First of all, kudos to the author for making me want to be transported to eighteenth century Scotland and England, a time that was not particularly pleasant for anyone. Susanna Kearsley has a talent for embedding enough detail and research into her stories about this time period without making them feel weighted. I appreciate the thoroughness of her research and highly recommend reading the author's note following the conclusion of The Firebird in which she elaborates on her research and how she developed the book's characters. It's fascinating to read.
I read The Winter Sea a few years ago and with the exception of the whole haphazard concept of genetic memory, I absolutely loved the book. The Firebird is a continuation of this story, but you can probably follow it well enough without having read the first book. The main characters, Rob and Nicola, possess the ability to see the history of objects by touching them. While working at a museum, Nicola comes into contact with a wood carving of a firebird and becomes captivated by the images of a woman named Anna, an ancestor of the firebird's owner. Nicola enlists the help of her friend (and ex), Rob, to discover the firebird's origins and learn Anna's story.
The Firebird is at its best when we're transported to Anna's world and see her interacting with characters like Colonel Graeme and his sons, Empress Catherine, Captain Jamieson, the nuns at Ypres, Captain Gordon, General Lacy and his family, as well as Edmund. Anna is essentially an orphan and an unknowing political pawn, but her story is unlike most orphan stories because the people she comes into contact with see the best in her and show her compassion. She should be an underdog, but never really is one. While Anna's story is somewhat tragic, it also emphasizes the importance of maintaining hope for a better future and continuing to fight for your beliefs when all seems lost and forgotten.
I enjoyed reading this book, but it isn't as strong of a story as The Winter Sea. I don't think the Russian history we're given is as thorough or complete as that of Scotland and England. When I learned this story would take place in Russia, I knew I had to read it because it would be something different from what I normally read. The focal point of the book is on Anna's Scottish family and political beliefs and not on the firebird or Russian folklore/history/events, which was disappointing and kind of misleading.
In addition to this, I thought Rob and Nicola's modern romance was rather dull. I'm not particularly fond of frame narratives (i.e. a story within a story) because one story is always dominant over the other. It is obvious The Firebird is meant to be Anna's story. I don't understand why the modern aspect was necessary as Nicola and Rob's observations and romance do not add any depth or perspective to the things Anna experienced during her lifetime. The book would have been better had it focused on Anna's life and the modern tale been completely abandoned, but this is simply my own reading preference.