Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A fantasy and fairy tale book that just doesn't make it

There are a lot of fantasy novels that retell traditional fairy tales and folklore. Some give them a modern setting, such as Orson Scott Card’s Enchanted or Vertigo’s Fables series. Others combine several pieces of folklore into one story, as in the Parasol Protectorate series and Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy. The only way to differentiate between stories in this genre is quality, and I am sorry to say that Mercedes Lackey’s Firebird just doesn’t rise to the challenge.

In places the story comes so close to shining. At first, Ilya Ivanovich is a fairly sympathetic character. Essentially orphaned at birth, he not nearly as vicious , or stupid, as the rest of his father’s sons. At age three, he is taken under the wing of Mother Galina, the woman in charge of the dairy, who gentles him and encourages him to be more than his brothers are turning out to be. He also spends quite a bit of time with Father Mikail and Ruslan, the priest and shaman or Ivan’s realm. Unfortunately, along with either trying to save Ilya soul or teach him about the spirits of the land, they spend an equal amount of time patching him up after the beatings that his brothers hand out.

Lackey, does a fantastic job building up the world of Ilya. We learn just enough about the side characters, the serfs and servants in the house, and even Ilya’a ancestors in the crypt, to really want to more about the lands under tsar Ivan’s rule. It’s as if Lackey is setting up a series set across the generations of rulers and people of this land. I would have loved to read that series.

Instead, we follow the adventures of Ilya himself. Admittedly, the trouble he gets into while still at home and the solutions he comes up with are pretty clever and fun to watch. I can even forgive him the rather excessive skirt-chasing as simply something that rich boys his age do.

The story starts seriously going downhill when he leaves home and starts adventuring. We meet more characters that deserve their own stories to be told, and as the supporting characters get more interesting, Ilya gets less so. Even with all the ill luck in the world, he still finds even more trouble for himself with his silly skirt-chasing. Eventually, he pretty much deserves whatever disaster befalls him next, because he can’t leave well enough alone. By the final pages I have lost all sympathy for our poor hero, and almost find the ending a letdown.

Mercedes Lackey is a master of fairy tale fantasy. This amazing talent is seen in her Elemental Masters series. Unfortunately, all the pieces never come together in Firebird, and we are left holding a mediocre book in a series that could be fantastic, but will probably never come to being.

Highs: Al the side characters, but especially the “odd couple” of Father Mikail and Ruslan

Lows: How do people as intelligent and educated as Ilya just keep doing stupid thing?

Verdict: The first two thirds are worth the reading time, but don’t bother unless you’re stuck without anything better

Further Reading: The Fire Rose, Enchanted

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