‘Firebird’ book review: Soar through the skies with Elizabeth Wein’s tale of a young Soviet combat pilot

‘Firebird’ book review: Soar through the skies with Elizabeth Wein’s tale of a young Soviet combat pilot

A teenager joins the Leningrad Youth Aeroclub to follow in the footsteps of legendary Russian pilot Marina Raskova

By Elizabeth Wein
Published by Barrington Stoke
ISBN 978 1 78112 831 2

When Elizabeth Wein came up with the idea for latest novel, Firebird, she was already in the middle of another, non-fiction project.

That project required her to do research on female pilots from the Soviet Union who fought in the second world war. But the more she read about these brave women, the more she felt compelled to write a fiction story that was inspired by their lives and careers.

Many of Wein’s books are inspired both by historical events and her love of flying. Her award-winning novel Code Name Verity, a thrilling story about a British spy whose plane crashes over enemy territory, was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal, which is a British literary award.

Wein’s novel, Firebird, is based on the history of flying in the Soviet Union. It is a thrilling tale set during the 872-day Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). The story introduces two of most powerful female characters in current YA fiction.

Teenager Nastia Nabokova, the daughter of revolutionaries, has been waiting all her life for a chance to serve her homeland. When the second world war breaks out, she and her friends are determined to do what they can to fight against the advancing German army. Nastia joins the Leningrad Youth Aeroclub, and begins training for aerial combat.

Her teacher and mentor is the chief flight instructor of the aeroclub, and who is a stern yet strange leader. When Nastia proves herself to be both skilled and hard-working, she is promoted to the position of the chief’s personal wingman.

Throughout her training, Nastia is eager to follow in the footsteps of legendary Russian pilot Marina Raskova. War pilots don’t come any braver than Raskova, and Nastia is her biggest fan.

The war advances closer and closer to Leningrad. Nastia wants to fight for the Soviet Union, and yet she can’t help but think back to the old regime under the Romanov tsar Nicholas ll, who was executed along with his wife and children after the Russian Revolution. And she can’t stop thinking about the rumour that one of the Romanov daughters escaped the cellar where her family were executed in 1918.

In the winter of 1942, Nastia is stationed just 500 kilometres from the battle front. Wein’s descriptions of the aerial battles scenes are thrilling. Every time Nastia rocketsinto the sky, Wein takes the reader right up there with her.

And all the while, the enigmatic chief flying instructor of the Leningrad Aeroclub is watching. It is only in the final pages of the book that Nastia discovers that her mentor is hiding a secret that is as dangerous as the German Messerschmitts in the skies above.

John Millen can be contacted at millenbookshelf@gmail.com

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This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Soar through the skies in this thrilling tale of a young combat pilot


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