The Firebird takes off when Nicola Marter touches a handsome wooden carving, launching her powers of extrasensory perception to reveal the intriguing history of a seemingly otherwise nondescript object. Nicola’s touch reveals stories, glimpses of the lives of people who have come before. It is a gift she rarely uses, one she denies to herself, a secret she keeps from others.
Nicola’s touch of the carving—and the vision it shares with her—sets her on a journey to discover its provenance, ostensibly to help the owner, a woman who hopes it will be valuable enough to finance her future. The journey becomes a path toward self-discovery, allowing Nicola to examine her gifts and to decide whether she will accept her abilities or deny them.
Why, when she is loathe to admit to her abilities, Nicola chooses to follow the path set in front of her is a bit of a mystery, as is her reason for helping a woman she really doesn’t know. Kearsley seems more focused on showing readers what will happen to Nicola than on explaining her motivations for helping a complete stranger. As the impetus for Nicola’s journey, it seems a bit weak.
That weak start, however, in no way spoils the book, which is reminiscent of both A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Alice Hoffman’s Turtle Moon. The Firebird is a thick tapestry, colored by rich details and interesting characters. Kearsley sets an enchanting stage, expertly capturing people, places, and periods of time and deftly moving from Nicola’s story to the parallel story in the book, that of Anna Moray.
Nicola’s initial vision of the firebird reveals Anna to her, sending her from England to Scotland (where she hooks up with an old flame and fellow psychic) to Belgium to Russia. With psychic friend Rob’s help, Nicola is able to see into the past and to track Anna as she herself follows her own journey, also one of self-discovery.
Despite the centuries that divide them, Nicola’s and Anna’s stories are not dissimilar. In fact, they may be too similar in some ways, particularly when it comes to the somewhat clichéd romances the two women fall into. Both, for instance, become smitten with men they resist. In Anna’s world the cliché is especially predictable: she hates him, she loves him, she hates him, she loves him. Nicola’s own romance is a bit trite as well: she loves him, she leaves him, she comes back to him, they fight, they get back together. No real surprises in either love angle, which may be a disappointment to some readers.
The somewhat hackneyed romances, however, aren’t enough to derail either storyline, both of which are punctuated with compelling history and interesting details about the art world. Kearsley has a lovely eye for scenery, drawing tableaux that create an evocative sense of time and place. Although the settings are gorgeous, Kearsey sometimes veers into explanations of key events that are much too facile, wrought seemingly in the desire to ensure that each of the various subplots of the novel culminates in a happy ending.
Not that there’s anything wrong with happy endings. Jane Austen made her name in happy endings. Because Nicola grows as a person, we can forgive the pollyannish aspects of the novel. Because the telling of the story is so rich, so well done, we can forgive both the flimsy foundation that sets Nicola on her journey as well as the overly simplistic way in which the tricky aspects of the novel are tied up, all neat and tidy.
Kearsley is a fine storyteller, even if she doesn’t exactly challenge the reader. For readers who like their romance with a little history, or their history with a little romance, The Firebird is a fine choice.
June 2013, Sourcebooks/Landmark
$16.99, trade paperback, 539 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen