbow trained on his brother, Conal. Conal is thin, his face half-blacked and bloody, his hair shaved from his head. Conal is about to be burned as a witch at the tail-end of the sixteenth century at the urging of a minister who smiles at the thought of the horrible deaths his victims are about to endure. Seth will kill his brother to spare him the agony of burning at the stake.
It’s a prologue that grabs the reader’s attention firmly. Turn the page and Seth is only eight years old. He’s been sent by his mother, an adviser to the queen, to live with his father, who is bound to another Sithe woman. Seth’s mother was but a dalliance, a bit of unfaithfulness not unusual or immoral among the Sithe, though Seth’s stepmother is not exactly enamoured of him nonetheless. Seth is eager for his father’s love, but the man never seems to notice his existence. Instead Griogair MacGregor gives all his attention to his older son, Conal. Conal doesn’t seem to notice Seth at all at first, but soon befriends the child, who thereafter is no longer ignored by one and all in their father’s fort. Conal gains Seth’s love all in one afternoon, and it is a fierce love. When Kate, the queen, sends Conal into exile in the human world, Seth follows. It is a defining experience for both of them, weaving them into a web of Sithe politics that threatens to undo not just them, but their entire race.
A Veil divides the human world from the Sithe world, but it is wearing thin. It will reach the end of its life in a few centuries, but time means little to the Sithe, and the danger is apparent to most. But Kate believes that it might benefit her if the Veil were to disappear altogether, and soon. She thinks humans would “be as malleable as beasts. We could have unimaginable power of the full-mortals, were the worlds to fuse.” But Conal and his mother, Leonora, believe that the Sithe world would die, along with the Sithe. And Leonora believes that there is a way to mend the Veil and restore its strength. The exile Conal and Seth endure lends credence to their way of thinking, but Kate is willing to go to enormous lengths to fulfill her dream of ruling over both humans and Sithe, even if it means forming an alliance with the Lammyr.
Philip breathes new life into old tropes with this debut, Book One of a series called REBEL ANGELS. I groaned when I saw that this was the first book of yet another series, but by the time I finished Firebrand I was glad that more was coming. And I confess that the events that occurred toward the end of the book had me in tears, not something that happens all that often. Philip knows how to write!