I'm in a somewhat privileged position of being friends -albeit online friends - with a small number of authors, and thus am inclined to read their books when they are released (though I don't do so slavishly). I have, therefore, read a number of books which are outside my usual fare, most notably YA.
This puts me in a slightly difficult position. What if I don't enjoy the book? Do I lie and gush effusively? Do I remain tactfully silent? And, then, what if I really enjoy a book? Does my enthusiastic review of one book damn another by the very lack of such a review?
Yes, I know, I'm over-thinking this.
I've read a bundle of books this last year or so that would never have normally appeared on my radar and, without exception, have enjoyed every one. Not that there haven't been flaws or issues with many of them, because it's a rare book that doesn't have some flaws, but I cannot think of any where the flaws have spoilt the actual story. Inevitably, I've enjoyed some more than others, though.
I also have a bit of an issue with anything that is too hyped - for me, that means it has to strive even harder to achieve my own personal approval rating. In other words, I try not to be a bit of a sheep - I won't rave about a book just because others do (the same, incidentally, applies to films, TV etc). Firebrand is receiving the level of plaudits which made me more than a little apprehensive: Best Fantasy of 2010, for example.
So I was actually a little nervous about reading Firebrand. I've read another of Gillian's books - Crossing the Line - and loved it, but Firebrand is a very different book. Also, I don't read a lot of fantasy, and what I have read recently was a very hard act to follow: Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore (brilliant books, by the way, thoroughly recommended).
I won't go into the story (so, not much of a review, then!) as it's easy to find that detail in the many other reviews online. What I will say, is this:
It starts brilliantly. Crossing the Line did the same - Gillian is clearly the master of the first chapter. Then, for some reason, it failed to completely grab me for a while - I'm not sure why, perhaps it was the choice of names, the use of Gaelic, which jarred a little (more on names in a moment). Then, suddenly, I found myself utterly absorbed.
There are a couple of genuinely shocking moments, the sort that leave you staring at the words in disbelief, and then compelling you to turn to the next page. Once you hit the first one, there's no going back; it's got you, hooked you, drawn you in.
And therein, I think, is the brilliance that has been so lauded. There are a number characters that really get under your skin (once you get used to their names!), that you genuinely feel for and, inevitably, a couple that you really, properly loathe (imagine the chorus of "Boos" had this been a play). Here, though, is my one other gripe: the Queen is called Kate. Kate? Really? Amongst the Eilis and Orachs and Sionnachs, now that I'd become used to them, Kate seemed wrong (and still does, even after the event).
But I'm splitting hairs. Odd to criticise a difficult to read Gaelic name, then foist the same criticism on a too-easy English name.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay, though, is to question why it's shelved in the YA section. Not that YA is, in any way, a problem, but this doesn't feel like a YA novel and I fear there is an audience of fantasy readers who will never discover Firebrand because it's sitting on the wrong shelf.
And that would be a real shame.