Macmillan Children's Books, 1999
Dutton Books, 2000
David Clement-Davies' debut novel, is a powerful talking-animal
fantasy about red deer in Scotland. Fire Bringer
for a young-adult audience, but it can also be appreciated by adults
for its many references to religion, mythology and literature, its
strong plot and intriguing characters, and its fine writing. As
a first novel, it promises very well for later books by Mr. Clement-Davies.
The novel is set in medieval
Scotland. Mr. Clement-Davies sometimes digresses into a brief discussion
of what is taking place in human history at the time, though these
interludes are never overly long or pedantic. At first, the timing
of the novel does not seem especially important. However, the deer
come into contact with men in various ways during the story, and
the battles between the Scottish tribes and the Norsemen under King
Haakon eventually play an essential role.
The first chapter is by turns terrifying and moving. A herd of red
deer in the Scottish lowlands is facing a desperate situation. Drail,
the tyrannical leader of the herd, and his sinister second-in-command
Sgorr are plotting to consolidate their hold over the deer. They
plan to destroy the Outriders, an elite group of male deer who are
charged with scouting and watching over the herd. Brechin is one
of the finest of the Outriders. He is torn between his fear for
the herd and his concern for his favorite mate, Eloin, who is about
to give birth to their fawn.
Drail plans to do away with
Anlach, the time when the male deer fight for mates and for the
rulership of the herd. This is such an alteration of nature that
to the deer it is like "abolishing the forest itself."
Drail and Sgorr strike suddenly to do away with the Outriders. Meanwhile,
Eloin gives birth to a fawn, called Rannoch, with a mark like an
oak leaf. The oak leaf is one of the signs of a legendary Prophecy
among the deer, of a deer who will restore peace and order among
his people. Eloin fears for her fawn's life. She allows another
deer to act as his surrogate mother so that the herd leaders will
not know that he is Brechin's son. This is just the start of a strange
life for the fawn in which his oak leaf mark is concealed and he
does not know that he is a changeling.
Rannoch's story is undoubtedly
that of a messiah. When he is less than a year old, he is threatened
by a massacre of the innocents, part of Sgorr's plan to eliminate
rumors of a fawn who might fulfill the Prophecy. Still unaware of
his own significance, he flees along with other young ones and their
mothers. The Prophecy also describes "a healer and a king."
Gradually, Rannoch becomes aware that he has certain unusual powers.
He resists the idea that he might be the fulfiller of the Prophecy.
At one point, he even says, "I wish
[t]his burden would
pass from me," echoing Jesus' words on the night of his death.
Each chapter opens with a literary quotation, and in this case the
author reinforces the point by quoting Matthew 26:39, "Let
this cup pass from me." Rannoch seems like a reluctant Christ.
He is uncertain as to whether he is meant to overthrow Sgorr or
whether he should be a pacifist. It is only one of many dilemmas
he faces in the course of the novel.
Rannoch may be a Christlike
figure, but Mr. Clement-Davies makes the religious aspects of the
novel an intriguing combination of Christian and pagan symbolism.
The deer worship Herne, a Celtic god of the woods. They call themselves
"Herla" because they believe that they are specially favored
by Herne. At the same time, they are ambivalent toward Herne. Though
they claim to believe in the god, they think of him mainly as "an
idea, a legend
Something they believed in, of course, but not
as something that was actually real." Other deer start to believe
that Rannoch is the living incarnation of Herne. The demented and
malformed villain Sgorr goes to the other extreme. He wants to eliminate
the worship of Herne and establish an atheistic society: "I
want to drive Herne away because I do not believe in him. I believe
that the Herla must serve intelligence and reason. Serve me
in fact." Mr. Clement-Davies looks at the dark side of both
belief and unbelief, and raises some interesting issues along the
Not every reader will pick up
on the religious and historical subtexts of Fire Bringer
nor is such a study necessary. But at the very least, a young reader
will be aware that Fire Bringer
is a great story. Rannoch
is a multifaceted character, and readers will be sure to find themselves
in sympathy with his struggles. Rannoch's friends and enemies are
not always so well developed, but at the least they are straightforward
characters who are easy to cheer for or despise. The writing is
often quite beautiful, though sometimes Mr. Clement-Davies' strong
vision is let down by overlong sentences or poor structure. By the
end, the reader may also feel that the book was slightly too long.
Some sections of the story, especially near the end, could have
been less drawn out. But these are minor points which will probably
clear themselves up in later books by this promising author.
reach a large audience. Animal lovers and fantasy enthusiasts are
the most obvious targets. But the novel should also appeal to those
with interests as far-ranging as Scotland, comparative religion,
and anthropology. It is an ambitious work which succeeds in most
regards, and a rare book which deserves a place in both the children's
and the adult sections of libraries and bookstores everywhere.