Nicola Marter was born with a gift. When she touches an object, she sometimes sees images; glimpses of those who have owned it before. It’s never been a gift she wants, and she keeps it a secret from most people, including her practical boss Sebastian, one of London’s premier dealers in Russian art.
But when a woman offers Sebastian a small wooden carving for sale, claiming it belonged to Russia’s Empress Catherine, it’s a problem. There’s no proof. Sebastian believes that the plain carving—known as “The Firebird”—is worthless. But Nicola’s held it, and she knows the woman is telling the truth, and is in desperate need of the money the sale of the heirloom could bring.
Compelled to help, Nicola turns to a man she once left, and still loves: Rob McMorran, whose own psychic gifts are far greater than hers. With Rob to help her “see” the past, she follows a young girl named Anna from Scotland to Belgium and on into Russia. There, in St. Petersburg—the once-glittering capital of Peter the Great’s Russia—Nicola and Rob unearth a tale of love and sacrifice, of courage and redemption…an old story that seems personal and small, perhaps, against the greater backdrops of the Jacobite and Russian courts, but one that will forever change their lives.
And here is Malin's review:
Nicola keeps her psychic gift – her psychometry – secret from everyone around her, warned by her Russian grandfather that she mustn’t reveal her abilities to anyone. Apart from her family, only a few people in the world know what she’s able to do. One of them is Rob McMorran, a man she while studying in Edinburgh. His psychic gifts were much greater than hers, and they shared an attraction that may have turned into something greater, if Nicola hadn’t gotten spooked and run away. Now she realizes that she’ll need Rob’s help.
Nicola is about to go to Russia to acquire a mural for her boss. What better time to investigate further into the case of the Firebird carving that Margaret Ross brought to their office to have authenticated? Nicola doubts that her powers are strong enough that she can manage on her own, and she goes to Berwick upon Tweed to see Rob for the first time in over two years. Her plan is that he’ll come with her to Dundee, where Ms. Ross lives, and with his psychic gifts, she may get more clues as to what to search for in St. Petersburg to help prove that the carving was originally in the possession of the Russian Empress.
Rob is a police officer in Berwick and works as a volunteer lifeguard. It’s quite obvious that the entire town knows about his abilities, and that they are a great aid to him in his job. One of the reasons Nicola couldn’t stay in Edinburgh, was that she felt that her powers made her a freak, and she can’t quite understand how Rob can so proudly and openly display his clairvoyance. When they meet again, it becomes obvious that he was already expecting her, and he agrees to come with her on her journey.
Their quest to authenticate the carving takes them on a more complicated trip than Nicola had first anticipated. When investigating the life of Margaret Ross’ ancestor, they first go further north in Scotland to Slains castle, only to discover that Anna, the woman who was given the carving originally, was taken from Scotland to Belgium as a young girl.
Anna Logan discovers when she’s about eight that the family she’s grow up in are not actually her own, and that her parents had to give her up to keep her safe. Her great uncle comes and takes her to Belgium to stay in a convent, as in 1815, it was not safe for Jacobites in Scotland, and he fears for her safety. Traveling with him is the injured Lieutenant Jamieson, who Anna grows very close to. He spends a lot of time with her until his leg is fully healed, and promises to return to the convent to bring her to her family before too long.
However, as Anna’s parents and relatives are all prominent Jacobites, there are those who would want to use her as leverage to gain secrets. She has to leave the convent, and eventually, through a series of dramatic events, ends up going to St. Petersburg with a naval captain, who eventually becomes vice admiral to the Russian tsar. She is raised in his household alongside his own daughters, but always feels longing for her real family. To aid her foster father’s further rise in society, she goes to live with General Lacy, as a companion to his pregnant wife. There she meets the general’s Irish kinsman, a young man named Edmund O’Connor. While they initially seem to always be at odds, time and proximity causes their feelings towards each other to change.
Spending so much time with Rob, chasing through Belgium and France and St. Petersburg for Anna’s history, Nicola’s own feelings are reawakened. While they have to hold hands when sharing visions of the past, Rob behaves like a perfect gentleman, behaving almost like a brother much of the time. At other times, he seems decidedly flirtatious, which confuses Nicola all the more. During their journey, Rob keeps pushing her to use her psychic abilities more and more, and challenging her perceptions that being able to do such unusual things is a bad or undesirable thing. He can’t understand why she represses and hides her talents; she’s afraid of ridicule and 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 readers of other of Kearsley’s books may find familiar. This book is actually a sequel to one of Kearsley’s earlier novels, The Winter Sea (or Sophia’s Secret, as it is known in the UK). It’s also, as far as I understand, loosely connected with her novel The Shadowy Horses, where Rob McMorran first appeared. Anna Logan is actually Anna Moray, 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 the Gordons care for her deeply, and while she may not have had the life her parents wished for her, it’s by no means a bad one.
I read The Winter Sea several years ago, and must admit that unfortunately, I don’t remember all that much about the plot now. I do remember Kearsley’s writing being completely spellbinding though, and being drawn into the story, captivated both by the story in the past and present. When reading Lauren Willig's books in The Pink Carnation series, I tend to get annoyed every time I have to leave the story of the brave spies of the past, which feels interrupted by the framing story set in the present. Here, I was almost more compelled to read about Nicola and Rob, although Anna’s story was also fascinating to me. It’s a big book, which takes its time to reveal all its secrets, and I especially loved the sections set in St. Petersburg, which I was lucky enough to visit about five years back. This book really made me want to return.
The carving that Nicola is trying to authenticate is a Firebird, which appears in several Russian folktales. There are different versions, but all seem to amount to the same thing: whoever goes to chase after the Firebird, may return from the journey with something entirely different from that which they 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.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Not sure what that amounts to using letters, a B+?