What better way to spend these cold winter nights than to curl up in bed reading this book of Russian fairy tales set in the deepest of (yep, you guessed it), winter?
I have always been fascinated by Russia: its culture, traditions and very rich history. For Christmas last year my friend Romelyn bought me a hardbound copy of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s complete history of The Romanovs and I spent the entire break reading it in all its gory detail. Sure, it was Disney who first sparked my interest in the Romanovs (I’m looking at you, Anastasia) but I was equally enthralled by the things that I discovered about the Romanov dynasty from reading that book.
Katherine Arden’s offering is set long before the time of the Romanovs, when Russia was made up of a bunch of principalities ruled by the Grand Prince of Moscow. The good thing about this book is that the narrative doesn’t get too bogged down by any attempts to maintain historical accuracy; the story itself is set too far away from Moscow, in a tiny little village called Lesnaya Zemlya. The village is governed by a boyar names Pyotr Vladimirovich (why do these Russian names have to be so long???) and his wife Marina. Their household is a simple yet happy one – full of the laughter of their children – and nights are spent around the fireplace listening to old tales told by what I think is the Russian equivalent of a nanny, in this case by an old woman named Dunya.
Marina’s mother was rumoured to be a witch who enchanted one of the Grand Princes of Moscow with her beauty. Marina herself has the sight which allows her to see beings that are not necessarily of this world, and which also allows her to foreshadow the future a little bit. She had foreseen that she would die giving birth to a child who would be different and special, and whose fate will be intertwined with that of the Frost King that haunts the forests surrounding the village. True enough, she gave birth to a daughter called Vasilisa and died soon after.
Vasilisa grew up to be a tomboyish hoyden who would rather play in the forest than do her chores. Like her mother, she sees beings like the domovoi who protects the house from evil spirits and the vasila who tends to the horses. Despairing of his daughter’s mounting unruliness, Pyotr decides to visit Moscow to look for a wife who can help keep his daughter in check and maybe serve as a good example of how a woman should act (insert eye roll here, because of course if a woman isn’t doing household chores she’s somehow strange!).
Disaster strikes when Pyotr brings home his new wife Anna, who also has visions. But rather than accepting them like Marina and Vasilisa have done, Anna seems to think they are the devil’s work. She brought with her a priest called Konstantin, who secretly lusts after the now teenage Vasilisa (eew!) and together they stoke fear in the village people’s hearts such that the people gradually forget the old ways of paying tribute to the domovoi and the vasila, and start to worship at the altar of the Orthodox church instead.
This is where the subject matter becomes tricky for me. I have always hated talking about religion, especially my own, because the Roman Catholic church has such a gruesome history: the Inquisition, the Crusades, heck, the recent sex scandals surrounding Catholic priests who allegedly abused their altar boys. I think it was Dan Brown who said in one of his books that any religion is bound to be flawed because its a human invention and mankind is inherently flawed. I wholeheartedly agree, and I also think that any religion will always have its zealots, people who believe so fervently to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. They believe themselves to be prophets and instruments of God and they justify any behaviour as necessary to fulfil the will of the Lord. I say, bollocks.
I refuse to believe in any religion that will justify persecution, or that dares to say it has the right to dictate how people should live their lives. I agree that the church and your faith serves as a moral compass, there to guide you and remind you to always do the right thing; I believe in the kind of church that teaches the power of having a conversation with a higher being, God, Allah, what-have-you and the kind of church that promotes tolerance and acceptance rather than exclusion and isolation. I don’t believe in the kind of religion or church that will punish a young girl for being different, which is exactly what is portrayed in this story.
Vasilisa is the kind of heroine that makes up a feminist reader’s wet dream. She’s brave, headstrong, able to speak her mind and does not allow the circumstances of her birth or gender to colour her destiny. Even when faced with fear and distrust from her own people, she risks her life to save them from the Bear, an ancient power in the forest that thrives on chaos and disorder. She offers her own blood as a sacrifice and offering to the beings that maintain the wards around the village, even when they start calling her a witch and even when Father Konstantin starts calling for her exile.
While I wasn’t that big a fan of the book, and by that I mean I’m not hurrying to Waterstone’s to buy the sequel, I think it does have enough merits to guarantee that I will read the sequel sometime in the near future. Its certainly atmospheric; I can almost feel the cold of Northern Rus whilst I sit on my couch reading, something that’s not hard to imagine as London is currently in the grips of the coldest winter recorded since 2011 (haha). I think the pacing could have been improved – it dragged a little bit in the middle – and as many of my friends and followers know I don’t do too well when I have to read a lot of descriptions about nature. Its all just trees to me!
I did like how this is a book about the empowerment of women. Vasilisa was given a choice between marriage or the convent and rather than opting for one of those choices, she chose a third option – and option of her own will and making. She chose to carve her own destiny rather than bow to the dictates of other people. I think that sends a really powerful message to the YA generation that will no doubt devour this book. In fact, Vasilisa is this book’s saving grace. If I should decide to buy the sequel, it will be because I’m curious about where her adventures will take her next.
Overall, a strong albeit slow start to an interesting series. 3.5 out of 5 stars.