The Firebrand: Feminist agenda goes too far

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Marion Zimmer Bradley The FirebrandThe Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I’m not a huge fan of Marion Zimmer Bradley, but the Trojan War is one of my favourite subjects, and I was curious to see how it could be told from a singular, feminine point of view — in this case, Princess Kassandra of Troy, tragically famous for her accurate predictions of doom that no one believed. The Firebrand is told with Bradley’s trademark style; a strong feminist streak (that can become a little too heavy-handed at times), and her fresh spin on an ancient legend, a technique that brought Bradley into the public eye with her best known novel The Mists of Avalon.

The Firebrand follows the life of Kassandra of Troy from childhood to the fall of her city at the hands of the Akhaians, and the details of her life in-between, significantly her relationships with her family members and her struggles with her gift/curse of prophesy. Oddly enough, Bradley does not instigate the Trojan War into the story until nearly halfway through the book, filling the pages instead with Kassandra’s growth into a young woman, her tutelage under the Amazon Penthesilea, various love affairs (of the wanted and unwanted variety) and the rituals of a priestess’s life. Amongst all this, the war seems almost arbitrary, and several of the most important aspects (such as the deaths in the royal family) are glossed over with little to no emotional resonance. This may be disappointing to some, so be warned: The Firebrand is mainly interested in the life and times of Kassandra — even though the title directly refers to Paris, here portrayed as Kassandra’s twin brother.

Kassandra is a well-drawn character, willful yet sensible, passionate yet contained, and in a clever twist Bradley makes it clear that it is not just her prophecies that make her somewhat of a pariah amongst her family, but her modernist streak as well. She certainly comes across as a woman living outside of her own time, and yet she never feels anything but entirely natural in her attitudes and relationships — even though some of these relationships are established early on in the text, only to be ignored later on. Other characters are less convincing than Kassandra, (such as Andromache, whose personality seems to change with each appearance), or ultimately inconsequential, such as Bradley’s original characters Khryse and Chryseis, who are introduced only to serve no real purpose in the overarching plot.

Other times, the storytelling is often just plain sloppy: Kassandra periodically has visions of her brother Paris, but we are told at the end of chapter six that: “Paris was gone, this time beyond any recall at her command. She did not see him again for a long time.” The following chapter picks up a few weeks later, in which Kassandra is once again engaged in watching her brother from afar.

As usual, Bradley’s greatest weakness is her feminist streak, which can get so overwrought at times that it becomes an irritating strain on the credibility of the story’s integrity. The key to any strong female protagonist is not to surround her with thuggish, block-headed caricatures of men, but to have her hold her own against men that are just as worthy of respect in their own right. Bradley clearly does not grasp this theory, as practically every male in the book is foolish, lecherous, arrogant or all three. Strengthening female characters by vilifying all the male ones, is in itself a weak way to portray convincing characters — not to mention robbing any sense of poignancy or emotion from the fates of Paris, Hector, Priam and Akhilles. The way Bradley writes it, we should be glad they all meet with tragedy.

Likewise, Kassandra (and through her, Bradley) holds a hefty amount of disdain to any woman who displays devotion to her spouse. From insisting that children belong to their mothers instead of their fathers (it seems to have escaped her notice that children could belong to both parents), mocking any woman who is content with being a wife and mother, and insinuating that the Trojan War would have never started had they all lived in a matriarchal society, Marion Zimmer Bradley pushes her feminist agenda so far that even this liberal female gender-studies student got tired of it.

This is, unfortunately, not my only grievance. What begins as an interesting insight into the gods and how they interact with mankind (beginning with the conception of Helen between Zeus and Leda) eventually becomes a muddled portrayal of gods and their influence over mankind. With Bradley attempting to rationalize some aspects of Greek legend, such as the Kentaurs and the snake-hair of Medusa, it seems odd that the gods would appear at all. However, at various points in the text, Kassandra communicates and witnesses various gods at work. Although Bradley opens up an interesting commentary on how the gods might work, their arbitrary appearances and her awkward insertion of a “goddess-mother” (who bears no resemblance to any god in the Greek pantheon) renders the portrayal confusing. Whatever her point was, it is lost in the contradictions and omissions in the text.

Although I enjoyed the character of Kassandra, and the unique twists that Marion Zimmer Bradley inserts into the original legend of Troy (such as an interesting portrayal of Odysseus and a different figure responsible for the death of Akhilles), there is something missing from this retelling: a clear sense of the context in which Kassandra’s personal journey takes place. Although she remains consistent, the lack of interest in the war itself and the inconsistency in both the portrayal of the gods and those closest to Kassandra mean that the story feels…incomplete. It’s almost like we’ve only seen a tiny portion of the experiences that shape who this woman really is. Despite several positive aspects, I’d recommend giving this Trojan retelling a miss and trying Goddess of Yesterday (Caroline B. Cooney), another look at how a young woman is shaped by her experience both as a woman and a participant of the Trojan War.

The Firebrand — (1987) Publisher: Blending archaeological fact and legend, the myths of the gods and the feats of heroes, Marion Zimmer Bradley breathes new life into the classic tale of the Trojan War-reinventing larger-than-life figures as living people engaged in a desperate struggle that dooms both the victors and the vanquished, their fate seen through the eyes of Kassandra-priestess, princess, and passionate woman with the spirit of a warrior.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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