We loved Jessica Miller's other middle grade book, Elizabeth and Zenobia, because the relationship between the two girls (one ghost, one real) was slightly creepy and it was just a joy to read. So, when I got a request to read an ARC (advance reader copy, uncorrected proof) of her latest middle grade book, I agreed to read and review it.
The Republic of Birds is an exceptionally grounded story, in that it features all sorts of maps and cartography, which 12-year-old Olga loves. In fact, she's got magic and it manifests whenever she touches maps. But being magical in her parents' Russian-esque world means you're a Baba Yaga and get yanked from your family and sent to Bleak Steppe Finishing School for Girls of Unusual Ability, where they supposedly cut off your hands and subject you to all sorts of nasty tortures to keep you from performing magic.
Olga's father has fallen out of grace at the non-magical court and he and his family are banished to the freezing nether regions. But he quickly worms his way back into favor by leading an expedition into the Republic of the Birds to recover the stolen Firebird's egg.
Now the egg is more an idea than a reality, as it was stolen from the birds and people and hidden by the Yagas in the Blank almost immediately after it was found, and its real power lies when it hatches and becomes ... well, the Firebird. And so the legend goes, the Yaga who controls the Firebird wields its enormous power, but that can only be done if that same Yaga hatches the egg using a Firebird's feather.
The birds promptly retaliate against Olga's father by kidnapping his youngest daughter, Olga's little (perfect) sister. They put Mira in a gilded cage where she dances ballet for the amusement of the cruel bird ruler. Olga vows to rescue Mira, and of course, the only thing the bird queen will accept to set Mira free is... the Firebird's egg.
Olga's off on a quest into the freezing white Blank all by herself. It's a place no cartographer has ever successfully mapped, or at least not lived to share his map with anyone outside the Blank, and thus Olga's magic can't pierce, no matter how hard she tries.
Unfortunately, when I went looking for the Amazon pre-order link, I read online somewhere that The Republic of Birds is a very loose retelling of Swan Lake. Now, my two kiddos have played Tchaikovsky's ballet plenty of times on violin 1 and 2, so we know the music in and out, as well as the story.
The one element of the ballet that never fails to capture the audience's imagination and elevates the story into the fantastic and magical is Odette's transformation into a swan. The audience's heart swells with Odette as she tries out her wings, and this is when Tchaikovsky's music soars, swirling and crescendoing in the amazing snippet we all know and love and that's repeated to great effect throughout the ballet.
I say "unfortunately," because that's what I then expected to read, and for a bit, I was even hearing the famous refrain in my head as I read. I got impatient with the story and skipped ahead to the ending, confirmed it didn't resemble Swan Lake, and then went back to reading and enjoying the tale linearly.
I think it's better if you approach The Republic of Birds as it's own self-contained fantasy, not as a "fairy tale re-telling" or at all linked or associated with Swan Lake, because that sets up reader expectations that aren't fulfilled.
There is a "transformation" in this wonderfully sophisticated book. The author captures it beautifully in the climax, and I won't give it away, but know we wanted to see waaaaaaaayyyy more than what we actually got in the text (hint, hint, wink, wink, in case there's a book two?).
I won't spoil the story, it's very much a wonderful read, nuanced and exquisitely plotted.
I usually include an Amazon link here, but there isn't one yet, so I'll update it later, when The Republic of Birds publishes. Enjoy!