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Literature / Firebird (Lackey)

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A fantasy tale by Mercedes Lackey published in 1996, Firebird is based on The Brothers Grimm's "The Golden Bird", the Russian ballet The Firebird with music by Igor Stravinsky, and several Russian fairy tales, including "Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf."

Ilya Ivanovitch is the middle son of Tsar Ivan (really, he's just a boyar, but he calls himself a tsar) in the country of Rus. His father is a greedy, jealous Jerkass, and Ilya's seven brothers are no better, with Ilya as The Unfavorite.

Then someone starts stealing the Tsar's cherries. These are rare and special cherries, bred to ripen late and satisfy Ivan's sweet tooth after the normal season is over. The thief strikes in the night, and no matter how the Tsar berates and threatens, the guards are always found dead asleep at their posts.


Ivan finally declares that his sons will stand guard over the orchard, one each night in order from eldest to youngest, and whoever catches the thief will be named his heir. While his brothers try and fail, Ilya sneaks into the orchard himself, armed with pins to keep himself from falling asleep, and discovers the truth; the thief is the beautiful, mysterious, and magical Firebird.

Ilya is entranced, but when she sees him, the Firebird flees in terror. Unfortunately, those who see the Firebird are cursed with bad luck so they can't catch her. Seemingly as an apology for this, the Firebird later gifts Ilya with the ability to speak with animals. Adventure ensues.


Tropes found herein include:

  • And I Must Scream: Ilya wonders if the men turned into statues are still alive and aware, and considers it horrible if true. It is true, but he frees them.
  • Androcles' Lion: Ilya gets help from a horse, a nightingale, a fox, and the titular Firebird by saving their lives (or tasty apples, in the horse's case).
  • Be Careful What You Wish For:
    • After he defeats the Katschei, Ilya joyfully claims Tatiana as his bride... and finds out in short order that she's a silly, selfish, spoiled bitch. He'd walk away from a free kingdom in a heartbeat, but Tatiana's so spoiled that she can't look after herself, and so selfish and bitchy that if he walked away no one would lift a finger to help her—and besides, he pledged his word. The closer the wedding comes, the more he regrets not leaving with the Firebird, because she's by far the superior woman (no pun intended) and a far more suitable wife for him. Luckily, Tatiana's even more stupid than Ilya knows...
    • Also a subtle one with the Katschei himself. Ripping out his heart for magical power and near-immortality seems to have taken his ability to enjoy anything else.
  • Celibate Hero: Not by choice, but once Ilya takes on the role of the fool, the women of the palace lose interest in him.
  • The Charmer:
    • Ilya has a way with the ladies and is willing to be patient to get what he wants. According to the bannik, the spirit of the bathhouse, women are prone to talk when men aren't around and they all speak highly of Ilya, even after they've moved to higher stations (and, hence, into his older brothers' or father's beds). In fact, one of the reasons his brothers want him dead is because he's so well-liked by women.
    • Near the end of the book Ilya's POV talks of 'treating a woman like a precious thing worthy of respect', and it's clearly his standard behaviour. Ilya's high opinion with the ladies might be based on the fact that alone out of all the sons, he actually pays attention to their needs.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The nightingale and the fox Ilya frees both come back to help him later.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Ilya's habit of speaking with Exact Words to Mother Galina pays off with the Katschei, as does his ruse as the fool, and his learning to stay awake in the face of the Firebird's music.
  • Complete Immortality: The Katschei, unless his heart is destroyed at his feet. Wounds instantly heal and he cannot bleed, age, or die.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: At one point Ilya muses that if his father Ivan had encouraged his sons to work with each other instead of against each other, he could have created a legendary band of warriors who could have brought him even more land, wealth and fame, and incidentally not ended up in a situation where Ilya had to fake his death and go wandering off into the wilderness.
  • Crying Wolf: Invoked by Ilya and the fox; they get Kaschei to disable his own guard dragon by having it send a series of (apparently) false alarms.
  • Dangerous 16th Birthday: The Katschei has a thing for jailbait (by modern standards anyway). He abducted most of his maidens on the eve of their sixteenth birthdays. At the very end, Ilya mentions that he also took maidens of the eve of their weddings. This might simply be because sixteen was a common marriage age back then.
  • Derailing Love Interests: Ilya catches Tatiana cheating on him with his brother, conveniently freeing him to go seek his real love, the Firebird.
  • Distressed Damsel:
    • The Katschei's maidens. Subverted with Tatiana, who may not have enjoyed being the Katschei's prisoner but certainly developed a taste for the luxuries his magic made available.
    • Ilya's second encounter with the Firebird leads to him freeing her from one of the Katschei's traps.
  • Dumb Muscle: All of Ivan's sons save for Ilya, to varying degrees. Piotr however is the most cunning... not smart, but cunning. The Katschei's demons are even worse.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: And cats, and horses. All the animals around the palace hate Tsar Ivan and Ilya's brothers, calling them the Monsters.
  • Exact Words: The second time Ilya is caught by the Katschei, while continuing to play the fool he speaks only words that are strictly true—he did want to "look like everyone else" (to disguise himself) and "stuff a chicken" like everyone else—while the Katschei's kitchen staff are stuffing chickens for a meal, Ilya was caught stuffing his stolen one with broken crockery to feed to the guard dragon in an attempt to injure it. He never says why he's doing these things, and his fool act lets him get away with it. The Katschei's lieutenant concedes that he's telling the truth, and the Katschei merely banishes him.
  • The Fool: Inverted. Ilya's only pretending to be a fool, and is in fact cursed with bad luck.
  • Forced Sleep: The Firebird's Magic Music induces sleep in all who hear it. She uses this ability to steal Tsar Ivan's cherries from under the noses of his guards. Ilya defeats it by festooning his clothing with pins that poke him if he starts to drop off, and holds another pin in each hand for good measure. It's useless against the Katschei's dragon, which is an automaton that listens only to what it's been ordered to. In the climax, however, Ilya summons the Firebird into the Katschei's throne room and she puts all his monsters to sleep. Even the Katschei is affected strongly enough to give Ilya (once again using pain to counter the effect) enough time to reach his heart and smash it at his feet.
  • Found Family: The story ends with Ilya going a-wandering with the various loyal friends he's made: the fox, the nightingale, and, of course, the Firebird.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Ilya. He's willing to eat meat, of course, but he immediately saves a nightingale from an evil water spirit and a fox from an unfortunate tree. When he saves the fox, he notes that he only hunts for his own needs and doesn't seem to like it as a sport.
  • Foreshadowing: It's stated multiple times that a man who sees the Firebird will ever after be discontented with an ordinary life. Even a life of fabulous wealth and power with a beautiful wife isn't enough for Ilya. He wants magic.
  • Guile Hero: We're told that Ilya is a more than competent warrior; he gets beaten only because his brothers gang up on him and they gang up on him because they can't take him one on one. However, apart from his brothers, he never encounters an enemy he can beat in a fight. The boar, the rusalka, the winter, the Katschei, his demons, the Katschei, the dragon, and the Katschei all have to be beaten with his wits, or just fled from.
  • Guilty Pleasure: Ilya is a little pleased to see Pietor among the Katschei's statuary. He's really, really pleased to be able to rub his brother's face (and his father's, by proxy) in his eventual, overwhelming success. He's also very pleased to leave his brother and his cheating bride to their dismal fate together.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Ilya finally falling for the Firebird at the end.
  • Hope Spot: Just as Ilya gets his hand on the sorcerer's heart, he's captured by his monsters.
  • Human Resources: Anyone who isn't a prince and enters the Katschei's palace is fed to the monster staff. Ilya plays the fool so successfully that he avoids this fate when caught, because the Katschei doesn't want to risk his minions getting even dumber by eating him. The Katschei magically banishes him instead.
  • I am a Humanitarian: The Katschei's demons, at least those that can stomach meat. They especially love "man-parts".
  • Improvised Training: When posing as a mad fool and dead bored, Ilya improvises training to keep fit. There's a notable passage of the book that makes perfect sense in the context of a life of extreme physical labor, but is sure to make anyone who's run track double over laughing:
    Besides, it was perfectly mad to run circles around the palace. No sane person would waste his time running for no other reason than to get exercise.
  • Jerkass: Everyone in Ilya's family, with the exception of Ilya himself.
  • Licked by the Dog: Pretty much all the animals in the palace and on its ground like Ilya and are willing to help him and tell him secrets (once he can talk to them).
  • Living Lie Detector: Ilya suspects Mother Galina may be one (he's certainly never been able to lie to her), and fears the Katschei might be one (though the sorcerer seems to rely on a lieutenant with the skill). His experience in getting around the former helps him considerably with the latter.
  • Love at First Sight: The text claims this is Ilya's reaction to Tatiana. In reality, he had this in regard to the Firebird.
  • Magic Music: The Firebird's magical birdsong can induce Forced Sleep in its listeners.
  • Mercy Kill: Running from another of his brothers' pranks, Ilya and his friend the horse become lost and encounter a wounded wild boar, which savages the horse severely. Knowing the spilled blood will attract wolves, the horse asks Ilya to make it quick rather than allowing the wolves to eat him alive. Ilya slits his throat.
  • No Ontological Inertia: As soon as the sorcerer dies, all his magical creations disappear or revert to their former state. The gardens, gone; the enormous palace, back to being a regular, if large, palace; the statues, free; the monsters, people again. The bolt of lightning and howling windstorm that accompany the Katschei's death may have something to do with it, as though the entity with whom he bargained for his power is taking it all back.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Ilya pretends to be a fool to keep his brothers from outright killing him, making out as though the last beating they gave him broke his mind.
  • Odd Friendship: Ilya's mentors, a shaman and a priest. Neither of them are well-regarded in Ivan's household, so they take care of and protect each other. Sorta Truth in Television considering how Russian Christianity and Paganism tended to be practiced side by side.
  • Our Liches Are Different: Katschei, a sorcerer who made a Deal with the Devil for power and near immortality. His heart is hidden inside a magically fast duck, hidden inside a magically fast rabbit, locked inside a magic chest at the top of a magically tall tree, and guarded by a magical mechanical dragon. He is based on the Russian folklore of Koschei the Deathless, one of the inspirations for liches in fiction.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Ilya's monster costume is scraps of leather and cow horns. However, the monsters are so damn stupid that it works.
  • Perpetual-Motion Monster: The dragon and the "puppets" in the Katschei's palace are implied to be mechanical in nature, possibly even robots that obey short logical orders. More than that, neither need sleep or fuel, though the puppets do seem to "tire" and need a day to recharge.
  • Properly Paranoid: Both Ilya (apropos his brothers) and the Katschei (apropos everyone).
  • Refuge in Audacity: Oh, that marvelous vixen! The final time she gets the dragon to shout, she does it just after the Katschei walks out of sight! This is what puts him over the edge so he turns it into a statue.
  • Rule of Three: Ilya encounters the Katschei three times, and the third time kills him.
  • Sacred Hospitality: The Bannik, spirit of the steam bath house, will react favorably to humble and respectful guests, so long as the "third bath turn is given to him."
  • Satellite Love Interest: Ilya falls in love with Tatiana because she's incredibly beautiful. After rescuing her from the Katschei, he comes to the unpleasant conclusion that her looks are the only pleasing thing about her. Fortunately, he catches her cheating with his brother Pietor, which gives him grounds to end their engagement.
  • Show, Don't Tell: We only ever hear of Ilya's martial prowess; he never has to demonstrate it, with the exception of one bow shot. Fortunately, he manages to win with skills he had ample time to demonstrate, avoiding abuse and acting more injured than he is.
  • Soul Jar: The Katschei's heart is encased in diamond. And hidden inside a magic duck. Which is hidden inside a magic rabbit. Which is sealed in a stout chest, bound with bronze. Which is on top of a magically tall tree. Which is guarded by a never-sleeping, never-eating magical dragon. And even once acquired, the diamond must be smashed at his feet to kill him. Good lord.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: After encountering the Firebird for the first time and being touched by its magic, Ilya finds himself able to converse with spirits and a few animals that are also magical, such as the horse that claims descent from the Night Wind spirit-mare. Later, he sees the Firebird in a dream and awakens to find one of her stolen cherries on his windowsill; eating it grants him the ability to speak with all animals. The household dogs, cats, and horses aid him in his playing the fool by keeping him informed of goings-on, and animals he rescues on his journey return to help him in turn.
  • Succession Crisis: Tsar Ivan has eight grown sons by his wives, an unspecified number of illegitimate children by the household staff, and nowhere near enough land to provide a decent inheritance for all of them. Since he can't bring himself to murder his own children, he instead encourages them to fight amongst themselves in the hopes that they'll start eliminating each other and simplify the problem for him (as well as keep them too busy to conspire against him).
  • Taken for Granite: Princes and heroes who challenge the Katschei are turned into statues and posed in his gardens. He takes his kidnapped maidens for daily walks among them to remind him of his power and dominance. There are rumors that they can still see and hear; mindful of this, Ilya makes sure to apologize when he bumps into one, and promises to free them. Accordingly, they hail him as a great hero and pledge their friendship when the Katschei's death frees them.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: As the fool, Ilya finds himself bone idle and bored. He eventually takes it upon himself to exercise. In addition to running laps around the palace, he begins dancing traditional Cossack dances. Not only the squats, but the high kicks, somersaults, and aerials.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The monsters, as a consequence of having been turned into monsters.
  • The Unfavorite: Ilya is the middle child of eight. Despised and ignored by his family for being so unlike his brothers, he lives a mostly solitary existence within Tsar Ivan's household, despite being the smartest and cleverest of them. His brothers gang up on him and beat him with increasing frequency, until he finally resorts to Obfuscating Insanity to get them to leave him alone. In response, his father isn't upset that his brothers tried to kill him, but that they got caught. He's not upset that Ilya's been rendered a fool, but that he'll now have to take care of said fool for the rest of his or Ilya's life.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: The Firebird can take the form of a striking bird with Hot Wings, a beautiful woman with a cloak of feathers, or an unearthly melding of both.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: The Firebird has strikingly blue eyes, which look human even when she changes into a bird.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The Katschei never seems to eat his magical fruit, or despoil his maidens (he makes them dance and sing so he can prove he has power, not because he lusts for them), or even enjoy anything. It would appear that having his heart ripped out (selling his soul) removed his ability to enjoy anything other than power.