The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was one of my favorite books when I was younger, and is one of the few that I’ve read more than two or three times, and own in two different languages. I was recently discussing The Mists of Avalon with a friend of mine, and shortly thereafter saw a review of Margaret George’s Helen of Troy at Books for Breakfast (George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra is another favorite that I keep meaning to reread). These two things reminded me of the fact that Bradley had also written a novel about the fall of Troy that I’d read (I must have been between 10 and 13 at the time since I read it in German), and thought might be a good time to revisit it. As much as I like Margaret George, I didn’t remember having a strong reaction to her Helen story – I enjoyed it while I was reading it but it didn’t leave much of an impression and I don’t know if it added much or anything to the story. On the other hand, I remembered Bradley’s view adding to the story and really giving more background (granted, at that age, I might not have been as familiar with the story though I did go through a phase when I read lots of mythology).
Bradley approaches the epic story from the view of one of the supporting characters – Kassandra, daughter of Priam, twin to Paris and doomed prophetess – the woman that sees the future but is never believed. Rereading it now, I could see some similarities to The Mists of Avalon – the main characters in both are misunderstood by their immediate families but feel closer relationships to their aunts that adhere to the old ways. Both novels also show a struggle between the old ways and the new, as religions that worship the Earth Mother and other goddesses are replaced by patriarchal religions in which even the female goddesses are always second to the men.
In some cases, Bradley’s portrayal of the characters is very much in line with what has always been believed while in other cases, she takes their flaws to an extreme or shows a very different view. Aeneas, while only having a small role, is portrayed as one of the best of all the men there. Achilles is an insane megalomaniac (not exactly reaching there, but rather than be shown as honorable and glorious, he’s just a spoiled, rude young man-child). Paris was an incredible asshole, while Helen was one of the few characters Kassandra really respected, even if she prophesied that Helen was bringing doom upon Troy.
In addition to bringing ancient Troy to life, Bradley explores different cultures and cities, some rather familiar to readers of Greek mythology. While Kassandra has always had a calling to be a priestess, she also spends time with the Amazon warriors and relishes the life. Through her mother, she is related to the Queen of Colchis (I don't remember this from any other myths but it's been a long time), so while Kassandra was raised in the very patriarchal Troy, she has a variety of strong female role models among her mother’s relations. While I know Kassandra is a relatively minor character in the Trojan War, I enjoyed the story from her perspective. Occasionally, it seems like everyone but her has lost their mind but that’s not necessarily any different from the actual real mythology given that two nations went to war over one woman’s choice (though both this novel and the film Troy argue that she was an excuse, which certainly sounds much more plausible).
One thing that was surprising to me and might be to anyone that is familiar with Bradley's other work: the sex is very scaled down in this novel. I remember Mists being rather graphic but in this novel, it tends to be of the "we kissed, went to bed and then the next morning" variety. Still, while I'm not sure it was quite as great as I felt when I was younger, I definitely enjoyed myself while reading this and am glad I picked it back up.