The Annotated Firebird by Kathy Tyers consists of the three books of the popular Christian sci-fi trilogy re-released under Tyers’ new publisher, Marcher Lord Press (the former publisher was Bethany House), with notes from the author.
Kathy Tyers shares in these notes some interesting facts that create a coherent story almost as interesting as the fictional space opera itself. Originally, this was a duology of secular novels that sold reasonably well-enough to aid the then-very young wife and mother in becoming an established author. She left the world of Firebird behind quickly as she took on other projects.
After many years as a very successful author, well-known in sci-fi circles, Tyers left writing altogether to dedicate her time to the Lord and her husband. When her husband passed away, Tyers felt lead of God to take up writing again, and she knew just where to start. She began by editing and rewriting her first novels into a speculative Christian space opera. The story that Tyers began to tell was a “what if” scenario. What if there were an alternate world where people from many planets had gone to the stars, and the Scriptures came to a space-faring people (who are analogous to the Jewish people), who then became God’s “chosen people” as the Jews have on earth, and the Messiah came through them?
Note: The overall review is divided into four parts. Each book in the trilogy is reviewed individually, and then the overall volume is reviewed. Spoilers will abound, and this is, as it sounds like, a long review, or set of reviews, as it were.
The Annotated Firebird, Book One: Firebird
This story begins on the planet Netaia, which is extremely wealthy, but also very isolationist. They want nothing to do with the Federacy, which is a system of planets that seeks to open better diplomatic relations and trade with the Netaians. The Netaians have an inordinate, but somewhat justified, fear of the Federates. The Federacy controls many, many star systems, and though Netaia is wealthier and militarily more powerful than most of those systems and worlds put together, the Federacy as a whole far dwarfs them in size and military hardware.
The fear and misunderstanding leads to an attack on the part of the Netaians on the Federacy outpost of Veroh, as they seek to hold a security outpost against the Federates, and to frighten them into backing off. The attack, as most dangerous military maneuvers are, is lead by the wastlings. The wastlings are those Netaians who are farther down the line of succession in their noble houses. To prevent any more rebellions like an earlier one that occurred hundreds of years before the story opens, the state rulers in the monarchy and Electoral Council have made suicide of these “wastlings” part of the state religion. Geis orders, or the the order to commit “honorable suicide” in battle, are a sickeningly ingrained part of Netaian culture.
Wastling Firebird Angelo is the leader of the attack on Veroh, as she was given the rank of Major, due to her incredible ability demonstrated on the exams and exercises while attending the Military Academy, as most wastlings do, to prepare them for their “honorable” suicide. On the mission, she loses her best friend, and is about to lose the rest of her attack wing, when the commander of the opposing squadron senses psychic ability in Firebird similar to his own. He orders her capture, so that she may be possibly turned to the service of the Federacy. This leads to the attack on those under her command being cut off.
Once she realizes that she is about to be captured, Firebird takes a poison that her mother, the queen gave her to take in the event that she was captured and failed to “die honorably”. At this point, the commander of the Federate forces at Veroh, Brennan Caldwell, believes Firebird to be a “he,” and is shocked to discover that Firebird is a woman and a member of the royal family that he had meant whilst on a diplomatic mission on Netaia. He uses the knowledge he takes from Firebird’s mind (in a gentle way, given the strictures his people are under given their faith in the Mighty Singer) to help defeat and conquer Netaia.
There is something else in all of this, which is the fact that Caldwell feels a deep psychic connection, called connaturality with Firebird, and is eager to explore that connection. The only problem is the rigid belief of Firebird herself, who wishes to kill herself, and believes in the false gods of her state religion. Caldwell prays that the Mighty Singer (the Firebird universe’s equivalent of God from the Bible, in this case the Old Testament context as the New Testament hasn’t arrived yet in this setting) will bring Firebird to himself.
The story was interesting and engaging, because Tyers wasn’t at all shy of the allegorical or speculative aspects of the story. The analogues to the real-world history of the Jewish people and the events of the Old Testament are clear to anyone who reads the story. Yet, they did not seem to be at all grating or overly done. There was a balance struck between the necessary parallels to tell the “what if” scenario, and the effort to just tell a good tale.
Rating for Book One: 5 Stars.
The Annotated Firebird, Book Two: Fusion Fire
This book begins almost a year after the events of the previous book, and finds Firebird and her husband Brennan Caldwell living a quiet life on a Sentinel settlement (Brennan’s people) where Brennan is a high-ranking security chief. Brennan is no longer in Federate service after being “drummed out” as the term goes, for violating orders in the climactic fight of the earlier book. The fact that he and Firebird (whom Brennan calls “Mari”) saved many lives by their actions is not enough to prevent Brennan’s dismissal, though it does mitigate matters enough to net him a nice severance package and benefits.
Mari has become Brennan’s wife and is a new convert to his faith. She is also several months pregnant with his twin children. She is walking through their house when she is attacked, and nearly restrained by someone with voice-command powers, which is one of the Sentinels’ abilities. She is almost kidnapped or killed, but she and Brennan repel the attack. Had she not been awake due to sickness from her pregnancy, she and Brennan may have been killed.
All is not well, however, as tragedy strikes Brennan’s extended family. This leads Mari to learn more about an offshoot of the Ehretan (Brennan’s home planet) people who were responsible for the original chaos that destroyed their homeworld. These people, whom the Sentinels call the Shuhr, still believe in their superiority due to their (originally laboratory granted) mental abilities. Not having the same religious code of ethics as do the Sentinel communities, they engage in rabid abuse of their abilities. Their world, like the Sentinel sanctuary world of Hesed is nearly impregnable due to the “fielding teams” that are able to mentally control anyone who dares to attack them. For this reason, and the fact that this seems to be an internecine fight among the Ehretan remnants, the Federacy largely ignores the Shuhr and their world, Three Zed.
This changes, however, when the Shuhr begin to launch flagrant attacks against the Federacy. Suddenly, there is the simultaneous need for the Sentinels, at the same time that persecution is slowly rising against them by Federate citizens at large, who (perhaps rightfully to some extent given what they can see the Sentinels could do if they ever gave up their religious faith in the Mighty Singer) fear the powers of the Ehretan remnants.
To make matters worse, Mari’s older sister, and vicious enemy, Princess Phoena Angelo of Netaia is out for revenge on Mari and Brennan for foiling her plans in the last book, and on her older sister, Queen Carradee, for taking a conciliatory stance with their Federate occupiers. She foolishly goes to the Shuhr, who begin using their powers to control her mind by making her increasingly susceptible to suggestion. With the threat of Three Zed taking over Netaia, the stakes are high. At the earnest and desperate plea of Prince Tel Tellai (Phoena’s husband, who loves her dearly and wants her back), and the revealed will of the Holy One that he take on the rescue mission, Brennan launches an attempt to bring Phoena safely back.
The situation is about to become even more grave, however, and only a new technique, filled with as much peril to the user as to the target, can help Mari save her family, and the Federacy itself.
What I really liked about this book was the further development of the plot, and the fleshing out of the characters. The antagonists, in the form of the Shuhr, are given a real face and motivations. This is good, because any good adventure needs some good villains. That said, I could have gone with some breathing room and less graphic details of the heinous deeds perpetrated by the bad guys. It’s enough to give one nightmares.
I say this while still praising this work, that the graphic content set me off with some of my experiences in military deployment, and it really is disturbing and should be taken into account. This isn’t something for anyone below high school age to be reading. And those who have had some traumatic experiences should be cautious, to say the least.
Prince Tel was also given a lot more characterization, and developed as a hero in his own right. He is just as much of one as Mari and Brennan are, if in a different way. Suffice it to say that the narrative makes perfectly clear that the Federacy would have been saved, but the major characters dead on Three Zed, if it were not for his involvement, simple, and non-action oriented as it was.
The final really nice piece was in the area of world-building. That is the further development of the Ehretan faith. It was nice to witness the rather vague notions from the first novel expanded upon to create a coherent religious system. It is, generally, based on the Old Testament Hebrew faith, with some twinks here and there to fit the narrative.
Rating for Book Two: This would have been 5 Stars as well, but the graphic content was much too disturbing, so it is 3 ½ stars.
The Annotated Firebird, Book Three: Crown of Fire
This is the third and final book of the original Firebird Trilogy (though not the final book of the series, as there are two more books published in recent years dealing with the kids of Mari and Brennan, and the other major characters, as well as completing the story).
The book begins a month or two after the end of the previous book, and Mari and Brennan are back on Netaia. The Assembly that is more representative of the people under the Federacy has overridden the Electoral Council, and demanded that Firebird be invited back to Netaia to be restored as an heir under the Federacy program which has attempted to do away with wastlings and “honorable suicide”.
Mari and Brennan return, but Brennan is unsure of this, as Mari is filled with hubris over her “accomplishments” and over how much the people of Netaia “love her.” She stops relying on the Mighty Singer, and begins relying on herself instead. This proves dangerous, as she becomes sloppy, and begins to neglect her faith, resulting in her near-death during her and Brennan’s attempt to trap a Shuhr agent. But all is not lost, as the Holy One has His own plans to help them.
During Brennan’s captivity by the Shuhr in the previous book, he had his DNA harvested. That DNA has been combined with the DNA of a young Shuhr scientist named Terza Shirak, and results in her carrying a baby via traditional pregnancy. This is a ploy by her brother and father, who are the leaders of the Shuhr. They intend to lure Brennan into a trap (to learn of a new Sentinel technology that could be used against them) and then destroy the child for experimentation purposes. Terza, who was already distant from her people, becomes irrevocably so after she learns of her family’s plans to murder her child. Her journey from despising this “clump of cells” (as she erroneously calls it) to loving her child proves to be the Shuhr’s downfall.
The book is a good one, and a fine ending to the original trilogy, but had some issues. Namely, Mari’s problem with pride was discussed in the second book, but it really was not fleshed out enough. The issues and problems were in the narrative, but not really focused on much. This made the plot appear to be artificial in order to tell an Aesop, instead of being a natural part of the tale.
The other problem was that Mari was not exactly heroic, per se, and thus hard to root for. Oh, she was an enjoyable character, but at times, wasn’t likable. I understand that she is angry with her sister Phoena, and that she has good reason to be so, but her coldness to Phoena’s (very violent and painful, as Mari well knows) death by the hands of the Shuhr, was rather shocking to me. I expect my heroes to treat people as God would wish, and with kindness, not to have the attitude that they “got what they deserved.” For that matter, I expect any decent person to do so. Even when evil people must be fought, punished, or killed, it should not be done with joy, but with seriousness, humility, and a grave heart. Only at the end of the book in the final battle does she finally seem to forgive her late sister, commend Phoena to the Holy One’s hand, and ask Him to show her mercy. That is when she finally got truly likable again.
Of course, Tel is back and and shows himself heroic once more, though he will be the first to admit that he is not really cut out to be a hero. Other characters from the first two books make appearances, and they add to the narrative, as they give more light and happy moments that are interspersed to give a reprieve from the fast and intense major plot. Tyers was much better at giving “breathers” amidst the action than in the first two books.
Rating for Book Three: 4 Stars.
Overall, the trilogy as a whole was a masterful story, if a tad weak in parts. The characters were, perhaps, made a bit more realistic by the struggles they had. So perhaps, all in all, that’s a wash, and the good and bad both were part of the tale.
I must say that some of the material is quite mature and graphic. Tyers makes no bones about evil, or this being an Old Testament/Inter-Testament time, but in space. This is certain to put off some people. Eventually, I had to skip certain sentences or paragraphs where the more detailed depictions of evil were discussed. If you have problems with graphic depictions, then be careful, as this book has them in spades.
The author’s notes in this annotated edition are also enlightening not just for the biographic details and the information on how the text developed from a secular novel to a Christian Speculative space opera, as already discussed, but also in how she took to heart objections and thoughtful criticisms from fans of some of the unrealistic or untenable aspects of the series. She took these to heart when she originally rewrote the first two books for Bethany House. Given the comparison she makes between the original and changed elements, I would say the quality was greatly increased. Her humble heart improved the work in general.
This work is the foremost modern Christian science-fiction space series, and a worthy successor to CS Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy. It would be well-worth the money spent to purchase it and give it a chance.