Jessica Miller, The Republic of Birds, Text Publishing, March 2020, 304 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781922268044
Magic is banned in Stolitsa. Any girl showing signs of being magical is whisked away to Bleak Steppe – to a life, so the stories go, of unspeakable horror. So when strange things begin to happen to Olga, she knows she has a dangerous secret, one she must guard with great care. But then the birds take the thing most precious to her, and Olga must summon all her courage to go into the Republic of Birds to get it back. It’s an impossible task – unless she can find a way to unlock her hidden magic.
Four years ago, Jessica Miller wowed us with the amazing Elizabeth and Zenobia. Now she’s gifted readers with another truly spellbinding tale in The Republic of Birds. This latest offering from a magnificently talented author is sure to delight any reader who loves getting lost in magical landscapes full of wonder, adventure and enchantment. It is one of those reading experiences that leaves us feeling as though we have actually been on an incredible journey, and one we will always remember.
The book is written in the first person from the point of view of Olga, the story’s principal protagonist. Olga is a girl of almost thirteen who loves to read, especially about the exploits and discoveries of the cartographers of old. She longs to take her place among them, to see new places and make maps like they did, but it seems so far away from the life that seems already laid out before her by her father and stepmother. Only when Olga and her family are sent into the country’s icy north do things begin to change, and a door opens suddenly on another possible life for Olga.
Miller’s characterisation is excellent. We immediately warm to Olga whose plight is one so many of us feel ourselves. The characters leap off the page, full of life and breath of their own. Miller’s descriptive language sets an exquisite scene, and when reading we can clearly see the vast snowy tundras and ice-capped mountains and feel the chill wind upon our faces.
Miller pays loving homage to stories from Russian folklore, and indeed the story very much has the feel of a classic Russian fairy tale. Our heroine is given a task she feels is much greater than herself, but in the undertaking of it she discovers strengths she never knew she had.
My only minor quibble with this book was that I so desperately wanted it to be longer! I wanted to read even more of Miller’s beautiful prose and descriptions, I wanted more detail of every step on Olga’s journey, I wanted to spend even more time in all the incredible places she visits; and with all the fascinating people who help (or hinder) her along her way. Republic could have been twice as long and I would still have devoured every delicious word of it and would probably still have wanted more.
Jessica Miller is fast becoming one of my favourite authors and I cannot wait to see what she does next.
Reviewed by Christian Price