[ Book Review ] The Firebird That Wasn’t

Firebirds: an Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction

edited by Sharyn November

In Russian fairytales, the firebird is a kind of glowy Gandalf who helps the main character overcome man-eating wolves, immortal evil overlords, and overprotective fathers. She is not to be confused with a phoenix (depicted to the right), a Middle-Eastern (and/or Greco-Asian) mythological creature that rises from the ashes every time it croaks and appears in the Harry Potter books to grant the main characters a variety of minor cheats.

I haven’t seen many western takes on the firebird folktales, (Mercedes Lackey’s Firebird comes to mind; comment if you know of any others!), so I was so very excited to pick up Firebirds, an anthology of short stories by superfamous YA and Fantasy authors, celebrating Penguin Group’s new “Firebird” imprint.

Firebird! The magic bird that shapeshifts to human but never hooks up with the guy. Who knows more about what’s going on than all of the characters combined. Who flies off into the sunset at the end of every story.

And this is why I can’t stress the following enough, this book is not about firebirds.

There’s not a single firebird (or phoenix, or bird set a-fire) in the entire anthology. In fact, the stories range from a commentary on the plight of the common man in the face of unemployment by Lloyd Alexander to Sherwood Smith’s short story (which I enjoyed) sequel to her fantasy duology, Crown Duel and Court Duel.

Even the Anthology of Original Fantasy part of the title isn’t a perfect fit:

“Chasing the Wind” by Elizabeth E. Wein had no fantasy elements to it, and “The Black Fox” by Emma Bull (an author whose writing I particularly enjoy) turns out to be a comic, illustrated by Charles Vess. A little dizzy, I ended up wondering at the decision to include Kara Dalkey’s scene-by-scene retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen–transposed to medieval Japan.

In short, I was completely thrown by how Firebirds, An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction turned out to be significantly less about the former and more about the latter. But…

But!

There are quite a few glowy jewels in the collection anyway. Diana Wynne Jones delivers as she always has, and Nancy Springer creates a fantastic world where…well, see for yourself:

“I’ve lost my soul?”  Aimee repeated, almost losing her usual perfect control.

The doctor nodded.  “I think so. Probably in early adolescence. It happens more commonly than you might think.”

The specialist was a W.D., a warlock doctor, a.k.a. Warloctor.  Very professional, she betrayed impatience only by adjusting her turban.  Aimee could not decide whether the big, craggy woman was black or Lebanese or perhaps Hindu, but it didn’t matter.  Nothing seemed to matter.  Not even dieting.  It was this apathy that had landed Aimee here, in this office with pink cabbage roses growing down from the ceiling.

— “Mariposa” by Nancy Springer (p.107)

Moreover, if you are a fan of fairytales retold, this is definitely the short story collection for you. Besides the Japanese version of the Snow Queen by Dalkey, Delia Sherman tips her hat to the legend of Tam Lin, Michael Cadnum retells the story of Medusa, and Meridith Ann Pierce rewrites the Celtic myth of the fall of Ys.

Of the non-mythological variety, I wholeheartedly recommend “The Baby in the Night Deposit Box” by Megan Whalen Turner and Garth Nix’s story, “Hope’s Chest” and its wonderful dose of the Wild West fable.

Picking up the book and looking over the table of contents, I find that, despite everything, I am willing vouch for the awesomeness of at least six of the sixteen short stories.

That’s not bad, Firebirds. Not bad at all.

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7 thoughts on “[ Book Review ] The Firebird That Wasn’t

      • Holy cow! You should read Megan’s ‘The Thief’! 😀

        And then the Queen of Attolia, and the King of Attolia! Yeah, I know ‘The Thief’ sounds very generic, but I enjoyed it immensely 🙂 The Thief can be read as a standalone too.

        • Oh my god, The Thief. That was a childhood favorite book! I…didn’t know that was Megan. I feel silly now. Maybe part of the reason the author’s name didn’t stick was because I read it with the sequel, and upon realizing there were no more books by the author, let the name drop from my mind.

          I’m gonna get my hands on King of Attolia.

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