This is the sequel to The Sorceress and the Cygnet, where we first met the ruling family of Ro Holding. The Holder has three daughters, the youngest of whom, Nyx, is a sorceress, and through the course of the first book, also becomes the heir to the holding.
In The Cygnet and the Firebird, Nyx is challenged to explore her power further when a mysterious mage shows up at the Holding to try and steal something from the rooms of the ancient mage Chrysom, one of the Holding’s ancestors, a powerful mage from his time. At the heels of this mage, a firebird also appears – and not much later, they discover that this firebird is an enchanted man, who only regains his form by moonlight.
Nyx and her cousin Meguet gradually tease out the identity of both the mage and the firebird, who are friends from a land far from Ro Holding in both land, and time. It’s up to Nyx to discover how to travel through the paths of time to restore the firebird to his true form.
This duology is probably the densest of McKillip’s books that I’ve yet read. I remember in the last book feeling like I’d stepped into a world with no guidebook, and this book continues in that theme. The lands visited – Ro and Saphier – are as beautifully drawn as any of McKillip’s lands, but this is a world that’s difficult to wade into – it’s fully drawn, and not always explained. It’s not to say that essential details are left out, but I confess to not always dealing well with background information with no back story when there’s too much thrown at me at once. I don’t want to imply that I didn’t enjoy the book, but these two are probably my least favorite McKillip books. Still, I’ll take a bad McKillip book any day over much of the rest of the crap that’s out there.