Note: Some spoilers for the first book in the series.
This is the second book in a trilogy that began with The Bear and the Nightingale, and which combines elements of a fairytale retelling, historical fiction, and fantasy. I read the first book a year ago, and had a hard time, when I began this one, remembering what was going on. The author provides some background sporadically, but basically I would advise that this not be read as a standalone.
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.
Vasilisa Petrovna, called Vasya, can see these spirits, as well as other fantastical beings, and she can hear voices no one else can. She is the granddaughter of a woman rumored to be the swan-maiden of fairy tales, and who also had these “gifts of sight.”
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. But in the first book, she felt compelled to run away from her family to avoid an arranged marriage. In the process of trying to find her, both her father and stepmother were killed. Her own life was saved by Morozko, the Winter-King, or as he is also known, the Frost-Demon.
In this book, the relationship between Vasya and Morozko takes on new depth, as Morozko struggles with his feelings for Vasya. He knows that “you cannot love and be immortal,” so he literally faces a situation of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” In a nice use of metaphor, Morozko explains: “…every time I go near her, the bond tightens. What immortal ever knew what it was like to number his days? Yet I can feel the hours passing when she is near.”
Morozko wants Vasya to return to her family where she will be safer than traveling on her own. She tells him:
“You may tell me to go home, but I may choose not to. Do you think that is all I want, in all my life – a royal dowry, and a man to force his children into me? No, I am going on. I will see the world beyond this forest, and I will not count the cost.”
Morozko asks her at least to promise to wear always the sapphire her father gave her, no matter the circumstances. She does not know the significance of the jewel, other than the emotional attachment to it she feels because it came from her father. Morozko tells her it will offer her protection.
In other chapters, we follow what is happening with Vasya’s brother Sasha, now known as the monk Brother Aleksandr Persvet, or Aleksandr Lightbringer. He is acting as a counselor to his cousin and good friend Dmitrii Ivanovich, Grand Prince of Moscow. As this book begins, mysterious bandits have been burning villages and taking young girls as captives, leaving no trace of who they are or where they are headed. Sasha and Dmitrii are about to take armed forces to go see what is happening when they are approached by Kasyan Lutovich, a previously unknown-to-them boyar who also complains about the bandits, and asks for assistance in fighting them. Thus they all set out together.
After days of no success, the group takes refuge at Trinity Lavra, Sasha and Dmitrii’s old monastery, which is some 40 miles northeast of Moscow. To Sasha’s shock, Vasya shows up there, disguised as the boy Vasilii Petrovich, and bringing with her three little girls she rescued from the bandits. She is riding the magnificent and not-quite-human horse Solovey she got from Morozko. Sasha is forced, for Vasya’s own safety, to introduce her as his brother, all the while rueing the need to deceive Dmitrii. He takes Vasya to their sister Olga, hoping she can salvage the situation. Olga, heavily pregnant, is exasperated that she has been dragged into the deception, putting her and her family at risk. They are in danger as it is because, as Vasya discovers, one of Olga’s daughters, Marya, has, like Vasya, inherited sight, which could get her labeled as a witch.
Tension escalates as all of them discover who Kasyan really is, and the extent to which they all face death and the city of Moscow possible destruction. Their vulnerably is augmented because Vasya gave back the protective sapphire to Morozko. Up to the very end of the book, there is no guarantee of who will live and who will die.
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.
Morozko, the Russian winter demon who was seen as sometimes a force of good and sometimes of evil, in this book becomes an increasingly sympathetic character; in many ways, he is the best character of the second book. The only mystery is what draws him so much to Vasya. She, like many teen heroines it seems, is annoyingly bratty, stubborn, and disagreeable even though she is spirited, brave, and more devoted to justice for the people in her country than its rulers.
Evaluation: The prose 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. I liked this second book better than the first.
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