This isn’t quite a retelling, but there are elements which look very like Baba Yaga, Ivan and the Firebird, and other such folk and fairytales. That said, it’s very much a book of its own which uses the magic of those fairytale elements to reflect on love and grief, and on struggles with oneself. The prose is lyrically beautifully as always, but less opaque than in some of McKillip’s other books — it seemed perfectly clear what everything meant, except perhaps on the point of Unciel and Gyre’s struggles.
It’s also very full of people, real people whose troubles you can feel: a princess who doesn’t want to marry someone she doesn’t know, but goes in the end because otherwise it would spell disaster for her family — but she’s still scared; a prince who doesn’t want to get over the death of his wife and unborn child; a queen trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who might as well be an ogre, but nonetheless loves her son and serves the kingdom… a scribe who wishes briefly to ride off to save a princess, but in the end stays and does his job, and nurses an old wizard. They all have conflicts and fears you can relate to, and their desires are understandable despite the magic around them. Even Gyre’s desire for power makes sense.
There’s some lovely lines, especially regarding the firebird, though the bit I liked best was when Ronan and Sidonie are together near the end of the book, and she’s drawn to him for protection. It just… rang true. And the parts with Unciel and Euan have a lovely quietness at times — it reminds me of some of the moments in Earthsea of just appreciating the world as it is.
I enjoyed this one a lot, and read it very fast; I think it might be one of my favourites so far.