Gillian Philip, Firebrand
Headstrong Seth MacGregor, bastard scion of a great Sithe captain, and his idolized brother Conal have come into inheritance of their father’s fortress. But the Sithe queen, Kate NicNevin, has strange ambitions that extend beyond her domain. When the brothers MacGregor cross their queen, they find themselves exiled to a land more strange and savage than anything their undying eyes have ever seen: Scotland.
Gillian Philip’s first novel, published in Britain in 2010 and now making its
American debut, reverses the expectations of urban fantasy. Instead of the fantastic intruding on ordinary life, the banalities of human life intrude on the Sithe (pronounced “Shee”). By changing the direction of the portal, beloved of writers like CS Lewis and Madeline L’Engle, Philip creates a fantasy world not vast and prodigious, but cramped and limiting.
Because they are long-lived, Philip’s Sithe rely on politics and trust in a way
humans cannot. They have built a long-standing and elaborate system of mutual debts that keeps their people stable, if feudal. But it also keeps them completely unprepared for contact with humans, who think in what they consider short terms, and who die so easily and love so little. These Sithe are not the fae and sprites of myth, but very human, and shackled with human limits.
otherworldly domain is at once innately Scottish and historical, and modern and transnational. Because her setting is specific, and not some ill-defined fairyland where everything is vague and equal, her words convey more power, and her ideas resonate across cultures. Her use of specific terminology of the Scottish Reformation gives her setting a concrete structure that is truly universal. It is true, as she proves, that only the completely specific is truly universal.
The story divides in three parts: in the first, we learn of the Sithe’s elaborate system of prestation, honor, and power. Queen Kate is absolutely reliant on her subjects, and does not have absolute power; but she is the lawbringer, and as such, has the power to set the tone for any discussion. The careful balance between the bold queen and the powerful MacGregors drives the novel. She is not necessarily “in charge,” in the autocratic sense, but she certainly runs the show.
In the second part, the Sithe come in contact with humans. Because the humans are riven by factions, they are vulnerable to fear. They also possess death—Philip does not share Tolkien's sentimentality regarding mortality. She sees death as a source of fear. Because humans fear death, and strangers, and anything that upsets their prior expectations, they are prone to witch hunts. And a Sithe among the people will inevitably look like a witch.
In the third, the Sithe return to their people, only to find that the
structure has been upset in a fundamental way. By playing the system, Queen Kate has garnered to herself a strange new set of powers, and a bizarre new arrangement of loyalties that resemble humanity. One wonders if somehow mortality has set its fingers in the land of the Sithe. Future books will tell, but I suspect we will find that the Sithe know they are dying, their time drawing nigh.
Farah Mendelsohn notes that Western fantasy, whatever its religious motivation, owes a debt to Christian cosmology. Gillian Philip acknowledges that, somewhat, in her use of priesthood and auto-da-fé. But for her, this is nothing beautiful. In her world, when characters have an eye on something beyond this life, they lose sight of what it means to be human. Like Camus, Philip suggests that people who believe in God lose sight of their shared humanity.
One gets the feeling, reading Philip, that she may have intended this book, the beginning of her “Rebel Angels” series, as an answer back to CS Lewis. When the creatures on the far side of the wardrobe cross into our
world, the result is far less magical than Lewis implies. Humans are small in her eyes, and the Sithe who encounter humanity return to their transcendent land stained with fear, torture, and the lingering taint of human ambition.
Philip creates an interesting conflict of characters, a struggle between the
continuity of the past and the onrush of the future, for which an essentially deathless race is unprepared. Because the Sithe live so long, their world resists change, at least in their own eyes. But change comes inevitably. Even the deathless will face the end of what they think they know. And the change for them will not be pretty.