Prince Ivan is the youngest of three brothers, all sons of the Great Tsar of All the Russias. There is actually a lot more to the actual name of the land from which they hale, but it is precisely the over-inflated sense of worth and value that have led Prince Ivan’s two elder brothers to be poor relations at best and terrible bullies at worst. But if not for the suffering at the hands of his much older brothers, Ivan might not have developed a strong sense of self-preservation and how to play second (or third) fiddle to men who would fashion themselves as “great.” But of course, Ivan’s ability with a sword and reasoning skills are exactly what get him into trouble when it is he, not his older more “successful” brothers, who solves the mystery as to why the Great Tsar’s magickal apples are disappearing.
Having saved the apples, the Great (and greedy) Tsar then tasks his three sons and heirs with capturing an even bigger treasure: a Firebird. But where the quests concerning Ivan’s two older brothers quickly devolve into pleasurable pastimes and plausible pretense, Ivan actually makes progress on locating an actual Firebird. Along the way, he meets a lascivious wolf and a desperate prince from a lesser Tsardom. Not to mention other Tsars who try their best to outwit Ivan, Imperial Prince or no, to keep their treasures from the Great Tsar. Against all odds, Ivan ekes out one success after another and even has time for sheer passion and true love. But will any of his feats be enough to prove he is worthy of his father’s time and attention?
Prince Ivan, A. Wolfe, and a Firebird is an exceptionally long story that draws on elements from fairy tales, fantasy, and a smidge of science fiction. At first blush, I was rather taken in by the premise. A noble in some parallel universe has commissioned a translation of his completely true story to be published in (an)other universe(s). From the get-go, this establishes the idea of a story from long ago and, if not far away, then literally in another dimension of time and/or space. I got the impression that this is a yarn being sold by a quaint book peddler in times bygone. So far, so good. I even liked the way the narrator plainly addresses “Dear Reader” (I imagine this in the voice of Ze Frank of Sad Cat Diary YouTube fame). The first chapter or two is all narration priming the reader for, pardon my cynicism, any typos or inconsistencies in the text that follows because it’s a “translation” and any shortcomings are entirely with the target (English) text rather than with the source (Russina) text. As a trained and practicing translator, this is ingenious and insidious because every and any typo/continuity error/wonky turn of phrase may be deliberate…or not.
A word of warning, however. The entire rest of the story includes a line, a paragraph, a page, a chapter of narration liberally interspersed with the main text. And when the rhetorical style of the prose so well reflects the fact that the characters in this world strictly adhere to all pomp and circumstance, it means that not a lot being is said, but that it takes quite a many words to say it. But it wasn’t the sheer verbosity that bothered me. Midway through, the quaint, ambiguous “peddler of books” element gave way to a contemporary narrator who freely references Westfall himself and another contemporary M/M romance author as well as some type of in-person gaming…? Overall, the narration in general started off a cute, fun element and grew into an insatiable monster drawing just as much attention to itself as the actual story of Prince Ivan.
And the story of Prince Ivan, at its heart, is a reimagining of the hero’s tale. If the overabundance of words does anything useful, it is describes in great detail just how loathsome Ivan’s brothers are. The meaner details of how he was bullied as a child are conveyed clearly enough without resorting to padding this hefty tome with even more text by way of flashbacks. More than anything, I think they serve as an excellent contrast to Ivan. Throughout the book, the brothers remain nothing but selfish, lazy royals. By comparison, Ivan finds lust and love, learns he has the ability to make powerful friends, and that he is strong and worthy of respect from even his father, the Great Tsar. I will admit, I was not prepared for Ivan to meet one love interest first only to gain a second one later, but I did rather enjoy the balance struck between Ivan and his two lovers—one who would come and go, and another who would stay. The ease with which all parties accepted a polyamorous relationship felt like a good match for the tone of the book, a source of joy and strength and comfort (but mostly, er, joy).
There were some elements of the story that presented problems. For example, there is a subset of people in this world who are referred to by a word that strongly resembles a pejorative term for the Roma people in the modern American English vernacular. I also felt conflicted about the use of sexual abuse and apparent trafficking of women as vehicles to demonstrate just how abhorrent Ivan’s relatives are (as if the fact they beat Ivan for fun wasn’t enough). Or how a female-identifying character who seems to demand sexual activity frequently is, in the world built here, afflicted with an ailment with a name that closely resembles “cunt.”
The core story of Ivan coming into his own, outsmarting entitled Tsars, and finding love along the way was well crafted. But personally, I developed a strong dislike for the copious additional narration and was confused by the apparent shift in the narrator’s circumstances (disinterested third party from some nondescript time compared to an apparent contemporary of the author himself). The very hard core fans of anything fairy tale related or readers who enjoy the challenge of a long book may enjoy reading this. For me, however, the stupendous length was hardly justified by the actual action contained therein and I found certain elements of the world building (devaluing people who are othered, even in the background) disappointing.