Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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.

Synopsis courtesy of

My Review

4 Stars

Set in ancient Troy in the years immediately before and during the Trojan War, The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley brings the classical world to life from the perspective of one young woman, Kassandra, daughter of Troy's King Priam and twin sister to Paris. 

In an age when Trojan noblewomen were expected to do nothing more than make a good marriage and bring forth heirs, Trojan princess Kassandra is anything but ordinary.   While called to serve the gods at an early age and given the gift of prophecy, Kassandra is sent by her mother, Hecuba, to spend her formative years with the legendary Amazon warriors.  Under the tutelage of Amazon leader Penthesilea, Kassandra trains as a warrior and learns the art of war.  As a Trojan princess, however, Kassandra is not destined to permanently join the ranks of the Amazons and, after spending some time in the city of Colchis, returns to Troy.  Once she arrives home Kassandra dedicates her life to Apollo by serving as one of his priestesses.  While all seems well in Troy, one of the greatest cities in the classical world, Kassandra is subject to horrifying visions of the city's destruction.  Although Kassandra hopes these visions are not what they seem, when Paris returns home from a diplomatic mission with Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus and sister-in-law of the great Agamemnon, by his side, Kassandra knows that Helen's coming will result in the fall of the city.   Kassandra tries to warn her father and brothers, including heroic Hector, but her warnings fall on deaf ears.   Even when Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, the great warrior Achilles and their thousands of ships filled with their armies land on the shores of Troy, only Kassandra has any sense of doom.   As Kassandra's visions continue to plague her, she tries again and again to convince her family to heed her warnings.   Will Priam, Hector and Paris take Kassandra's words to heart and do whatever it takes to save themselves and their beloved city?

For readers familiar with the legend of the Trojan War, many aspects of story presented in The Firebrand will be recognizable.  What separates this novel from the multitude of others set during the Trojan War is that it is told not from the perspective of one of the key figures of the War such as Hector, Paris, Helen or Achilles, but rather from the perspective of the lesser known Kassandra.  While I was already familiar with the legend of the Trojan War before reading this novel, I did enjoy reading about it from Kassandra's perspective.  I even found myself growing increasingly frustrated right along with Kassandra as her constant warnings of Troy's coming destruction failed to be taken seriously.   The greatest strength of this novel lies in the characters, all of whom are well drawn by the author.  Kassandra is a smart, independent heroine who is willing to fight for what she believes in.  Nevertheless, she fails to change her approach to communicating her visions even after it is apparent no one believes her.   For Trojan hero Hector, honour is everything.  While determined to keep his city safe, Hector's willingness to die for Troy causes him to continually put his life in jeopardy even though it is his masterful leadership that is most needed.  Helen of Sparta, used as the primary excuse for the start of the War, fails to heed Kassandra's warnings of her role in Troy's destruction and is adamant about staying in Troy with Paris.  But Helen also possesses a remarkable strength of character that draws Kassandra to her.  Achilles is famed for his prowess in battle, but his blood lust makes him difficult to feel any sympathy towards.   These characters, along with a multitude of others, including Odysseus, Andromache, Aeneas and Hecuba, are what make the The Firebrand truly come alive. 

An enjoyable novel overall, the only aspect of the book I have an issue with is the length.  Coming in at just under 600 pages, this book is not a quick read.  I don't mind lengthy novels so long as they are well-paced, but at times, especially early in the book, I felt the story dragged.   While I thought the novel moved along nicely once Helen arrived on the scene, there were a few plot points concerning Kassandra that I don't feel added value to the overall tale.  While this didn't detract too much from my overall enjoyment of the book, it did have an impact on my final rating.  

The Firebrand is recommended to readers who enjoy fiction with strong female leads and those interested in reading about the Trojan War.  

Note: The novel comes from my own personal collection.