Ilya Ivanovich is the son of Ivan, a Tsar of Russia. He has multiple brothers, but he is the smartest and probably the nicest of them. But his other brothers and half-brothers are afraid of his very intelligence, and take any chance to beat him up or pick on him. Ilya tries to avoid them and train so they cannot overcome him one on one, but they learn to attack him in packs.
When he is recovering from one such beating, Ilya's father Ivan's precious cherries are stolen off the trees, and keep disappearing night after night. When his guards are unequal to the task, Tsar Ivan sends his sons to guard the trees and catch the thief. His first two sons fail, and when Ilya's brother Pietor, the least intelligent of all his brothers, is sent as a guard, Ilya sneaks into the garden himself, putting pins in his clothing to prevent him from falling asleep.
He hears a beautiful song, and it nearly puts him to sleep, but the pins wake him and keep him awake. Even so, when he sees the thief, he falls out of the tree he is in, for it is both a bird and a woman. A woman so beautiful, he falls in love with her almost at once. When she sees that he has not succumbed to her ensorcellment, she cries out in fear and flees. He is barely able to drag himself home, but he is lucky in that all the guards are deep in dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Pietor interrupts his father's castigation of him and tells him off, then manages to flee the estate with two good horses and supplies, having taken precautions so he cannot be followed. Following this, Ilya tries to find out what the woman-bird could be, but as he pieces together the clues, his brothers once again ambush and beat him, this time throwing him in the underground crypt where his ancestors are buried. Ilya can actually see the ghosts of his dead male ancestors, and it knocks him for quite a loop. When he is found by his mentors, they seek to save him from another beating or even death, by having him pretend to be weak-witted after his ordeal. Ilya pretends to be a fool for all. He continues to dream of the woman, who he now discovers is the Firebird. One night, he dreams of her feeding him a cherry from his father's garden and he actually does find a cherry on his windowsill, a cherry without a pit. He eats it, and actually finds out he can understand the language of animals.
When one of his brothers is betrothed in marriage to a shy, ugly girl, Ilya is taken on a hunt by his brothers and abandoned in the forest. His horse tries to help him and is killed by a boar, but before he dies, he tells Ilya that seeing the Firebird brings bad luck, but if he cuts off the horse's tail and wears it as a braided bracelet on his wrist, it will mitigate the bad luck.
Ivan does so, and wanders, encountering a Rusalka and an old friend, before finding that there is a greater evil in the forest, a sorceror named Katschei, who has imprisoned twelve of the loveliest maidens in the world. He has also captured the Firebird in a magic net, but Ilya manages to free her. She tells him about the Katschei, and urges him to flee, but Ilya decides to free the maidens. To do so, he will have to outwit the Katschei and destroy the sorceror's imprisoned heart. But can he do so, as well as playing the fool well enough to deter the sorceror's wrath?
This book is based on Russian folktales. The Katschei, Russalka and the Firebird are all Russian myths, and yet Mercedes Lackey has made it so much more than just a retelling of the myth, fleshing out many of the characters, and making Ilya Ivanovich a likeable rogue. And like some myths, this tale teaches a lesson about substance and appearance. Ilya has to see beyond the appearance to the actual substance beneath. In many ways, accepting the surface appearance of a thing leads to problems for him.
For those who are myth-savvy, you'll know the ending of the myth even as you read it, but there is an interesting twist that you may not expect, and Ilya pulls victory from the jaws of defeat and manages to have life and love as well. It's an excellent retelling of a very old fairytale, and probably influenced her "Fairy Godmother" books that she has recently published, and also many of her "Elemental Masters" books that are all based on actual fairytales.
This may not be her typical "High Fantasy" tales, but Mysty has done an excellent job here. Her status and ability as a writer grows with each book.