This is a companion book to The Winter Sea, so while it is nice to read both, and to have read The Winter Sea first, it is entirely unnecessary. Both are very well researched, shedding light not only on the Jacobite Movement in Scotland, but in this book, on the active Jacobite community in St. Petersburg as well.
The action in The Firebird moves back and forth from the present to the early 18th Century. The protagonist in current times is Nicola (“Nick”) Marter, who works at a gallery of Russian art and artifacts. As the story begins, her boss Sebastian introduces her to a Scottish woman who has a small carved bird she calls “The Firebird”; she claims it was given to an ancestor named Anna by the Empress Catherine (the wife of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great). When Nick holds the bird, she suddenly has a vision of Anna receiving the bird from the Empress. Nick has the gift of psychometry, which allows her to see visions about objects that she touches. She has tried to repress this gift, however; she doesn’t want to be seen as a freak. She doesn’t tell the woman or Sebastian about what she sees; it wouldn’t help in any event to use information derived in that way as “verification.”
When Sebastian asks Nick to go to St. Petersburg for an art exhibit, Nick wonders if she can find some evidence there to prove the true provenance of the carved bird, and turns for help to Rob McMorran. Nick met Rob when she took some tests at an institute researching parapsychology. There was no one there with more skill than Rob, and they began seeing each other. But Nick ran from the relationship; she wanted to hide her skills, even from herself, and have a “normal” life.
Rob has never gotten over Nick, however, and accompanies her to Russia. On the way, Nick tells Rob about Russian folklore concerning the firebird. Although there are a couple of different stories, the point of both of them is that what you bring back with you at the end of a journey might not be what you started out searching for in the beginning. And that of course will clearly be the theme of the book.
When they get to Russia, Rob and Nick together reach back into the past and find the young woman Anna, who was born in Scotland but later lived in St. Petersburg. As the two go back to the past (via their visions), we learn how and why Anna ended up in St. Petersburg along with other Jacobites. [Jacobites were mostly Irish and Scots in the early 1700’s who were seeking to bring the exiled Catholic King James VIII back from France to take the Scottish throne. James is Jacobus in Latin.] The two “meet” a number of characters from The Winter Sea, as well as some new ones, since Anna was just a very small child in the previous book.
There are parallel romances in both the past and the present, with one character even paraphrasing one of the most famous quotes from Jane Eyre (and probably the one most often paraphrased), saying:
“And looking at his face I felt a swift, insistent tug beneath my heart, as though someone had tied a string around my ribs and pulled it sharply.”
The ending will satisfy readers, even though, as with the quest for the legendary firebird, all the various seekers end up with something different than what they thought they wanted.
Evaluation: I’d have to say, to my surprise, that I liked this book a tad more than The Winter Sea (which I also enjoyed), in spite of the fact that this book had a paranormal element and the previous book soft-peddled that aspect. I loved the characters, especially those in the past. Anna is a winning character both as a child and as the 17-year-old she becomes later in the book. The author is very adept at romantic scenes, more interested in conveying the emotional engagement of the characters than giving readers anatomy lessons. And of course it’s hard to beat a setting that combines Scotland and St. Petersburg!
Published in the U.S. in paperback by Sourcebooks, 2013