Thursday 26 June 2014

#CBR6 Book 56: "The Firebird" by Susanna Kearsley

Page count: 484 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Nicola Marter has psychometric powers. This means that when she touches an object, she can see glimpses of whoever's owned it or touched it before. Her grandfather, who escaped from Russia, has the same powers and always admonished her to keep the gift hidden, which she does, even from her boss Sebastian, an eccentric and successful antiquities dealer. Yet when a woman, Margaret Ross, comes to them with a wooden carving which she wants authenticated, claiming that it was once owned by Empress Catherine of Russia, Nicola touches the little Firebird and can tell that the woman's story is true. There just isn't any actual proof, and poor Margaret has to go away disappointed. Having cared for sick relatives most of her life, the authentication and sale of the carving could have secured this woman's finances. Nicola can't forget her, and decides that she wants to try and help her, without actually openly revealing her powers.

She'll need help proving the carving's history, though, and turns to a man she hasn't seen in two years, Rob McMorran, whose psychic gifts are much stronger than her own. He agrees to help her, and together they travel first to Dundee in Scotland, and later to Belgium, France and Russia, all to track Anna, Margaret's ancestor, and try to prove that the Firebird carving was a gift from a Russian empress. As they travel, their feelings for one another start to resurface. But can they ever have a future when they feel so differently about their psychic gifts?

Nicola is an intensely private person, keeping her psychic gifts hidden from everyone around her, always remembering the dire warnings from her grandfather. Apart from her family, only a very few people in the world know what she can do, Rob McMorran is one of them. Nicola met him while studying in Edinburgh, and his psychic powers are much more extensive than hers, he has premonitions and visions, and much more control of his gifts than she ever managed. The two shared an attraction that could have turned into something more significant, if Nicola hadn't gotten spooked and run away. Now, two years later, she realises that she can't help Margaret without Rob's aid.

Nicola is about to go to Russia to acquire a mural for her boss. What better time to investigate further into the Firebird carving Margaret Ross wanted authenticated? Nicola doesn't think her own powers are strong enough to trace through the centuries to Margaret's ancestor, so she goes to Berwick Upon Tweed to find Rob. If he were to come with her to Dundee, to see Margaret a second time, and touch the carving, he may give her enough clues as to what to search for in St. Petersburg. She wants to prove that the carving originated with the Russian Empress, so Margaret can sell it and get enough money to travel the world.

Rob is a police officer in Berwick and also works as a volunteer lifeguard. It's obvious that the entire town knows about his abilities and that they are a great aid to him in his work. One of the reasons Nicola fled from Edinburgh is because she felt that her powers made her a freak, and she has trouble accepting that Rob can so proudly and openly display his clairvoyance. When she turns up in Berwick, it becomes obvious that he was already expecting her and he's cleared his schedule so he can come with her on her journey.

Their quest to authenticate the carving takes them on a longer and more complicated trip than Nicola had anticipated. When tracking Anna, Margaret's ancestor, who Nicola saw being given the carving by the Empress in her first vision, they first go further north in Scotland to Slains castle, only to discover that she was taken from Scotland to Belgium as a young girl.

When Anna Logan is about eight, she discovers that the family that has raised her isn't actually her own, and that her parents gave her up as a baby to keep her safe. Her great uncle arrives to take her to a convent in Belgium, as in 1715, it was not safe for Jacobites in Scotland and as both Anna's real parents were prominent Jacobites, there are fears for her safety. Traveling with her great uncle is the injured Lieutenant Jamieson, who Anna takes to seeing as a sort of surrogate father. They spend a lot of time together until Jamieson's leg heals, and he promises to return before too long to take Anna from the convent to her family.

Even in the Belgian convent, Anna is not entirely safe. There are those who would use her as leverage to get to her family and relatives, all Jacobites, and through a series of dramatic events, Anna has to flee the convent and eventually ends up in St. Petersburg with a kindly naval captain, who in time becomes vice admiral to the Russian Tsar. Anna is raised in his family alongside his own daughters, but always feels a longing for her real family. To aid her foster father's further rise in society, Anna goes to live with General Lacy, as a companion to his pregnant wife. There she meets the roguish Edmund O'Connor, the general's Irish kinsman. Initially, they are constantly at each other's throats, but time and proximity causes their feelings to develop into something deeper.

Suddenly reunited with Rob, spending so much time with him chasing through Europe and Russia for Anna's history, Nicola's feelings towards him start to reawaken. They have to be in physical contact to share the visions of the past, and Rob always behaves as a perfect gentleman, almost like a brother much of the time. At other times, he confuses her by being decidedly flirtatious. During their journey, Rob keeps pushing her to use her psychic abilities more and more, challenging her perceptions that being able to do such things are bad or undesirable things. He can't understand why she hides and represses her talents; she is unnerved at how willing he is to show his skills to the world.

There are two parallel stories in The Firebird, a narrative device that may seem familiar to anyone whose read any of Kearsley's other books. This book is actually a sequel to one of Kearsley's previous novels, The Winter Sea, known as Sophia's Secret in the UK. It is also, as far as I could tell, loosely connected with her book The Shadowy Horses, where Rob McMorran first appeared. Anna Logan is actually Anna Moray, the daughter of Sophia and John from The Winter Sea. Her life is an eventful one, and throughout she seeks love, belonging and to be reunited with her true family. That's not to say that she doesn't experience a lot of love and care in both of her foster families. The Logans and later the Gordons care for her deeply, and while she doesn't have the life that her parents wished for her, it's by no means a bad one.

I read The Winter Sea a long time ago now, and must admit that I no longer remember all the details of the plot. I do remember finding Kearsley's writing completely spell-binding though, and being drawn into the story, captivated by the story lines in both the past and the present. It's exactly the same with this book. When I read Lauren Willig's The Pink Carnation series, I tend to get annoyed every time I have to leave the story of the brave spies of the past, always feeling that the jumps back to the framing story in the present is a bit like getting an ad break just as the movie you're watching is getting really good. Here, I was almost more compelled to read about Nicola and Rob in the present day, although Anna's story was also fascinating. It's a big book, which takes its time to reveal its secrets. I especially loved the sections in St. Petersburg, which I was lucky enough to visit about five years back. This book really made me want to return there.

The carving that Nicola is trying to authenticate is a Firebird, which appears in several Russian folktales. There are several different versions, but they all seem to amount to the same thing: whoever goes to chase after a Firebird, may return from their journey with something entirely different than what they originally set out to find. This is absolutely the case for both Nicola and Anna, and I very much enjoyed taking part in their romantic journeys.

This is the third Kearsley novel I have read, and I can see why she's so popular among her fans. I would also like to emphasise that while this book is a sequel, and seems connected to some of Kearsley's other books, it works fine on its own, and as it features a lot of the narrative devices I've seen in other of her novels, can be a great introduction to her writing.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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