This novel is built around parallel plots in the past and present, and portrays additional history of the Jacobites. Robbie, a Scottish child seer in a former novel, is now an adult. A policeman and volunteer lifeguard, he accepts his natural ability to see into the thoughts of others, both in the present and past. Nicola feels less comfortable with her similar and equally unusual gift, and Rob challenges her: '...why are ye so afeart of what ye are?'
A London-based art expert of Russian heritage, Nicola has sought him out in the hope that he can assist a Scottish client who wants a wooden firebird appraised and authenticated, saying it has been passed down from an ancestor who was given it long ago by the Empress Catherine in St. Petersburg.
Knowing that Rob might be able to trace the bird, Nicola takes an impromptu trip to Scotland, and before long, she and Rob are on the trail of the historic owner, Anna Moray. Enroute to Nicola's upcoming work assignment in St. Petersburg, they track young Anna to Calais and then to a convent in Ypres. As the child of a Jacobite, she is hidden for her safety and that of her family. Escaping partisan pursuers who would kidnap her, she throws herself on the mercy of a Scottish Jacobite Vice-Admiral who has risen in the Russian Navy, and joins his family as his ward.
As Rob and Nicola track Anna to Catherine's court hoping to learn about the firebird, they discover her love for the exiled Irishman Edmond O'Connor, along with the machinations of the world of spies and counter-spies. Unwilling at first, Nicola hones her gift at Rob's behest. Most skills, he says, are learned, or at least developed. Soon she can see into the past and trace Anna without Rob's help. On her journey, she learns from a wise nun that 'what we do not expect to see, we rarely notice.'
Susanna Kearsley's use of language gives this reader tremendous pleasure. Her stately prose echoes in the mind with the rhythm of an ancient poetic oration. I also love her stunning evocations of historical times and places, neatly juxtaposed with a present that always rings true. Past and present settings are filled with telling details that convey contemporary speech patterns, places and mindsets.
This neatly plotted novel develops in the past and present simultaneously, with startling parallels in the historic and modern story lines. As always, the historic aspects are well-researched, and her fictional characters blend in well with the real historic people who may well have been much as the author describes them.
Thematically, the work portrays issues of courage, identity, and trusting one's own intuition, as both Anna and Nicola acquire the confidence that allows them to become wiser and more mature versions of themselves.The Firebird, also known as the Phoenix, with its bright red and gold plumage, symbolizes regeneration, rebirth and even immortality.