Elena Rudina lives in rural Russia during the 1900s where the townspeople are dying of starvation. The Tsar has conscripted Elena's brother into his army and her other brother works for a wealthy man that owns most of the land around town. Elena's mother is dying and her dad is dead. She scrounges for food but it gets scarcer each day. When a train stops at her town so workers can repair a nearby damaged bridge, Elena finds a wealthy girl her age, Ekaterina (Cat), who is traveling to St. Petersburg to see the Tsar's godson. The train contains lavish amounts of food and Elena is sent by her grandmother and the town doctor to get some morsels for their starving mother.
In a "Prince and the Pauper" style twist, Cat falls out of the train saving a Faberge egg that was custom-made for the Tsar, while Elena stays on board. Through a series of coincidences Elena can't get off the train and masquerades as Cat. The servants go along with the ruse because they know they will get fired once it is discovered Cat is missing. Historically, this is set during the Russian Revolution when people were starving and Tsar Nicholas II ruled with no sympathy toward their plight. Had I not just completed, "The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia" by Candace Fleming, I would not have understood the Tsar's hardline and lack of reasoning with peasants. The nobility would not speak in Russian because they thought it beneath them and they believed in their superiority to the peasants. Rasputin even makes a brief appearance and there is a subtle joke on his motive to be with the Tsar as being self-serving versus any spiritual pursuit as a humble monk.
On the train adventure, Elena finds a Firebird while Cat finds the witty and hilarious witch, Baba Yaga. She calls the children "chuckleheads" instead of "knuckleheads" and "honeybucket" as a term of endearment. She acts threatening but shows she's more caring than most adults. When she meets the Tsar she is outspoken and amusing as no one would ever have been to him in real life. When she tells Tsar Nicholas she's, "Baba Yaga, arrived at court at last, and I wish this were a christening so I could cast a few good spells and have some fun, but honeybucket, we haven't time," I thought she knows how to steal the show. She's really funny and the reason I didn't quit reading the book during slow parts.
The Firebird is like the Phoenix in classical mythology that burns in fire and is reborn from the ashes. Here, the Firebird symbolizes the death of the Tsarist autocracy and rebirth of a new government. In Russian folktales the Firebird is a blessing and a curse as Maguire cleverly weaves throughout the plot. The story shows the blessings of family and friends and the curse of humans wanting more or the fact that "...there is always something more to do, while you are alive." He also has it represent magic found in folktales. This magic is understood mainly by children and in this tale only they can see Baba Yaga, the old witch's house, and go on a journey to save Russia. Children are the future and they can decide how they want to shape it through the choices they make in life.
The beginning has a first person narrator that is a monk. His voice interrupts the story and is jarring at times. I'm not sure how it moves the story forward. Sometimes he shows the writing process and how the author is manipulating the story while other times he gives sarcastic comments on humans. It doesn't always work for me. I did wonder if the author was purposefully stopping to point out that the the reader is the narrator of his or her own life or if the reader is supposed to question who is telling this tale. Perhaps writing is like the Firebird's cycle of life and death. Or maybe Maguire was trying to represent the oral tradition of storytelling and having a narrator act as a bard-like person.
The anachronisms are a bit much. They are supposed to be funny and some are really humorous, but at one point it felt like a bombardment of quips. I always love books that make references to other stories and Maguire does that here but they didn't bother me as much as the anachronisms. I think its because in my mind I'm thinking ...Russia ...1900s, so when I read Baba Yaga said, "Let me at this regrettable bit of sour sausage. His hair is unnatural. A crime against the Crayola company," it seems quite out of place and my brain stops with a "Huh?" versus when Baba Yaga says on the previous page that her governess uniform brings out her "inner Mary Poppinskya." I laughed and kept reading with no stuttering. There are so many references to fairy tales and folk tales I'm not going to even try to list them all. It was quite fun. So while I enjoyed this book I think it is too hard for elementary students and it might get more takers in middle school. High schoolers will think it too young.