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Lead Me Onward

The Firebird

By Nerine Dorman 

29 Oct, 2019

Doing What the WFC Cannot Do


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Nerine Dorman’s The Firebird is a standalone fantasy novella. It won a Nommo award from the African Speculative Fiction Society.

Devout Unia, aghast that her brother Ailas was dabbling in forbidden magic and that her parents did nothing to stop him, saw no alternative but to alert the Fennarin, the order whose task it is to enforce righteousness. The results were not what Unia anticipated: Ailas fled, and having nobody else to punish, the Fennarin burned Ailas and Unia’s parents alive for their failure to denounce their son. Unia survived but only because she hid.

Ten years pass.

Unia reinvents herself as Lada Garissa, a name that suggests she is upper-caste Oran rather than lower-caste Shiwen. Still convinced of the Fennarin’s righteousness, she joins the order under her new name. It takes her ten years to work her way up the ranks. She might not advance further; one has only to look at her to know that she is of lower-caste descent. The order is egalitarian in principle and speech, but not in practice.

Unbeknownst to Unia, Ailas has also reinvented himself in the ten years since they last met. She has no inking of this until, left to guard the perimeter on a raid, she finds herself face to face with a fleeing Ailas. Her familiarity with his habits allows her to lay him out cold after a brief scuffle. Only once he is a prisoner does she discover he is the Firebird. Not just a notorious rebel but the notorious rebel.

To her great surprise, Unia is informed that of course the order knew who she really was all the time. The Fennarin have not remained in control of the nation by carelessly letting just anyone join. All through her career, Unia has been watched to see if her devotion was genuine. Thus far she has passed every unseen test. Now she faces one more.

Unia is commanded to join the team overseeing her estranged brother’s slow torture and death. She can do her duty or she can join him on the pyre.…


Readers might find it surprising that it takes a decade of personal experience with the Fennarin for Unia to start wondering about the gap between what the Fennarin say they stand for and what they actually do. Not so surprising. Indoctrination in childhood is powerful stuff. Just ask the folks who have escaped cults.

But some people do see through the façade. Does Unia? Not telling.

The book’s setting is African, specifically Madagascar. There is lemur folklore in the story. There is also a past of conquest and slavery. The upper class prefers not to remember its ties to the former slaves. The evidence is Oran features on Shiwen faces — but there are none so blind.…

I enjoyed this story and will be looking for more by this author. Perhaps more works in this setting.

The Firebird is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca), here (Amazon.co.uk) and here (Chapters-Indigo).