Firebird by Mercedes Lackey
Published: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC, 2008
Series: Book 1 of the Fairy Tale Series
“Ilya, son of a Russian tsar, is largely ignored by his father and tormented by his brothers. His only friends are three old people: a priest, a magician, and a woman who toils in the palace dairy. From them Ilya learns faith, a smattering of magic, and the power of love--all of which he will need desperately, for his life is about to be turned upside-down.
The prince's magnificent cherry orchard is visited at midnight by the legendary Firebird, whose wings appear to be made of flame. Ilya's brothers' attempts to capture the magical creature fail. When Ilya tries to catch the Firebird, he sees her as a beautiful woman and earns a magical gift: the speech of animals.
Leaving his home behind, the young man journeys through a fantastical Russia full of magical mazes, enchanted creatures, and untold dangers. As happens in the best fairy tales, Ilya falls in love with an enchanted princess, but to win her freedom will be no easy task. “ ~barnesandnoble.com (with some minor alterations by Allie, bolded)
I read this novel as the September selection in the 2011 Women of Fantasy Book Club, which sadly appears to have been abandoned. I’d read a little bit of Lackey’s work when I was an adolescent, but this is the first I’ve read in a long time. I felt like Firebird was targeted towards a young adult audience. The only thing that would make me hesitate to recommend this to younger readers is the troubling attitude towards sex. There is nothing particularly graphic in the story, but I was bothered by casual mentions of both rape and of sex as a means to promotion. In terms of plot, I think this story is one that would be appreciated by young adult readers.
Firebird is based on Russian folk/fairy tales (and the ballet of the same name, I believe). I’m not a scholar of Russian folk tales, but many of the novel’s fairy tale elements were commonly found in the tales I read as a child. I can’t really go into detail without describing the entire plot of the novel, but I think that many readers will find these elements pleasantly nostalgic. Though the content feels very much like a fairy tale, the writing doesn’t have any of the stylistic quirks I associate with that style of storytelling. It may be due to my reading so much heavily stylistic fiction lately, but the prose seemed very ordinary. The story started out at a very slow pace, and only really picked up speed at the very end. I actually rather liked the leisurely pacing, but I can see where it might be frustrating.
I don’t have much experience with Russian feudal agrarian communities, but Lackey thoroughly describes the small world of Ilya’s family and their serfs. I enjoyed the attention to detail on topics ranging from the rules that govern work and relationships, to the unstable balance of power within the tsar’s family, to the uneasy coexistence of Christianity, Paganism, and the non-religious. Lackey also included a variety of mythical Russian creatures, such as the bathhouse spirit, a Bannik, the cruel water spirits, Rusalka, and the house spirit, a Domovoi. The animals (once Ilya could speak with them) added yet another facet to the complexity of the community. The fantastic things Ilya found on his journeys were described with equivalent wealth of detail.
Ilya was a fairly likable main character, though I was initially a little irritated by his initial portrayal as superior to everyone in his community. I was initially confused as to how he ended up as the ‘most despised son’ in the tsar’s family. At first, I assumed he was the usual bookish boy in a violent family, but then we learn that Ilya is actually smarter and better at fighting than any of his brothers. It would then make sense for his brothers to hate him out of jealousy, except that Ilya does not enjoy the favor of their father, either. Given his brother’s constant beatings and his apparent inability to ever get back at them, it doesn’t really seem like he’s in a position inspire jealousy. I finally just decided that he was the most despised son because that’s just how these kinds of stories work.
After I got over my initial irritation at Ilya’s superiority and his unlikely position in the family, I realized that he was just a generally good-hearted character with flaws that seem realistic for a teenage boy. Ilya has a tendency to judge people based on appearances, and he is frequently unable to understand situations from others’ (specifically women’s) viewpoints. He also does not bother to try to understand people he doesn’t like, so much of the characterization of the novel is spent on his few friends and allies. As a result, pretty much all the female characters and antagonistic characters end up fairly flat. However, some of his friends—the priest, the shaman, and the various animals that help him along his way—were a delight to read about.
My Rating: 3.5/5
Firebird is a very slow-paced, but entertaining, story based on the Russian folk tales. The protagonist, Ilya, is the most intelligent, most capable, most kind, and most despised son of a Russian tsar. His character was a little hard to take at times, but he had a number of realistic personality flaws (mostly involving his perceptions of others) that made him seem more of a three-dimensional representation of a teenage boy. The carefully described communities Ilya spends time in, and the specific Russian spirits he encounter, create a vivid atmosphere for the story. I don’t know that this is a novel for everyone, but if you’re in the mood for a leisurely-paced, straightforward fairy tale, it’s worth a look.