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“The world the gods made is too big for us,” the title character reflects early on in Sarah Micklem’s debut novel, Firethorn, “so we make ourselves a smaller one.”

“Writing a fantasy novel is like that, too,” Micklem says, “because you have to build a framework for yourself.”

With Firethorn—a tale of love, sex, and class tension set in a nonspecific but definitely feudal era—the Cleveland Park author has done just that. A diagram of the book’s multitiered theology sets the tone even before the Adrienne Rich epigraph, sketching a world in which a nasty, brutish, and short life is in the hands of dozens of gods and avatars bearing names such as Rift and Hazard.

The nearly 400-page book opens as Firethorn escapes to the forest after being raped by a member of a higher caste. She eats some magical fruit and is imbued with the power to leave her body and to see clearly in the dark. “All of this is in the spirit of accounts about shamans,” explains Micklem, who dove into various anthropological and botanical texts to help base Firethorn’s magic in both ancient customs and modern herbalism.

Other elements of our world cross over, as well. Witness the racy account of Firethorn’s romantic evening with one Sir Galan: “He hooked his arm under the crook of my knee, and I raised my hips to take him in.” With a book tour of public readings looming, the 49-year-old author is getting coy. “I’ve been expurgating my readings, just a little bit,” she admits.

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But a romance novel Firethorn is not. In fact, Micklem uses the dalliance to examine class and power dynamics: As a soldier’s woman, or “sheath,” Firethorn follows Galan as he musters for battle. “It’s how she gets to the army,” Micklem explains, “and it is what many camp followers’ jobs were, one way or another—besides doing laundry.”

Though Micklem toyed with fantasy writing as a teenager, by the early ’90s, a career in graphic design had long since derailed any literary ambitions. But about 10 years ago, in snatches of time off from a job at Sports Illustrated for Kids, Micklem began writing again, captivated with the notion of a woman surviving alone in the woods. She says the questions the scenario raised laid the foundation for a new character.

“Why was she in the woods?” the author asks. “What would drive her to do something so extreme…? What kind of world had she run away from, and then, when she goes back, what kind of world is she entering?”

Micklem had a convenient writing coach for her new endeavor: her husband, playwright and poet Cornelius Eady, who encouraged her to join the New York–based writing workshop known as Tuesday Night Babes. A fluid group of writers whose interests ranged from young-adult books to fantasy to memoir, the Babes supported Micklem through the four years she spent composing and shopping her book around.

That last bit of writer’s work won’t be a concern next time around: Firethorn’s publisher, Scribner, has also purchased the second installment of what is currently planned as a trilogy. For Book 2, Firethorn will accompany Galan to war. “It’s going to be much bigger,” Micklem says. “She keeps going outward.”

For now, at least, Micklem is happy to let her character lead the way. “A lot of the action in this book…took me by surprise,” she says, “and I think I’m leaving myself open to that possibility.” —Joe Dempsey