Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Katherine Kellgren

Why I listened to it:  I borrowed a copy from a friend because mail from The Book Depository takes too long when a book is this much anticipated.

What it's about:  (from Goodreads):  Nicola Marter was born with a gift. When she touches an object, she sometimes glimpses those who have owned it before. When a woman arrives with a small wooden carving at the gallery Nicola works at, she can see the object's history and knows that it was named after the Firebird - the mythical creature from an old Russian fable. Compelled to know more, Nicola follows a young girl named Anna into the past who leads her on a quest through the glittering backdrops of the Jacobites and Russian courts, unearthing a tale of love, courage, and redemption.

Warning:  Spoilers for The Winter Sea

What worked for me (and what didn't): I have been eagerly anticipating this book.  My previous two favourite Kearsley books were The Winter Sea/Sophia's Secret and The Shadowy Horses.  When I found out that Anna Moray from The Winter Sea and Rob McMorran from The Shadowy Horses were featured in this book, I just knew it was going to be wonderful.  I was not disappointed.

Nicola Marter has a talent for psychometry (picking up psychic impressions from objects) but it is one she is discomforted by and she hides it.  Some years prior to the story's beginning, she spent some time in Edinburgh participating in a series of psychic experiments at a specialist institute, she met Rob McMorran.  Regular Kearsley readers/listeners will know Rob (then called Robbie) from The Shadowy Horses.  Robbie could see and talk to spirits, read people's minds and was generally very psychically gifted.  At the institute, Nicola meets the now grown up, police constable Rob.  He is handsome, gentle, gifted and comfortable in his own skin.  Nicola is very drawn to him but a relationship with Rob means that she will have to become comfortable with her own unique abilities.  She shies away and leaves both the Institute and Rob.

Now working for an art gallery specialising in Russian pieces, Nicola is consulted by Margaret Ross, the owner of a wooden carving, a firebird, which has been handed down for generations in her family.  Her mother has recently died and with no other relations and little past excitement and joy in her life, she wishes to sell the firebird to fund a round the world cruise, which is likely the only chance she will get for such an adventure.  When Nicola touches the firebird she sees a girl, Anna, in conversation with the Empress Catherine, wife/widow of Peter the Great.  There is no marking on the firebird and no way to authenticate it through the usual means but Nicola is so struck by Margaret's plight that she resolves to try and use her gifts (albeit quietly) to see if she can assist Margaret to identify the provenance of the carving.  As it happens, Nicola is due to go to St. Petersburg the following week for an art show and she hopes to take some time for research when she's there.

However, Nicola's gifts are not super strong and she worries she will be able to achieve her goal in the time allotted.  So, she enlists Rob's aid.  There follows, a kind of road romance as Nicola and Rob search for the mysterious Anna and the origins of the little wooden bird.    In the process, Nicola is challenged regarding her gift and falls in love again, more deeply, with Rob.

Anna's story takes up from Slains Castle in Scotland when she is a small child.  At the end of The Winter Sea, Sophia had left her in the care of the Logan family, to be raised as their own daughter.  Because there was a price still on John Moray's head, it was not possible for Sophia and John to retrieve her (at least not yet) and she has no real knowledge of her birth  parents - in fact, she thinks the Logans are her parents.  When the truth is revealed, she hides in the library of Slains Castle where she meets a kindly older man who tells her of her real parents and explains to her why it was necessary to hide her existence from the English.

It is in this exchange that one of the most beautiful (for me) passages from the book appears.
"The strongest soldier cannot balance long upon the blade that does divide his honour and his heart," the man said, "and whatever way he falls, the cut will kill him."
The writing is exquisite, just like this, throughout the book.  The layers and depths and beauty of the phrases were a joy to listen to, even when the subject matter was painful.  And there was some very heartbreaking parts to the story.

After the failed Jacobite rising of 1715, the older man, who has been revealed as Colonel Graham, arrives at the Logan's cottage late one night with a mysterious Captain Jameson offering the entire family passage to Belgium to keep safe from the English who are hunting rebels.  In the event, Rory refuses to leave and Colonel Graham insists on his right to protect his own family and thus Anna, is taken to Ypres and the Irish nuns at the cloisters there.  During the journey, Anna becomes very close to Captain Jameson who has lost a daughter of a similar age to Anna and their parting when it occurs, is very bitter.

Anna's journey to the meeting with Empress Catherine which Nicola saw in her vision is then catalogued, skipping ahead some years in places.  It never felt like I missed out on anything really important and I never felt the story to be slow or lacking in pace.    Rather, it was revealed in glorious rich detail which was lyrical but not ornate in style.  I was immersed in Anna's story and then the book would transition to Nicola's - I'd become again immersed and so on and so forth.  It wasn't frustrating and I didn't feel manipulated by the transitions.  There is more of Nicola at the start of the book and more of Anna toward the end but the balance I felt, was about right overall.

There is a romance for Anna (now 18 - or so) toward the last part of the book and there are various parallels drawn between Anna's journey to love and happiness (there is a happy ending, I don't think that's a spoiler) and Nicola's and the Russian folktales of the firebird.

There were a few little niggles.  Rob's father, who briefly appears in this book, wasn't so nice in The Shadowy Horses and he and Jeannie weren't (if memory serves me) as happy as they appeared here.  There didn't seem to be a bridge from The Shadowy Horses to The Firebird in that sense so it felt a little jarring.  But only a very little. 

The latent feminist in me wondered at a choice made very very late in the book by one of the characters without much consideration for any alternatives.  I'm sorry that's vague, but: spoilers.

There were things I wondered about, things that were hinted at which were not made overt, which I would have liked to be just a little clearer - what did Rob know when he and Nicola split that first time?  And, a couple other things which to detail would be too spoilery so I'll just say that they occurred later in the book.  

Rob as an adult was every bit as wonderful as Robbie the child and I liked his patience,  confidence and self-assuredness, his practical good sense and general nice-guy-ness.  He's not at all wimp nor a doormat but he's no dominant alpha type either - he's the type of hero I'd like to meet in real life actually.

The dual storylines wrap up together in a fairly short space of time.  By chapter 46 of the 47 chapters in the book, I was wondering how the author was going to do it.  She does and I was satisfied by it - something I had been worried about was resolved as well, to my relief - and I can't really say that I felt it should have been longer, even though it did feel... quick.    I suppose that some may find Anna's romance less than satisfying because she is a child for quite a bit of the book and there isn't much room for her to have a grown up relationship.  I was invested in the child Anna and certain things about her as well as the young lady Anna and her romance so for me, the story gave me what I needed.  I think if those bits of Anna's childhood had been absent, I would have felt a little betrayed and it would have raised too many questions.   Frankly, I would have been happy enough had Anna remained a child for the whole story, there was enough romance and love (in the classical sense) to satisfy, plus: Rob and Nicola. But I was happy that Anna found love too.

I had that melancholy one gets at the end of a haunting, atmospheric and beautiful book when I finished.  I am inspired to re-read/re-listen to The Winter Sea in particular (but possibly The Shadowy Horses too) because I'm not really ready to let the characters go.  I foresee (that's a little psychic joke there) a re-listen/re-read of The Firebird in the not too distant future also.  I'm sure there will be other gems to glean I missed on the first go round.

What else?  Katherine Kellgren is a new-to-me narrator.  Her accents were superb.  She performed British, Scottish, Irish, Russian and even a Scot/Russian hybrid accents.  She voiced characters ranging in age from 6 (or so) to 70 (or so) and they were all wonderful.  There was a very occasional slip from a Scot's brogue to an Irish lilt or vice versa but for the most part she kept the accents correctly placed the whole way through the book.  There were some folk songs mentioned in the text and Ms. Kellgren sang them in beautiful and character-appropriate tones.  I have no idea if the tune was right - who cares really?  My one complaint in the narration was in the narrative voice.  Anna's section of the book in the third person could easily bear a different sounding narrator but Nicola's section was first person so it was Nicola's own thoughts.  However, the narrative voice was not Nicola's voice.  (Do not thoughts in your own head sound like your own voice?)  Perhaps more problematic however, was the tone of the narrative sometimes was overly... strident and there were times I felt it made the words sound too combative when I believed they were meant more... softly.  It's hard to describe in words, without a sample of what I mean.  But some of the narrative sounded more fitting to a battle scene - and there were no battle scenes in the book.  That said, the text was so brilliant and the rest of the narration so wonderfully done, I was able to put this aside for the most part.  The characterisations were excellent and the nuance in tone was superbly done.  The many and various characters were easily recognisable and, certainly in the dialogue, if not always in the narrative, she definitely captured the mood of the novel.

It was a wonderful book.  I'll definitely be picking up the print copy when it is available in paperback (which I think, for me, will be in about a month).  Kearsley books tend to be ones I want to pet and adore on my shelf.

Grade:  A-

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