Review: Firebirds

Firebirds edited by Sharyn November

As I mentioned in its review, So Long Been Dreaming was the second short story collection I’d ever read. The first? This anthology, back in middle school–it was on the first shelf to the left in my middle school’s library, and I was taken in by the gorgeous cover. (Not much has changed, apparently.) After encountering Firebirds Rising and Firebirds Soaring at the library near my college, I was feeling a bit nostalgic for it–but I couldn’t find it in either of my library systems. So I consulted eBay, where I found some remainder copies for five dollars a pop. The week before Narnia Week, I settled in to see if I would be as impressed as I was when I was a wee lass–but things certainly have changed.

Firebirds is a fantasy and science fiction anthology published by, well, Firebirds Books, an imprint of Penguin that issues reprints of popular speculative fiction work for middle-grade and young adult readers, such as the Redwall series. Published in 2003, Firebirds contains work by Delia Sherman, Megan Whalen Turner, Sherwood Smith, Nancy Springer, Lloyd Alexander, Meredith Ann Pierce, Michael Cadnum, Emma Bull, Patricia A. McKilip, Kara Dakley, Garth Nix, Elizabeth E. Wein, Diana Wynne Jones, Nancy Farmer, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Laurel Winter in order to promote the imprint. The anthology format proved so successful that a Firebirds Book anthology appears to come out every three years, and Firebirds Books win awards and accolades for their anthologies. But does the first anthology stand up?

When I was in middle school, the story that struck me the most was Nancy Springer’s “Mariposa”, where a chic woman discovers she’s lost her soul and returns home to find it. At the time, I loved it; it was a story about selling out, redemption, and how puberty messes you up–sounds useful for a preteen girl, right? But now I think it fed into this weird superiority complex I had over girls who presented more traditionally feminine than I did–like an particular obnoxious hipster, it values “not selling out” (here defined as dreaminess, a love of the exotic, and a distaste for traditionally feminine clothing) over “selling out” (cosmetics, suits, high heels, that sort of thing). Looking back and seeing that it values one form of femininity over another explains a lot about my preteen mindset; it’s definitely a product of the backlash a lot of girls go through during puberty. (The main symptom? Barbie mutilation.) And, as a story, it’s pretty underwhelming.

Indeed, this anthology is pretty underwhelming, although it seemed impressive when I was little. I have to admit, I’m writing this review well after the fact, and my copy is not at hand, but there are only a few standouts in the anthology. Most of the stories don’t leave a lasting impression and one of them isn’t even speculative fiction, which threw me for a loop–Elizabeth E. Wein’s “Chasing the Wind” is about a girl flying through Africa. It confused me. There’s also no science fiction to be had; the closest we get to it is an alternate history story that is, incidentally, one of the standouts in the collection.

Garth Nix’s “Hope Chest” takes place in an alternate 1930s where an alternate form of Nazism is on the rise and an adopted girl, destined to stop him, discovers the contents of her hope chest. It’s dark, interesting, and a bit unsettling, in the best of ways. While I remembered the basic plot (she’s a gunslinger!), I had forgotten about all the little details–the denizens of the town beat and mutilate one of their own under the influence of the Master, including one of the heroine’s sisters, which leads to a fantastic and heart-wrenching confrontation. As I never shut up about, I love stories about women whose duty to their community (usually their country) supersedes themselves–and “Hope Chest” has just the right sort of bitter ending to satisfy me. I might have to go back and revisit Nix; I remember enjoying the Abhorsen trilogy in high school. If you’d like to read “Hope Chest”, it’s collected here and also in Across the Wall.

Firebirds actually opens with a pretty strong story–Delia Sherman’s “Cotillion”, a retelling of Tam Lin set in the United States during the Vietnam War. I loved it for its solid atmosphere, lovely imagery, and the heroine. After being rescued, Valentine, the fairy, assumes they’ll get together–the heroine reminds him they’ve known each other for scant days. The most impressive piece in the collection is Emma Bull’s adaptation of “The Black Fox”, illustrated by Charles Vess, whom you may know from his work with Neil Gaiman. It takes a traditional ballad about fox hunters chasing the Devil and turns it into a charming graphic novel (graphic novella?) about a fox hunt that’s enlivened when an old Druidic god comes into play. It’s beautifully illustrated, period appropriate, and funny–it starts off with a visiting American woman spinning tall tales about how hunting goes back home. (Her fictional version involves griffins and alligators. As mounts.) Diana Wynne Jones’ “Little Dot” is a fun story from the point of view of a wizard’s cat (who is head of his little domestic pride of cats), who arranges everything, as the author’s note tells us. It’s cute, but it makes me hungry for something a bit bigger from Jones. I suppose that’s the idea of an anthology like this; get you interested in certain authors. To a degree, it works–but as an anthology, it’s a bit weak.

Bottom line: Firebirds is underwhelming–there’s no science fiction and one of the stories, “Chasing the Wind”, isn’t even any sort of speculative fiction. But there are a handful of solid stories here–Garth Nix’s alternate history Western “Hope Chest”, Emma Bull and Charles Vess’ “The Black Fox”, Diana Wynne Jones’ “Little Dot”, and Delia Sherman’s “Cotillion”; all of which feature solid and interesting female characters. If you’re curious about those stories, it’s worth a rental; otherwise, skip it.

I bought this book on eBay.

3 thoughts on “Review: Firebirds

  1. Sorry to hear this was a let-down! I have the second Firebirds anthology – fingers crossed that it’s better. Also, I agree about “Hope Chest”. I read it in Across the Wall and enjoyed it a lot.

  2. Pingback: Review: Firebirds Rising « The Literary Omnivore

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