“The Firebird’s Tale” by Anya Ow

I requested this from NetGalley because, frankly, there was never any possibility that I wouldn’t. I once did a major art project on Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring, in amongst which I got totally sidetracked by the Ballet Russes and therefore The Firebird. Now, I don’t really know the story of the Firebird (just the costume design and music), but once this indicated that it was based on it to a certain extent, I was sold.

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Publication date: December 6th, 2016

I actually just looked up the Firebird itself because I realised I might be talking rubbish, given my lack of information about the plot, and I guess I am. Sort of. They’re both based on myths or stories about this creature called the Firebird; Stravinsky’s ballet brings in Koschei the Deathless too, who is mentioned in this but as I remember, isn’t a major character. (Haha, now this is testing my memory… whoops.)

From the research I’ve just done, I’d hazard that it’s not based on the Firebird but on the same sources that the Firebird is based on (in a similar way that LotR and Wagner’s Ring Cycle are both drawing on Norse stuff to create differenht finished products). But given that the ballet interpretation of The Firebird that I saw performed was a weird new interpretation about global warming or something (I don’t even know), it’s somewhat hard to tell. Anyway. Back to the review.

The worldbuilding of this book is very interesting, actually. Anya Ow has combined elements of Russian folklore and fairytales with other fairytales, ones I’m not sure of their origins. (Like Rapunzel.) It’s particularly interesting to see a Russian interpretation of a fairy realm when, as far as I’m aware from all my research into fairies, this isn’t particularly a concept that enters Russian folklore.

However, it’s not exactly Russia, either, but a Russia-inspired fantasy realm — and excitingly, one where it’s perfectly normal for a prince to marry another prince, if a little scandalous due to external circumstances. Other kingdoms, they mention, are more gendered and have more limitations on this sort of thing, which they’re very dismissive of, but here, it’s something of a free for all. This was refreshing to read, because not only is there the major Firebird / Aleksei romance, there were also several background queer relationships, so that they weren’t isolated or unusual within the story itself.

Nazar, the Firebird, likes to tell stories, and while these sometimes related to the plot, in places I felt it slowed the book down. Other than these digressions, the story was generally fast-paced, and while there was a lot happening, it didn’t do so in the whirlwind way that makes it hard to follow but nor was it too drawn out. As well as this, a lot of the writing was very beautiful, and I highlighted several quotes that I particularly liked:

Nazar was exquisite beyond language; the sun was in his eyes, the stars dusted on his skin, the mystery of eternity written in the soft curve of his inscrutable smile. Perfection like this could inspire only worship or murder.

(Nazar is the Firebird, in case that wasn’t clear.)

The Tsesarevich had seen the wooden cage that was Nazar’s life, and had blindly, tenderly, brought him to a gilded one. This was not what he wanted, beautiful as the prince was, warmed as Nazar was from gentleness, drunk with kindness. The key and the end. That was what he wanted.

 

The relationship between the Firebird and Aleksei had very odd beginnings due to the starting premise, which is that the prince has to marry the first person to make him smile. I think this is an element that comes from the original stories, although as we’ve seen, I’m not sure, but it’s a little hard to believe that Nazar would go along with this arranged marriage so easily or that he wouldn’t be more resentful of it to start with. However, as the relationship develops there are a lot of really lovely scenes between them, and Anya Ow walks the delicate line between explicit and implicit very well, with enough information given to evoke a sense of steaminess without any of the awkwardness of explicit sex scenes.

Aside from the slight pacing issues, my one complaint would be that I found the book a little confusing at first. Or rather, I was able to follow it, but I felt like it wanted me to know more than I did about the background to these stories, and there were a lot of references to past events that made me wonder for a moment if I had accidentally picked up a sequel. It became much clearer as the book went on, though, and reading it in one sitting probably helped me keep track of what was going on.

I picked this out from a large number of ARCs to be that day’s late night read (I worte my original Goodreads review at 2:30am) because it’s due to be published relatively soon compared to the others, but I didn’t have high hopes, especially as I’ve been finding it hard to enjoy books lately. However, while I didn’t think this book was perfect, it was well-written with some gorgeous lines, as well as a fascinating mixture of worldbuilding that evoked all sorts of nerdy folklore feelings in me and drew me into the story.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to listen to some Stravinsky…

Rating: ****

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In case it interested anyone, I dug out this (rather blurry) photo of my sketchbook for that art exam. The bottom right is a drawing of the English National Ballet’s “Firebird” costume design (the others are for different versions of the Rite of Spring).

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