Firequeen (The First Covenant), by J.S Malpas: A Review

This is one of the hardest book reviews I’ve ever written. On the surface J.S. Malpas’s Firequeen is a fantasy novel with many of the familiar characters and elements of that genre: evil witches influencing young kings; a simple rural lad caught up in an adventure larger than himself, an old woman who is not what she seems; and a queen running from betrayal and gathering power and followers.

But I think the author may have been attempting something more. There is an odd feel to this book that I have encountered only once before. About a year ago, and for a different site, I wrote a review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It was a book I really wanted to like, and couldn’t. I couldn’t get past the almost emotionless prose, the sometimes unnatural dialogue, and the sense that the whole thing was an allegory I couldn’t quite fathom. I found the prose in Firequeen almost equally emotionless, and the dialogue flat and frequently unrealistic, but in the way some translations of medieval works such as Gawain and the Green Knight or some of Lord Dunsany’s fantasies are – mannered, almost banal – although without the archaic language of Dunsany.

Many, if not most, of the characters are not fully-realized people, but are archetypes, and again it is my sense that the author expects us to recognize them as such and know how they fit into the world of the story. Even a monstrous animal that appears towards the end of the book appeared to be a version of the Questing Beast. Pulling themes and archetypes from a variety of mythologies and traditions, my feeling is that Malpas attempted to create a complex saga where much detail in world-building is unnecessary because it is already known to the audience and where the familiar characters’ roles and meanings are also known. Where Firequeen differs is in its multi-faceted nature: there are several stories here, all of which contain archetypal characters and set-piece situations, and which will, it is assumed, intersect at some point in the series.

I had one niggle that remains a niggle, regardless of the author’s intent in writing this book, and that is his unconventional use of punctuation in dialogue. Instead of the conventional ‘“I think the day will be rainy,” Bob said.’, Malpas consistently uses ‘“I think the day will be rainy.” Bob said.’ I found the replacement of the conventional comma with a period annoying and distracting.

As my regular readers know I use a rubric to evaluate and rate books. On the basis of this rubric, Firequeen rated poorly, coming out at 2 stars. But I have to say I’m not entirely sure that’s fair to this book, although I read it more with an analytical and sometimes puzzled eye than in enjoyment. If the author’s intent was simply to write a high-fantasy story, then I think the rating is fair. If the intent was to create something different, a retelling and amalgamation of tales of magic and mystery (in the sense of a mystery play, not a who-done-it) from a variety of traditions…well, it’s a valiant but (in my opinion) overall unsuccessful attempt.

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