I have only a handful of absolute favorite writers and Susanna Kearsley is one of them. Her novels The Shadowy Horses and Winter Sea top my DIK list. When I learned that this novel combined characters from each of those books I nearly swooned from joy.
Nicola Marter has always had the ability to tell the history of an object just by holding it. She has other extrasensory gifts as well, but her grandfather always made her feel they were something to be kept secret. As a result, Nicola rarely uses her gifts and instead has studied hard for her position at an auction house for rare items. When a simply dressed woman comes in attempting to sell a small wooden carving that had belonged to Empress Katherine, Nicola reads both that the bird is authentic and the reason why the woman wants to sell. Taking a rare day off she begins to hunt for some sort of provenance for the item and get the lady the money she needs.
Her search begins in Edinburgh at the Emerson Institute of Parapsychology where she had once been a test subject. Nicola knows she has the skill to find the information that she needs, but since she had cut her training short at the Institute she has never learned to hone that skill to the degree necessary for this job. Speaking to her previous advisor there leads her to the answer she had expected to receive: her raw talent is exceptional and it will only take time and practice to develop to the level she desires. Nicola knows, however, that the one thing her client doesn’t have is time. Her next stop then must be to the man whose talents far surpassed her own and who had had the courage to continue his training, Rob McMorran.
Rob has always known that Nicola’s path would once more cross his own, but he is only aware of part of where that crossing will lead them. As he follows her, first to get a reading on the bird and then into Russia to learn its history, he finds himself falling once more into the strong feelings he has always had for her – but is she ready to embrace who she is, what he is, and to take a chance on their future? Or will she once more take flight when she becomes frightened of the shadowy world brought to light by their unique gifts?
Fans familiar with Ms. Kearsley’s work will recognize Rob as the charming youngster who spoke to ghosts in The Shadowy Horses. I am often a bit fearful of running into the adult versions of child characters I loved, but in this case it was an absolute delight. The grown-up Rob has all the charm and sweetness of his younger self and combines it with maturity, strength, and character. A policeman and volunteer with the life boat, he has dedicated himself to helping others. He still uses his unique gifts – telepathy, the ability to see ghosts, and the ability to see the past – to do this as well. When Nicola comes to ask him for help with the bird he is all prepared to do so. He had foreseen her request and has set in motion all that will be needed to take the time off. Normally that type of psychic behavior in a character has me rolling my eyes but the author has a skill for blending the supernatural into her everyday characters that makes it easy to accept the extraordinary.
The journey Rob and Nicola take is not just to another country but another time. That time and place is occupied by a young girl named Anna, who begins her young life at the castle called Slains. Fans of the author’s will recognize this setting from the novel Winter Sea. Anna is about to begin an adventure that will have her fleeing for her life across Scotland, outwitting English spies and meeting up with some beloved people from a past she had all but forgotten. As Nicola learns the story of the young girl who will turn into the woman who receives the Firebird by the Empress Katherine, she learns a great deal about herself and her abilities as well.
Naturally, the journey is one that also forces them to explore their own hearts. Their brief attempt at love in the past had ended with Nicola being frightened by the intensity of the relationship. Unsure just what she wanted and if she could handle all that being with Rob would involve, she fled. Now both of them must face that their feelings haven’t changed. In so many ways they are completely uniquely suited to each other. But the connection they have threatens to turn them into a unit so complete it could swallow their individual selves. For Nicola especially this is a fear she must face and either flee from or put to rest.
It is always hard to put into words what makes a favorite author’s work so magical and that is especially true for this novel. The writing is outstanding, the historical detail and research remarkable, the characters so well drawn and life-like they could walk off the page and you would know them instantly. For me the real miracle lays in the lush, lyrical atmosphere the writer creates where the real and mystical blend so beautifully it is almost impossible to tell where the one begins and the other ends. It is always with delight and anticipation that I begin a Kearsley novel and with delight and satisfaction that I end it. The only problem that I have with her work is that it takes a year to produce the next fix for my addiction.
And in this novel I did have one additional quibble. I thoroughly liked Nicola, who is a smart, practical woman trying to deal with issues which seem forever out of reach for her. I understand her reluctance to use her gifts since her grandfather had been tortured by the KGB for possessing them. But I was frustrated by how she let the men around her – her brother, her grandfather, and Rob – determine just how she would handle them. I wanted her to stand up at some point and tell everyone, “Ignore the gifts. Love me for me, not because of them or in spite of them but completely apart of them.” I didn’t get the feeling that anyone (except perhaps her mother) actually did offer her that kind of pure emotion and I wish she would have stood up and demanded it.
But that is a very minor flaw in an otherwise flawless work. Fans of Ms. Kearsley won’t be disappointed. If you aren’t a fan I strongly urge you to try her work. It has a bit of something for everyone – magic, mystery, love, history. And the amazing thing about them is how beautifully the author is able to blend them together into an absolutely lovely whole.