Sophie Masson,
The Firebird
(Hodder Headline, 2001)

Sophie Masson, an Australian writer with an extensive background in medieval history and folklore, draws upon her expertise to produce yet another masterful fantasy novel. Based on a famous Russian legend that many others have used to inspire their books, Masson's take on the tale offers refreshing new variations on the theme.

In this latest spin on the firebird mythos, Masson sets up the familiar characters in their milieu: the courts of old Russia of a thousand years or so ago where powerful, greedy Tsar Demyan favors his two oldest sons, brutal Yuri and sly Igor, who take after their father, while the youngest prince, Ivan, possesses keen intelligence and a kind and gentle nature (much like his dear departed mother). Ivan endures the endless taunts and torments of his brothers, unpleasantries made worse when Yuri gets betrothed to the girl the youngest sibling has loved nearly all his life -- the bold, bright and beauteous Princess Tamara, only daughter of the king of nearby Vakhtania and a descendant of the legendary enchantress Medea.

The real excitement begins when Ivan witnesses the fabled firebird alighting on a rare apple tree in his father's garden. Lusting to possess the magical creature, the Tsar commands his sons to go forth on a quest to capture it and return with it to the palace. Resolved to be the first to find the winged wonder, Ivan embarks on a journey that Masson embellishes with many creative elements all her own, departing from the well-known versions of the story.

Ivan soon finds himself joined by the mysterious and brave youth Bogatyr and a feisty female shape-shifter, Grey Wolf. The narrative alternates from following Ivan and his new friends' adventures to depicting the trials of Yuri and Igor in hot pursuit. Subsequent encounters with a variety of colorful and frequently magical entities affect the travelers according to their inner natures, edifying experiences handled in a thrilling and entertaining manner.

Ivan and company receive the dubious aid of a leshi, a trickster-type being out of folklore. All the journeyers, however, must cope with Caspian merchant caravans, a wise poet Rusta'veli and his vital knowledge about how to find the firebird (information that does not come without a price), an old babushka with formidable occult powers who is far more than she seems, and the mysterious, magical gift items she offers them. Paralleling Ivan, Yuri and Igor separately deal with Lady Jezebel of the House of Mizrat, her sorcery and her enslaved dragon with a terrible secret. When all the seekers, having traversed far through exotic and dangerous lands, at last arrive at their goal, Al Falak, the Desert of Stone and dwelling place of the firebird, their destinies and true natures become clear in satisfying and surprising ways. The leshi plays a particularly interesting part in the resolution no less than the firebird.

Sophi Masson's The Firebird, written in her clear and polished prose that perfectly conveys the flavor of the colorful and varied folkloric sources of her tale, offers fully fleshed-out, plausibly motivated characters -- male, female and supernatural -- that will appeal to contemporary readers of all ages while losing none of their novelized fairy tale charm. The vivid settings, the spellbinding magic in and of the narrative, the provocative choices the protagonists and the antagonists must face and the shimmeringly skillful, swift-paced storytelling, makes The Firebird a flight of fantasy well worth following.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 16 October 2001