The Firebird: Russian folklore fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsreview Sophie Masson The FirebirdThe Firebird by Sophie Masson

The Firebird is a story made up of a range of Russian folklore, from the gnome-like ‘leshis’ to the greedy tsar to the Firebird itself. It reads like a fleshed-out fairytale, and contains much of the imagery and themes associated with such stories — everything from the persecuted younger brother to the quest narrative to the malevolent ruler of the land to the magical helpers and objects. For this reason, the story may sound rather predictable (and often it is), but as Russian folktales are not often delved into by Western writers, it is worth tracking down for a read.

Ivan is the youngest son of Tsar Demyan, and bullied by his two elder brothers, the brutal Yuri and the sly Igor. Tsar Demyan has the greatest garden in all the world, the centrepiece of which is the apple tree from Avalon on which grows a single golden apple. This apple is said to give the one who eats it immortal life, and so naturally the tsar has it guarded day and night. One day however Ivan is walking in the gardens and spots the beautiful sight of the Firebird — devouring the golden apple.

Fearful of his father’s wrath, he takes a feather left behind by the bird to the tsar and explains the situation. The tsar is immediately obsessed with the bird, and orders his three sons to fetch it — promising the kingdom to the one who brings it back. The three set off, with Ivan determined not to let his evil brothers claim the beautiful bird before hand. A love interest is thrown in for good measure, Princess Tamara, whom Ivan loves but who is betrothed to Yuri. By finding the Firebird, he hopes that he can free Tamara from this dreadful fate.

The journey makes up the bulk of the book, and is brought to life with amazing characters and vivid imagery of forest and desert lands. However, the story itself is quite a tangled lot of threads that aren’t always tied together. Several times there are characters and situations introduced which — though interesting — have no real bearing on the completion of the story. Likewise, there are a couple of characters who go about in disguise, but their “unmasking” is often rather confusing — in one case a person’s real identity is attributed to two totally different characters.

It often falls to several fairytale cliches; obviously this will be the case if the book is a fleshed out fairytale, but the way in which this is presented is not done in a particular original or creative way. For instance, an innkeeper’s wife gives Ivan a flute. Why? Because she can see he has a “good heart”. This in itself is rather silly — what makes it worse it that the flute has no real purpose in the course of the story. If you’re going to use fairytale elements, they need to make sense within the course of the story.

So why should you bother with The Firebird? There is something about Sophie Masson’s wonderful poetic prose and the charisma she displays on every page that is appealing. The characters are well drawn, the settings are beautiful, and she melds several cultures together to make a whole — the afore mentioned Celtic Avalon, the Greek legends of Medea, the Russian Firebird and even a retelling of the French myth of Melusine.

Plus I’ve always had a bit of a thing for the mythological Firebird/phoenix (my favourite character in Harry Potter is Fawkes the phoenix). Sophie Masson is a great author, and although The Firebird isn’t her best work, it’s still an enjoyable read.

The Firebird — (2001) Young adult. Available from Audible. From Author’s website: This novel is based on the Russian fairytale, Prince Ivan, Grey Wolf and the Firebird … and tells the story of the three sons of Tsar Demyan — brutal Yuri, sly Igor, and melancholy Ivan. All three young men must leave the court of their father to bring back the Firebird, a fabulous bird which has invaded the Tsar’s precious garden. But Yuri and Igor try everything in their power to stop Ivan from getting anywhere, and it is lucky for Ivan that he has two friends to help him — the shapeshifting Grey Wolf, and the mysterious youth Bogatyr. But he also doesn’t know if this quest is really for him, for his heart is back with feisty Princess Tamara, daughter of the King of Vahktania, who, alas, has been promised in marriage to his horrible brother Yuri.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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