This genre-bender combines elements of a fairytale retelling, historical fiction, and fantasy. It even features a rather unique fairytale retelling within the retelling; that is, the characters are conscious they are “living out” a fairytale.
The story is set in the mid-1300’s in Russia, or Rus’, as it was called then. The country had been Christian for five hundred years, but the populace, hedging their bets, still honored the gods of Russian folklore, paying tribute to the spirits of the household and the land by leaving regular offerings to them.
Pyotr Vladimirovich, living in the woods of Northern Rus’, was a kind and generally content man, until his beloved wife Marina died having her fifth child. Marina was the daughter of the woman who was the third wife of Ivan I, and this same woman was rumored to be the swan-maiden of fairy tales. Marina had been determined to risk childbirth again in order to have a daughter who had the gifts her mother had, and indeed, Vasilisa Petrovna, called Vasya, can see beings and hear voices no one else can.
Vasya is free-spirited and fearless. She not only inherited her grandmother’s sight but her father’s kindness. She talks to the horses, takes care of the household spirits, and becomes beloved by all of them.
Vasya was a bit wild though, and her nurse Dunya as well as Vasya’s siblings thought she could stand to have the guidance of a mother figure. Pyotr agreed, and he and his two sons traveled to Moscow to see if he could impose on Marina’s half-brother, the grand Prince, to help him find a wife for him and for his sons, and perhaps even a husband for his older daughter Olga. The Metropolitan, or high prelate of Rus’, advised the Prince that Pyotr could inadvertently help solve a number of the Prince’s problems. Ivan could unload his seemingly-mad daughter Anna on Pyotr, marry off a rival of Ivan’s heir to Olga, and banish a troublesome priest, Father Konstantin Nikonovich, to tend to the souls in the far-off land where Pyotr lived.
Alas, the happy existence of Pyotr and his people fade away with the arrival of the fanatical Father Nikonovich, who fills them with fear of hell and damnation, and excoriates them about respecting local gods. By neglecting these gods, though, the crops dry up, the livestock dies, and fear and hatred overtake the people. And a very real threat in the form of a being of great evil that feeds on such negative emotions is waking in the woods.
Discussion: There is a great deal in this book about life in feudal Russia, especially with respect to the friction between religion and pagan traditions. There is also a lot about gender roles, and the resentment of females (at least those not co-opted by socialization) to getting assigned to roles of less moment and interest than those of males.
The author was particularly creative in her evocation of Morozko, the Russian winter demon who was seen as sometimes a force of good and sometimes of evil. She resolves this contradiction by tweaking the story of Morozko and Medved, the great Russian bear. In some folktales about Morozko, he kills a mother bear and her cubs, and an enraged forest spirit turns Morozko’s head into a bear’s head. In this story, the author makes Morozko and Medved separate individuals who are brothers. Morozko is Winter and Death, but is relatively benevolent. Medved is death also, but has the form of a bear, and thrives on disorder, fear, war, plague and fire. Morozko has tried to keep Medved bound, but if Medved is able to gorge himself on fear, Morozko explains, Medved will become strong enough to break free. Indeed, the priest with his fire and brimstone has increased the level of fear so much, that Medved’s growing strength becomes the largest threat they face.
Like all folktales, this one is metaphorical, but the author does not bash the meaning over the head of readers.
Evaluation: The prose definitely evokes the tone of fairy tales, and the historical aspects dovetail nicely with the plot and add a nice flavor to the story. There is a helpful glossary in the back of the book for Russian terms. Some of the plot threads didn’t entirely add up, but this is only book one of a trilogy. The book can, however, be read as a standalone.
Recommended for fans of fairy tales and historical fantasies.
Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017