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Literature / The Firebringer Trilogy

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The Firebringer Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce is a Young Adult series of novels whose main protagonists are unicorns. The unicorns worship an omnipotent, omnipresent goddess called Alma, the Mother-of-all, and have lived in exile in the Vale of the Unicorns for four hundred years since they were driven from their homeland by the wyverns. They consider themselves at war with not just the wyverns but also the pans of the Pan Woods that surround the vale and the gryphons of the Gryphon Mountains, and have been awaiting the coming of the prophesied Firebringer who is destined to lead them back to the Hallow Hills and drive out the wyverns forever.

The first book follows the coming of age of Jan, the son of the unicorns' prince, on his initiation pilgrimage to the Hallow Hills to become a warrior. Accompanied by his best friend Dagg and their mentor Tek, Jan grows from a mischievous half-grown colt to a mature and confident adult, and after killing the wyvern queen in her den, is revealed to be the long awaited Firebringer. Upon his return to the Vale, Jan becomes his people's battleprince. The next two books follow Jan's attempts to discover the secret of fire, make peace with the pans and gryphons, and take back the Hallow Hills from the wyverns. Jan's own growth as a character is paralleled by that of the unicorns as a whole, who learn to put aside their assumptions and prejudices about the world around them.

The trilogy is not very well known outside a few small (but devoted) groups of fans. They were hard to locate outside the library after they went out of print in the late nineties, but Firebird began publishing them again in paperback in 2003.

Not related to the book Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies.

The trilogy consists of:

  1. Birth of the Firebringer (1985)
  2. Dark Moon (1992)
  3. The Son of Summer Stars (1996)

Provides Examples Of:

  • Action Mom: Ses and Jah-lila in the last parts of the third book. Also, Tek and to a lesser extent Ryhenna. In fact, all the mares of the herd - all unicorns in the herd are warriors with no discrimination between mares and stallions.
  • Adam and Eve Plot: The Scouts of Halla that Jan encounters are all descendants of the original two scouts sent by Halla to investigate the wyverns' claims and find out the dragons' side of the story.
  • Alliterative Title: The Son of Summer Stars
  • Always Chaotic Evil: The vale-dwelling Unicorns feel this way about nearly every other species. They're wrong about all of them. Even the wyverns.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Teki is the herd's healer, tending to injuries and ills with mud casts and a vast knowledge of herbs. On the battlefield, though, this type of healing is too slow for him to be a Combat Medic, and thus Teki falls back on the warrior training all unicorns receive; in fact, he proves vital in the Battle of Endingfire, rallying the faltering battle line and helping to haul an injured Tek out of danger.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: The Scouts' ancestors in order to get to the numbers they have today, the dragons (as only a queen and her consort breed, and a queen's consort is always her brother), and Jan believes this happened with Tek and himself until The Reveal at the end of the last book. The scouts and dragons are ambivalent about it; Jan is really, really freaked out by it.
  • Call a Pegasus a "Hippogriff": What the author calls wyverns sound much more like hydra.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Some creatures called daya are introduced in Dark Moon. To the reader, they're clearly horses.
  • The Cavalry: The unicorns' battle line is slowly starting to crumble before the onslaught of the wyverns during the Battle of Endingfire, and they're in danger of being pinned into a corner and finished off. And then a strange warcry is heard, and the Scouts of Halla crest a hill and plunge into the fray below...
  • The Chosen One: Jan as the prophesied Firebringer, though the unicorns treated it more like a messiah figure before Jan's down-to-earth approach to things mellowed them out.
  • Fauns and Satyrs: The pans are blue-skinned fauns.
  • Flowery Elizabethan English: The daya that Jan encounters in Dark Moon speak in a Shakespearean dialect, and he's suitably baffled by some of the terminology they use.
  • Framing Device: The prologue and epilogue of each book is the narrator Jah-lila setting up and winding down the Lay of the Firebringer to an audience of other unicorns and supposedly told over the course of three nights. Also occurs in the books, with the Lay of the Unicorns in Birth of the Firebringer and the Mare of the World in The Son of Summer Stars.
  • Freudian Excuse: Korr goes crazy because he thinks Tek and Jan are siblings, which is a really big no-no among the unicorns of the Vale.
  • Giant Flyer: Gryphons, who make away with unicorn foals each spring to feed to their own hatchlings.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Averted with Dhattar and Aiony. He's leucistic (and, as such, the only classic pure white unicorn in the series); she's silver-gray with black socks and spots over one side of her body, black with silver socks and spots on the other.
  • Heroic BSoD: Jan has one of these when Korr tells him Tek is his older half-sister.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: An amnesiac Jan spends a winter in a city of "two-foots" in the second book. He compares them to pans with different hind legs, and much of what they do completely baffles him even after he gets some lessons from Ryhenna.
  • Hypocrite: Korr's sudden appearance before the entire herd for the first time in two years (story wise) elicits shouts of "Tyrant!" "Murderer!" and demands for banishment. Jan swiftly puts an end to it when he points out that "all the herd ran mad that winter" and those who meekly submitted to Korr were just as guilty for the herd's suffering. The herd is properly chastised and ashamed. (Jan is very good at this.)
  • Identity Amnesia: Jan in the second book for a time; he knows he's a unicorn, and that he has something important to do and he has to get home, but he can't quite figure out what it is.
  • Interspecies Romance: Strongly hinted at with Lell (a unicorn) and Illishar (a gryphon).
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Korr might have done this in either Dark Moon when he lets half the herd starve during a brutal winter or in The Son of Summer Stars when he charges Ses and Jah-lila (they're standing so close together Jan isn't sure who is main target is) with clear intent to do harm and doesn't even twitch when his own daughter Lell jumps in front of the mares.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: When the wyverns finally moved into all-out war with the unicorns, the unicorns were getting beaten badly. Princess Halla called a retreat on the advice of the seer Zod, who prophesied the coming of the Firebringer on the battlefield, lest all the unicorns perish.
  • Lady of War: Tek. Probably Halla, too, in her day. Also the gryphon queen, Malar.
  • Lazy Dragon: Dragons spend most of their very long lives asleep, but are able to watch the goings-on of the world through their dreams, as the main character discovers to his dismay in the third book.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Subverted (when Korr tells Jan Tek is his elder half-sister) and played straight (when Ses reveals that Jan isn't Korr's son, but Calydor's).
  • Meaningful Name: Jan's truename Aljan means "dark moon"; Lell's true name Álell means "wing"; Korr means "thunder"; and Ryhenna means "fire."
  • Mushroom Samba: ... sort of. A strange smoke from burning embers followed by a wyvern sting seems to send Jan on an out of body experience in the first novel; jellyfish stings make him delirious and amnesiac in the second, and dragon water has him experiencing visions in the third.
  • My Species Doth Protest Too Much: The wyvern peaceseekers have no stings and don't want trouble with the unicorns or other species. They leave the Hallow Hills before the Battle of Endingfire.
  • New Old Flame: Ses and Calydor rekindle theirs at the end of The Son of Summer Stars.
  • No Man of Woman Born: One prophetess says the Firebringer "will be born out of a wyvern's belly and sired by the summer stars." Everyone thinks she's crazy. She's not, as Jan's friends drag him to the Mere of the Moon in the wyvern queen's skin after she nearly stung him to death and after being healed by the spring, "rises weak as a newborn colt from the she-wyrm's bellyskin." And Jan's true sire is Calydor, whose name means "summer stars."
  • Oracular Urchin: Jan and Tek's twin children, Aiony and Dhattar, are very powerful seers and are a wiser than many of the adult characters. They tend to say very uncanny things that unnerve some of the people around them.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: The red dragons breathe fire, have jewel-encrusted hides, spent most of their time asleep beneath the Smoking Hills, and don't have wings, save for an unmated queen and her consort. The wyverns also claim to be cousins to the red dragons, but the red dragons deny this.
  • Our Wyverns Are Different: What the author describes as wyverns sound much more like hydra. They are wingless, serpentine creatures with two legs at their front, grow extra heads as they age, and have venomous stingers on their tails. They claim to be cousins of the red dragons, but the red dragons deny this relationship.
  • Overly Long Name: Played painfully straight with the dragons, whose names border on tongue twisters. However, averted with unicorns, whose names are typically short and sweet (and presumably shortened versions of their truenames). Examples of unicorn names include: Jan, Korr, Ses, Tek, Dagg, Tas, Leerah, Lell, Sa, Khraa, Teki, Moro, Gayasa, Culu, Aiony, Dhattar, Oro, Zod, Halla...
  • Parental Favoritism: Korr ignored Jan a lot in his youth and paid a lot of attention to the upcoming warriors, particularly Tek. Korr's praise of Tek was his way of trying to make up for the fact she's his actual firstborn, although Tek is ignorant of this.
  • Pregnant Badass: Tek, pregnant with twins and half-starved to boot, manages to knock one of Korr's "wolves" off of a cliff and fatally injure him in Dark Moon.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: Played straight; as weird as some of the prophecies describing the Firebringer are, by the end of the trilogy every single word is proven correct. Maybe not literally, but still correct.
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone: While not everyone is a seer, all unicorns, on the night of their initiation, sip from the sacred Mere of the Moon and receive a vision of part of their future.
  • Rank Scales with Asskicking: Justified, as the prince or princess of the unicorns is also the herd's warleader.
  • Rebellious Princess: Despite only the warleader having the title prince or princess, Jan's younger sister Lell definitely displays elements of this trope.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: The prince or princess of the unicorns is the warleader and regularly directs and participates in battles, and as authority passes to the warleader during times of war (and the unicorns have considered themselves at war for four hundred years), they are also active in making and passing laws with the Council of Elders. Authority returns to the king or queen in peace, but the monarch remains an active participant in the day-to-day activities of the unicorns.
  • Sanity Slippage: Korr throughout Dark Moon.
  • Somewhere, an Equestrian Is Crying: The author uses many equestrian terms, usually correctly - but while she uses "filly" (a young female horse) correctly, she seems to have "foal" (a young horse of either sex) and "colt" (a young male horse) mixed up. She uses "colt" as the gender-neutral term and "foal" as the masculine.
  • Seers: Zod, Caroc, Ellioc, Jah-lila, Calydor, and definitely Aiony and Dhattar.
  • True Name: While knowing a unicorn's truename doesn't give the user any power over the individual, one's true name is very private and typically known only by a unicorn and his or her mother, who obviously confers the name. Sharing one's true name with another is a sign of trust, and Tek shares hers (Telkèlla) with Jan to show she means to keep her promise. (And shamed by Tek's sincerity after doubting her, Jan tells her his own: Aljan.)
  • Unicorn: They're single-horned equines with tufted tails, goatees, and cloven hooves, aside from those who were horses originally, like Jah-lila and Ryhenna, who only have the horn after they drink from the Mere of the Moon. They have a longer lifespan than horses, and are implied to be much tougher physically. While quite a few (red-maned ivory Ses, palomino Lell, red leopard-appaloosa Leerah, piebald Teki, and blue snowflake-appaloosa Calydor) are partly white-coated to some degree or another, the most common colors seem to be grays, earth tones, and primaries; the only pure-white unicorn mentioned is Dhattar, whose description suggests leucism or an extreme expression of cremello. As for any association with virginity? Well, the daïcha of the human city is some kind of priestess and the only human Jan really bonds with, so she may or may not be a reference to the 'only a maiden may tame a unicorn' part of the legends. And Vale-dwelling unicorns are (or try to be) monogamous and mate for life; Plainsdwellers, however, are for the most part all about the free love and will only rarely form lasting pair-bonds. (Pierce has stated that she wanted them to be more evocative of karkadanns than of the "docile, decorous, blanched, and fragile-looking" take on the concept typically seen in the west.)
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: The first instance of this is the twin colt and filly that Halla lost. The second is Dhattar and Aiony, the twin colt and filly of Halla's distant descendant Tek.
  • Unwanted Harem: When Jan loses his memory in the second book, he's taken to a human settlement and inadvertently becomes the "First Stallion" of the herd of daya (horses). Jan has no idea what that means. The mares most certainly do.
  • Warrior Poet: All unicorns are initiated into the Ring of Warriors upon coming of age, and while the culture is very militaristic because of their at-war status, all unicorns are appreciative of their history and fond of stories. Tek in particular is both a fine warrior and an accomplished lay-singer in her own right.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: For most of his life, Jan is always trying to do something that makes his sire proud of him. He finally succeeds early in Birth of the Firebringer when he was trying to do something completely different. He loses that pride later, but by the end of the book Jan gets over trying to constantly gain Korr's attention and becomes a confident young adult. Korr how has no idea to handle this.
  • Xenofiction: The trilogy is focused primarily on the unicorns of the Vale, but the plains unicorns and many other species at least get to explain their cultures' philosophies. While humans do feature in Dark Moon, they're the only sapient species who never get to explain themselves, and none of the non-human sapients could be mistaken for humans.

Alternative Title(s): Dark Moon