Anya Ow’s 2016 The Firebird’s Tale is a stand-alone Russian-themed fantasy novel.
Having decreed that grim-faced Tsarevich Aleksei would marry the first person to make him smile, the Tsar proves a man of his word. Aleksei’s poorly timed smirk earns him betrothal … to Nazar, the man Aleksei saw picking the Tsar’s pocket.
There is more to Nazar than Aleksei perceives. Indeed, there is more to almost everything than Aleksei perceives.
Tale-spinning occasional thief Nazar is a firebird, a supernatural being who can take on the shape of a human. Under the command of someone who knows their true name, firebirds can be quite useful. Thanks to generations of brutal war between humans under the Tsars and the realm of faerie, Nazar may be the last of his kind, making him especially precious.
While Aleksei doesn’t understand quite who he has married, his step-mother Tsaritsa Victoria recognizes Nazar for what he is and what he could be in her hands … if only she could force his true name out of him. Aleksei belatedly realizes that Victoria does not share his indifference to political games. Indeed, she may be more adept at them than Aleksei has heretofore cared to notice.
Nazar sought out the Tsar in hopes of completing a quest set for him by Baba Yaga. Retrieve a certain key from one of the Tsar’s strongholds and deliver it to Baba Yaga, and she will return the firebird’s heart. This will allow Nazar to die, and thus escape this dismal world.
Having fallen for Nazar, Aleksei facilitates the firebird’s escape. Together, they set out in quest of the key. Behind them, a Tsaritsa with bold plans, and a Tsar whose true goals Aleksei never understood. Ahead: a conspiracy of witches. Failure could mean death or worse, but there is no assurance that success will be any better.
I see now a grievous flaw in my system, which is that I don’t check to see if books are in print until beginning my review. I assumed that The Firebird’s Tale would be in print. After all, 2016 is only a couple of years ago. On closer examination, 2016 is almost eight years ago and The Firebird’s Tale is out of print. Not only that, but publisher Less Than Three seems to have stopped publishing in 2018; when I visited their site, I got a malware warning.
This state of affairs is thematically appropriate for this novel, as one of its morals is that reality may be very different from official accounts. Throughout the novel, Nazar entertains Aleksei with fairy tales, none of which ever go quite as one might expect, all of which have the moral that the aristocracy are a collection of power-hungry, greedy, back-stabbing bastards who will cheerfully reduce the world to ashes to enrich themselves even slightly. This seems a harsh view of Russia; when has a Russian leader ever needlessly impoverished his nation in an ill-fated bid to expand his own power?
Aleksei is the weak thread in this narrative. His romance is unconvincing. His peculiar blindness to the political system in which he grew up is odd; it’s hard to see how he managed to survive as long as he did . It is convenient that he is a sullen recluse because it lets other people explain things to him (infodumping), but had Nazar not come along, it seems likely Aleksei would have died young of natural causes, such as being poisoned, stabbed, shot, and/or thrown out of a high window.
It’s a pity Aleksei is a bit of a damp rag, because the novel does have some nice bits. Everyone but Aleksei has a cunning scheme or two on the go, some of which are almost as brilliant as their architects think they are. The writing is competent and the plot moves along nicely towards an ending all but one of the characters do not see coming.
As previously mentioned, The Firebird’s Tale is out of print.
1: Strangely, a culture of relentless betrayal has not engendered in its members superlative skill at conniving or noting other people’s plots bearing down on them. Indeed, if anything it seems to have produced a population of people who are simultaneously paranoid and gullible, unable to distinguish between imaginary malign intent and the genuine article. There is no real-life lesson to be taken from this.