This was kind of an impulse buy – I just wandered around Barnes and Noble until a book cover spoke to me, and after reading the back blurb I bought it, and boy am I glad I did.
The story goes back and forth in time (hence the “semi-historical fiction”) in my title. In the present, the story is narrated by Nicola Marter, a young woman of Russian descent who lives in England and works for the owner of an art gallery. She has some psychic abilities that she hides and tries not to use. She comes across a woman at work with a carved wooden firebird that supposedly was a gift to an ancestor from Empress Catherine of Russia back in the 1700s. There is no proof of this, but Nicola knows from her psychic ability that the story is true. Upon finding out a little more about the woman, Nicola decides to try to find proof, and she enlists the help of former boyfriend Rob.
Nicola and Rob had met a few years before when both were part of a research study into ESP. Rob is also a psychic, and his ability is much stronger than Nicola’s. He also doesn’t hide it and even uses it in his work as a police officer in Scotland, where he and his ability are accepted. They dated until Nicola felt embarrassed about being psychic and wanted to hide it and hide from it. After Nicola seeks his help, they travel around Scotland and St. Petersburg, Russia, to use their abilities to learn more about the history of the firebird.
In the past, the story follows Anna, the woman who had received the firebird from Empress Catherine. Rob and Nicola use their abilities to observe her throughout her life in various locations, trying to learn when, where, and how she had been gifted the firebird. This is where my only quibble with the novel comes in; Anna’s story is being told in the 3rd person omniscient voice. Nicola and Rob appear to view the past as though it were a film, so how would they know Anna’s thoughts and feelings? I tried to just view it as Nicola narrating the story with some artistic license to make it more interesting, but it was hard for me to let that go.
I think substantially more time is spent on Anna’s story than on Nicola’s, although that could just be how it felt. Her story was interesting, I really liked her as a character, and Kearsley did a lot of research on Russian and British history of the time and used names and some biographical information of real people within the novel. I tend to like sci-fi and ESP-type elements, so that really worked for me, but I think people who don’t like that kind of thing may still enjoy the book. It takes center stage more at the beginning and end than in middle, although it’s always present to some degree during the parts when Nicola is narrating from the first person.
This might be the first book I’ve rated 5 stars for Cannonball Read. For me, that rating is generally reserved for books that I think are worth re-reading. I really enjoyed this one, from the writing, to the characters, to the history. Historical fiction typically isn’t my cup of tea, but having the back and forth between past and present (without time travel being involved) worked for me. I highly recommend.