Nicola Marter has a special talent, but it’s one that she doesn’t like to admit to – by touching an object she is able to see the history of the other people who have held that same object in the past. When a woman brings a wooden carving of a Russian firebird into the art gallery where Nicola works, asking for a valuation, Nicola is faced with a dilemma. The woman claims that the firebird was given to one of her ancestors by Empress Catherine of Russia and when Nicola holds the carving in her hands she knows that this is the truth, but unless she can find a way to prove it the carving is worth nothing.
Nicola decides to find out all she can about the history of the firebird but as her own psychic abilities are not strong enough, she enlists the help of an old boyfriend, Rob McMorran. Rob shares her special gift of psychometry, but while Nicola tries to keep hers a secret, Rob is happy for everyone to know about his powers. This difference in attitude is the reason they ended their relationship several years earlier, but Nicola knows that Rob is the only person who can help her now. Together they trace the path of the firebird from Slains Castle in Scotland to a convent in Belgium and finally to eighteenth century St Petersburg, and along the way they unravel the story of a young girl called Anna and learn how the Empress’s wooden firebird came to be in her possession.
This book surprised me because based solely on the synopsis, I’d expected to be learning about Russian history, but instead the focus is on Scottish history, particularly the Jacobites (the supporters of the deposed King James VII of Scotland – and II of England – and his heirs). I’ve read other historical fiction novels about the Jacobite Risings and always find it a sad subject to read about; the Jacobites were so devoted to their cause and so hopeful of success, but we know that all their efforts would only end in tragic failure. Yet somehow, in all my previous reading about the Jacobites, I had missed the fact that as well as looking to France and Spain for support, there was also a community of Jacobites working in Russia. It was interesting to read the author’s note at the end of the book and find out a bit more about the historical aspects of the story, including which of the eighteenth century characters really existed and which were fictional.
I often see Susanna Kearsley compared to Mary Stewart and in this book, the telepathic connection between Nicola and Rob reminded me of the one between Bryony and her secret lover in Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, who could also read each other’s minds and communicate without words – though of course Nicola and Rob have the additional ability of being able to see into the past and watch the actions of people who lived many years ago. I loved following Anna’s story (especially in the earlier chapters set in Scotland and Ypres) but I also enjoyed the contemporary storyline and the interactions between Rob and Nicola. The transitions from one time period to another were smooth and natural and I thought the balance between the two felt right.
The Firebird is a sequel to Sophia’s Secret (or The Winter Sea depending on which country you’re in) and the character of Rob has also appeared in another Kearsley book, The Shadowy Horses. I haven’t read either of those two books yet, though that didn’t seem to be a problem as we are given all the background information we need early in the novel. I’m still looking forward to going back and reading them both, even if I’ve done things in the wrong order!