Book Review: The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley
Past and present mingle deliciously in the newest novel from Susanna Kearsley, whose “time-slip” novels such as Mariana, The Winter Sea, and The Rose Garden have amassed quite a devoted following. Her books tend to blend a modern-day storyline with a gripping historical thread, to create a whole that’s emotional, dramatic, and always steeped in meticulously researched historical detail.
In The Firebird, we open with main character Nicola Marter, a specialist in Russian art and artifacts with a very big secret: psychometry, the ability to “read” an object’s past by simply touching it. Nicola was raised from childhood to never reveal her gifts, lest she be branded a freak or subjected to abuse or discrimination. When a dying woman comes to Nicola’s office with a family heirloom, hoping it’s of enough value to enable her to enjoy what time is left to her, Nicola can tell by touching the small carved bird that it was a gift to the woman’s ancestor from Empress Catherine I of Russia — but sadly, there’s no other proof. And without proof, the object has no monetary value. Enlisting the aid of her former love interest and immensely gifted psychic Rob McMorran, Nicola is determined to help the poor woman, even if it means using her gifts to figure out the carving’s origins.
There’s much, much more to the story: As it turns out, the ancestor who received the gift from the Empress was a young woman named Anna, who was raised near Slains Castle in Scotland before ending up in St. Petersburg. Readers of The Winter Sea should now be sitting up and paying close attention: Yes, it’s that Anna! If you, like me, felt saddened and even upset by the resolution of The Winter Sea, fear not! The story isn’t over; in The Firebird, we learn much more about Anna, and it isn’t what you might have expected.
As Nicola and Rob begin to investigate, they use their gifts to sense the past wherever they travel. They start at Slains, and get an immersive view of Anna’s life in the cottage where she spends her early years before encroaching danger forces her to flee. Wherever Anna’s voyage takes her in her own time, Nicola and Rob follow in the present. The Firebird follows two storylines: The first focuses on Nicola and Rob, as they seek answers about Anna and at the same time tiptoe through the landmines of their relationship. The second is the story of Anna herself, following her from childhood through her late teens, as she grows into a young woman among the high-ranking military families of St. Petersburg.
As the narrative shifts between its two threads, it’s hard to say which storyline is the more compelling. I became caught up in Nicola and Rob’s exploration, their quest for hints of the past, and their attempts to bridge the gap in their attitudes towards their gifts. At the same time, whenever the story leaves Anna to return to the present, I kind of groaned a bit and had to grind my teeth in frustration. I didn’t want to leave her! Anna’s story is fraught with tension and danger, and so naturally the overriding drama resides in her part of the tale. Still, the two halves mesh nicely, mirroring and complementing one another very naturally and seamlessly.
Part of what makes Susanna Kearsley’s books so very good is her devotion to historical accuracy and source material. As her extensive (and fascinating) author’s notes make clear, almost all of the characters in Anna’s parts of the story were real people — which I found astounding, to be honest. I had no idea, reading The Firebird, that these people weren’t all completely fictional. It was amazing to me to discover how perfectly the author matched the historical figures’ lives with their fictional counterparts’ actions, motivations, beliefs, and family ties.
Anna’s story is set in the 1710s and 1720s, and the focus, even in St. Petersburg, is on the Jacobite supporters and their tireless work to support and restore their king. The intrigues and conspiracies are at the core of Anna’s story, and yet it’s Anna herself who is the true heart of The Firebird. From the young girl living in hiding to the young woman who yearns to belong, Anna is a character of strength, integrity, and unwavering devotion and loyalty.
Overall, I found The Firebird simply mesmerizing. I loved Anna’s story and how beautifully it ties back to the people and occurrences in The Winter Sea — and I was also completely drawn into Nicola and Rob’s quest, both for the truth about the carving and for the path back into one another’s lives and hearts.
Do you need to have read The Winter Sea in order to appreciate The Firebird? Yes and no. The Firebird is complete in and of itself, and absolutely can be read as a stand-alone novel. However, there is so much connection between the two books that I do feel that the reading experience would be greatly enriched by reading The Winter Sea prior to reading The Firebird. (In fact, I found myself wishing I’d taken the time to re-read The Winter Sea, as it had been several years since I read it and some of the details were quite fuzzy for me, to say the least.)
It should be noted as well that Rob appears as a child in an earlier novel, The Shadowy Horses (which I reviewed here). It’s worth reading The Shadowy Horses first if you want to get a picture of Rob’s early life and experiences, but unlike The Winter Sea, the plot itself does not tie in directly to the events in The Firebird.
I suppose it’s clear by now that I’m a big fan of Susanna Kearsley, and can recommend without hesitation anything that she’s written. The Firebird makes the fifth book by this author that I’ve read, and I’m very much looking forward to adding a sixth to my list when her 1995 novel The Splendour Falls is reissued in the US in January, 2014. What a great way to start the new year!
Title: The Firebird
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Conteporary/Historical fiction