A queer retelling of The Firebird Russian folktale!
When twin heirs are born in Tourin, their fates are decided at a young age. While Izaveta remained at court to learn the skills she’d need as the future queen, Asya was taken away to train with her aunt, the mysterious Firebird, who ensured magic remained balanced in the realm. But before Asya’s training is completed, the ancient power blooms inside her, which can mean only one thing: the queen is dead, and a new ruler must be crowned. As the princesses come to understand everything their roles entail, they’ll discover who they can trust, who they can love—and who killed their mother.
Content warning: Death of a parent, on page emotional abuse, references to physical abuse, on page death fantasy violence.
These Feathered Flames by Alexandra Overy is a compelling fantasy full of politicking, intrigue, and mystery, bathed in a lovely ethereal glow of magic and sisterhood. But if the left part of your brain is looking for less abstraction and more material consideration, the theme that runs throughout this book like a raging fire, is self-determination, or in this case, lack thereof. You see, for these twins, Asaya and Izaveta, the ability to determine their own fate was taken from them at an early age. And worse still, rather than being allowed to face these uncertain futures together, they were unceremoniously torn apart for seven years. A immense cruelty, that down the road would prove more problematic than simply an act of civil maleficence.
So, as Asaya was sent to live faraway and be groomed by then Firebird, Aunt Tarya, Izaveta was confined in the palace, also being mentored for something great, to one day be Queen. Their mother, the current Queen, while an effective ruler, was unemotional and uncaring towards Izaveta, thoughtfully preparing her daughter for the rigors of Queendom. Likewise, Aunt Tarya was cold and distant when it came to matters of the heart, training Asaya with the rigidity of hardened disciplinarian. Tragedy strikes when the Queen mother unexpectedly and mysteriously dies, and as per the rules, the twins are reunited after spending their formative years apart, to fulfill their destiny as Queen and Firebird. But how their reunion fares and how the twins react to being promoted much sooner than they had expected (hoped) is how and where this story begins.
Alexandra doesn’t waste too much time here, getting the twins together quickly and kicking off what would be an ever-unfolding mystery. All the while, Asya and Izaveta are trying to fulfill their predetermined duties, prepared or not, under enormous pressure. This learning on the job approach is both entertaining and practical as the twins have not only reunification to deal with, but the burden of expectation, and the gravity of the situation, which I’m here to tell you, is immense. Predictably, the end result is a series of mishaps, which of course leads to drama, and drama leads to conflict; didactic situations that pay off big time later on.
One thing I feel the need to mention, you’re going to meet a ton of characters in the first act so I encourage you to make note of as many as you can while they float in and out of the story. Not all are important, but few are unimportant, so, it behooves me to tell you to pay attention. And you’ll be glad you did because, for example, trying to figure out who the antagonists are will occupy much of your time, and while the church’s current favorite son, Vibishop Sanislav, is the leading contender to be the resident asshole, deciding whether or not this angle is a red herring should be the least of your worries. What’s important about him, and which is evident from the opening pages, that this “vessel of God” is no more than a cleric who’s obsessed with power. The reality of it, he’s just a heretic, an apostate who doesn’t know the first thing about what it means to spread the good word, but be weary of him!
The crowded but mostly playful first and second acts give way to a seemingly impossible third act, that definitely requires your focus and attention. To say this book goes out on a bang is an understatement, but if you’ve managed to get a grip on who’s who and what’s what, you’ll be just fine. But there is a lot going on and because the second act is a drawn-out exposition love fest, much like some of the characters, you’ll be glad you made it to the finish line. What I like about Alexandra is that she’s very clever, but not at all furtive. She leaves many clues along the way, some obvious, some require a little more from you, but they’re there, and when the final act unfolds, your level of comprehension will reward you with a very pleasurable experience overall.
No need to spend too much time thinking about the romance angle(s) just yet as they come a little too easy, which means they’re not happening, not yet anyways. There’s intimacy to be sure but so far, we’re just at the role fulfillment stage with a lot of verbal foreplay. Asya even says as much a couple of times, commenting on the probability of it in-universe. But even though they take a backseat to the more important narrative pieces, they are written thoughtfully and with a certain amount of care, so much that I’m sure book two will turn up the heat considerably. But, in a book about self-discovery and self-determination, baby steps. Because these sisters don’t even know themselves yet well enough yet, let alone to be defined by a relationship so, again, this is smart character work on the part of Alexandra.
Overall, this is a dense yet satisfying read that I flew through. The character work, especially the sisters, is leading the charge here with others getting opportunities to shine. Alexandra gives us more than enough excuses to form a strong emotional attachment to Asaya and Izaveta, despite some less-than-dubious actions on the part of the latter. But faced with enormous responsibility, threats from just about everywhere, any mistakes on their part can and must be forgiven. Remember, both sisters were deprived of the means to live in the present and live consciously, instead born and bred for a higher purpose, always for the good (or bad) of the mob.
Of the two sisters, for me, Isaveta is the stronger character getting the best start to finish exploration. But they are both doing the best they can with what they’ve got, and with their list of allies never a sure thing, it’s each other they’ll have to look to for not only love, but survival. Not that Asya is a slouch, because conventional wisdom be dammed, she chooses to break the cycle and live intentionally, with purpose, and it’s fucking great.
The mythology and folklore are handled deftly, with caring hands. Based on a Russian folktale called “The Firebird”, it’s clear Alexandra has an affinity towards the culture, even going so far to include a very handy pronunciation guide at the back. And instead of expositions dumps followed by MORE exposition dumps, Alexandra drops knowledge on you and lets it breathe for a bit before moving onto the next. And yes, the second act is full of information you’ll need later on, but it never feels overwhelming, only if you let it. In that regard, she’s a reader’s author, clearly writing with us in mind.
It’s hard to say really if she’s built a truly compelling world as we spend 90% of the time in and around the palace. The rare looks we do get outside of the grounds seem intriguing enough and essentially, what’s there is good, often great, but here’s hoping we go on an adventure or two, stretch the map a little bit. Again, this is an area like the romance aspect where book one serves as a bit of a primer for and will open-up considerably in book two.
So, after just barely scratching the surface here, the bottom line is These Feathered Flames is pretty good stuff and easily warrants a look at book two. Alexandra’s character work is strong, with a cast, that to a person, each has both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing what they do. Self-determination and survival are pretty strong motivators to be sure, and she ensures both are represented with equal weight, good intentions or bad.
Available now, These Feathered Flames is a great cover to cover read and also has a killer epilogue, something I’m personally a big fan of. Don’t wait, get in on this series from the ground floor and pick up a copy today!
About the Author:
Alexandra grew up in London and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her undergraduate degree in history at UCLA. She then went on to compete her MFA in screenwriting also at UCLA, and stuck around for the weather and great ice cream. She loves writing in all formats, from novels to screenplays to graphic novels, always centering on fierce women and morally grey characters, often with a bit of magic and murder. When she’s not writing, she can be found baking, fangirling over her favorite books, or cuddling her kittens.
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