Read for the Once Upon a Time V Reading Challenge.
In this retelling of the Russian fairy tale, Ilya is the middle son of tsar Ivan, a rather brutish man who has raised his sons to distrust and prey upon each other. Ilya is the smartest of the sons, and therefore most prone to be picked on, because his brothers believe him to be a sorcerer. Fortunately, Ilya is friends with the priest, the shaman and the head of the kitchen, who are there to nurse him back to health every time his brothers decide to give him a particularly bad beating.
Ivan has a cherry orchard, and the cherries are for his consumption alone, but someone has been stealing the cherries. So Ivan orders each of his sons in turn to find out who the thief is. Ilya, fourth in line, decides early on to get the lay of the land, and so sneaks into the orchard to watch each of his older brothers. He is the only one that discovers that the thief is the Firebird – a magical bird with feathers of flame that transforms into a beautiful maiden. Because he has seen her, he is cursed with bad luck, and that next day, his suspicious brothers give him the worst beating yet. With the support of his few friends, and to protect himself from the next beating, which will likely kill him, Ilya decides to pretend that the beating has left him simple minded. As the Fool, he is largely ignored, even by his brothers, how no longer perceive him to be a threat.
However, as a prank, they drag him along on a hunt, and Ilya gets lost. Fortunately, though she has cursed him with bad luck, the Firebird has given him the gift of hearing the speech of animals, and Ilya travels through the forest, until he reaches the castle of the Katchsei. There, he finds the Firebird again, this time trapped the Katchsei’s orchard. Because he helps her escape, she helps him find his way into the Katchsei’s castle, where the twelve most beautiful maidens in the world are imprisoned, and Ilya decides to free them, with the Firebird’s help.
This is a fun retelling of this tale. Ilya’s home and family are brutal, but the few friends he has there show how he can still retain a shred of humanity, despite being part of such a family.
The action really picks up when Ilya is lost on the hunt, and the journey to the Katchsei’s castle, as well as the action there, are just good fun. Mercedes Lackey spins a good fairy tale, and this one does not disappoint.