FIRE BRINGER

FICTION BY DAVID CEMENT-DAVIES

British:
Macmillan Children's Books, 1999
ISBN: 0-333-76640-7

American:
Dutton Books, 2000
ISBN: 0525464921

Fire Bringer, David Clement-Davies' debut novel, is a powerful talking-animal fantasy about red deer in Scotland. Fire Bringer is intended 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.  
      Fire Bringer opens magnificently. 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 way.  
      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.  
       Fire Bringer should 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.