‘These Feathered Flames’ is a queer retelling of the Russian folktale of the Firebird, but reads more like a beautifully layered political fantasy. Packed with secrets, betrayals, and ethical dilemmas, it twists and turns, ensuring the reader never knows what’s coming next.
When twins are born to the Queen of Tourin, their fate is certain – one will be raised to rule, and one will become the feared and revered Firebird, tasked with maintaining the balance of magic in the realm. Separated as young children, Asya and Izaveta live completely different lives. However, when the Queen dies suddenly, both are thrust into their new roles unprepared. Asya grapples with her power – the Firebird must commit terrible atrocities to maintain stability, but the consequences of her soft heart could be even worse. Izaveta, meanwhile, finds her position as heir precarious, older and more powerful advisers moving from all sides to depose her. The sisters must decide who they can trust – and what they will sacrifice for the sake of the Queendom.
Of the two sisters, Asya is definitely my favourite. The Firebird is a ruthless creature, balancing out the use of magic by exacting tithes – and leaving death and destruction in its wake. Its carrier, however, is gentle and kind-hearted, always seeking to defend rather than attack and wanting peace above all else. Asya loves her sister, despite their differences, and will do anything to ensure the Firebird hurts as few people as possible. Her kindness makes her vulnerable – including to her own power – but it also gives her a sense of strength and resolve. Asya’s many mistakes are all borne from good intentions. It’s hard not to like such an intrinsically nice person – and it doesn’t hurt that she has a beautiful friendship with her pet bear, Mischka.
Izaveta, meanwhile, has been raised by a Queen renowned for being a hard, uncompromising ruler – and she had no soft side for her daughter. Izaveta is seen as weaker, unfit for rule, and fights this by trying to be even colder than her mother was. She trusts few, and sees other people more as pawns than fellow humans. However, Izaveta is human, and she does care – perhaps too much – about her Queendom, and especially her sister Asya. She might not be a nice person, but she’s not an evil one. Raised to care about power and control above all else, she struggles to see the world as anything other than a chessboard for her to shape – but she has a heart, and its when she listens to it that she’s at her strongest. Despite everything, its hard not to sympathise with Izabeta and her plight.
The plot is the book’s highlight. Alternating in perspective between Asya and Izabeta, it follows their separate quests – Asya’s to control her power and track down a magic user who has unbalanced the scales, and Izabeta’s to garner enough support to be elected queen. Asya’s storyline is faster paced, with threats around every corner – to Asya, from an unknown foe, to the world, from the unbalancing of the magic scales, and from Asya, as she struggles to control the Firebird within. Izabeta’s is slower, but no less fraught with tension. She has few allies, and even those she doesn’t know if she can trust. Every move she makes is a gamble, every move she doesn’t make an opportunity lost. Like Asya, she grapples with her conscience – although while Asya wears her heart on her sleeve, emotions burning like flame, Izabeta’s heart is hidden away with only small cracks in her icy facade.
The majority of the book takes place in the palace, but there are hints of the Russian inspired setting. Outings are made riding bears, rather than horses, and the surrounding forest has the feel of a cold, snowy place. The palace itself also feels cold – but more because of its inhabitants than its setting. There are no sanctuaries for the characters – only hard choices with bitter consequences.
The sapphic romance is a slow-burn enemies-to-lovers and beautifully written. Every element feels authentic – the hatred at the start is clear, and the gradual move to begrudging friendship and finally more is carefully done. Its very much a side element, with the central relationship that of the sisters – and even to an extent between Asya and the Firebird – but it provides an element of warmth to the story.
Overall, ‘These Feathered Flames’ is an excellent political fantasy novel with intriguing elements of Russian folklore. Its marketed as YA, and has clear coming-of-age components, but very much has cross-market appeal to adult fantasy fans. Recommended for all fans of political fantasy, folklore, and morally grey characters.
Published by HarperCollins
Hardback: 10th June 2021