Disclaimer! I recieved an ARC copy of this through NetGalley. That has in no way influenced my review.
Pyotr Vladimirovich is a boyar, the lord of northerly and remote Lesnaya Zemlya in medieval Russia. A part of the world where the winters are long and harsh and isolate the populace, it’s no wonder that the cold, dark nights are spent telling fairy stories, like those of Morozko or Lord Karachun, the Frost demon himself – who sometimes rewards those who are brave and pure of heart with treasures beyond their wildest dreams, while he punishes the greedy and claims their lives. Pyotr has three sons and a daughter, when his beloved wife, Marina, believed by some to be a witch’s daughter, announces that she is having another child, a second daughter, who will inherit her grandmother’s gifts. Both Pyotr and Dunya, Marina’s old nurse (and now that of her children) are worried and don’t think Marina is strong enough to carry another child to term, but she does, and dies shortly after.
Vasilisa Petrovna, commonly known as Vasya, grows up to be an unruly and impetuous child. When she is six, she gets lost in the woods she normally knows as well as the back of her hand, and under an unfamiliar oak tree, she finds a sinister, one-eyed man sleeping. She wakes him by accident, and discovers that half his face is badly scarred. The man tries to get her to come to him, but just as she is about to step closer to him, she is interrupted by the arrival of younger man on a beautiful white horse. He has piercing blue eyes and wears a long fur cloak. He puts the older man, Medved, to sleep with a word and tries to talk to Vasya, but she is scared and runs away and is eventually found by search parties in the woods. As she grows older, she more or less forgets about the whole incident.
The episode makes it clear to Pyotr and his family that Vasya needs a new mother and that Dunya and Olga (Vasya’s older sister) are not enough to raise her into a properly well-behaved young lady. Pyotr needs to marry again and travels with his two oldest sons to Moscow to find a new wife, and hopefully a prospective bridegroom for Olga, as well. The current grand prince there is Ivan, Marina’s half-brother, so Pyotr has hopes of a decent match both for himself and his daughter. While he is there, his middle son, Sasha, meets a holy man and states his desire to join a monastery, not exactly something the northern lord looks favourably upon.
They are also approached by a handsome, dark-haired stranger while in the marketplace. A cranky, hungover Kolya (the eldest brother) challenges the man, but is easily bested by the deadly man, who nevertheless promises to spare the young hot-head’s life, if Pyotr will only bring a gift back for his youngest daughter. The stranger gives him a beautiful blue jewel on a delicate chain, making Pyotr swear that Vasya will keep it close always, as it will protect her. If he doesn’t give her the necklace, the stranger promises to come for Kolya, taking his life.
While in Moscow, Grand Prince Ivan promises Pyotr a very favourable marriage between his nephew and Olga, and also offers his eldest daughter from his first marriage to Pyotr as a young bride. Pyotr is wondering what in the world is wrong with the woman, to make her father want her exiled in the northern wastes, but can’t really refuse such a handsome offer. As it turns out, Anna Ivanovna is a recluse, who believes herself to be mad. She sees demons everywhere, except in church, and therefore wants to join a convent. She’s not at all happy when her father announces that she is to wed a much older boyar and move to the north.
When Pyotr returns, he gives the strange necklace to Dunya the nurse, for safe-keeping. She doesn’t think a wild young girl like Vasya should wear something so fine, but is haunted by vivid dreams after she hides it away. A dark stranger visits her and threatens both her and the family. Dunya promises that she will give the girl the necklace when she gets older, and the stranger eventually agrees, leaving the old woman’s dreams in peace.
Anna Ivanovna is completely miserable in the north, seeing even more demons than before. She doesn’t realise that the creatures she sees as demonic are the same ones her stepdaughter Vasilisa considers her secret friends. They are the various nature spirits who protect the house, yard, stables, fields and homes in the village. Some of the ones of the streams and forests are more malevolent than others, but all care for young Vasya and she makes sure they are given appropriate gifts of food and drink to be kept happy.
When the old priest dies and the young, handsome and very ambitious Father Konstantin arrives from Moscow, Anna finally believes she has found a proper ally. Together the zealous and hysterical woman and the charismatic priest persuade the villagers to abandon their old superstitious practises. No more offerings to the various nature spirits are allowed, only church services and devotion. Only Vasya, who speaks to them (but has learned to hide it from everyone, especially her stepmother) sees the negative effects. She tries valiantly to sneak the spirits offering in secret, but they are clearly weakening.
Anna is a bitter, unhappy woman and cannot fail to notice what a striking and confident young woman her stepdaughter is becoming. Maybe not beautiful, but arresting nonetheless, and she sees how fascinated Konstantin the priest is with her, even though he’s supposed to be a man of God. Anna convinces Pyotr that the girl needs to be either married off or sent to a convent, before Vasya’s wild ways shame the family.
Dunya refuses to give her young charge the necklace, even as she grows older, worried about the origin of the amulet. She rightly suspects that the dark stranger is none other than Morozko, the Frost demon himself and that the talisman will bring Vasya under his influence. Only when she is dying does she persuade Vasya to take the necklace, but is it already too late?
Has the frantic and jealous Anna’s efforts, along with the priest’s, weakened the various defences of the village and forest too much? Has the abandonment of the old ways allowed dark forces to take control in the area? Crops are failing, the winters are longer and the summers far too warm. There are wild beasts roaming the woods and uncontrollable forest fires threaten. Can Vasya save her home and her family before the dead rise and destruction reigns?
If my plot summary is a bit TL, DR just trust me that this is a slow-burning, but very worthwhile exploration of Russian folklore, a fantasy set in 13th Century Russia (before the country was even called that). While Vasilisa is the true protagonist, for the first third or so, she barely even exists, as the book takes its time to tell the story of how her parents met, how her family live before she is born, and how her father grieves her mother’s passing, having insisted on giving birth to this apparently gifted child. While Vasya is a brave, loyal and independent heroine, this is a world where women are completely subservient to men and she can’t exactly be a blazing feminist icon in a time where women either got married and had children (until they died in childbirth, probably) or joined a convent, shutting themselves away to pray for their extended family, governed by religion.
Growing up motherless and unruly, Vasya is generally given much more freedom than most women, and though she chafes under the discipline from her new stepmother, she’s still allowed to roam freely in the woods, like the free spirit she is. It’s only when her father invites a young man from a neighbouring village as a suitable match for her that he sees how different his daughter is from other proper, demure young ladies. She shocks everyone with how outspoken she is, and once she humiliates the potential groom by being a far superior rider than him, there really is no other option for Vasya than a convent. Telling her family that nope, she can’t join a holy sisterhood, because she has to save the village from evil, isn’t really going to work. Luckily, Vasya has the help of her youngest brother Alyosha, who tries to help her as best he can.
While the book felt excruciatingly slow at first and I wasn’t entirely sure if it deserved all the rave reviews I’ve seen for it online, once Vasya grows a bit older and takes centre stage, the story becomes a lot more engrossing. Because we get to see her back in Moscow, before she is unwillingly married off to the older Pyotr, Anna really isn’t your traditional evil fairytale stepmother. She’s clearly a woman who had completely different hopes and dreams and whose religious upbringing makes her stand in complete opposition to everything her stepdaughter believes and has learned to trust growing up.
The contrast between the old faith, the belief in various spirits of the home and hearth and the new, as comprised in Christianity, is interesting. Neither Anna, nor Konstantin are bad people, as such, but their wishes and beliefs allow an older, more ancient evil to creep back into the area, taking advantage of their zealotry to weaken the natural defences that was there.
The internet tells me that this is the first of three books featuring the plucky Vasya, and probably some of her siblings too. I especially enjoyed the last third of this book and the romantic possibilities that are alluded to. Always a huge fan of fairy tales, I am very much looking forward to reading more about Vasilisa and the dark stranger who had placed her under his protection. So if you like a good dark fairy tale, this is well worth checking out. Just be patient and stick with it through the first third. It is worth it in the end.
Judging a book by its cover: This book has two different covers, and I absolutely love one of them, while find myself baffled by the other (which I also don’t like at all). I’ve chosen to comment on the one I do like, with a motif I think fits perfectly for the second half of the book, with the dark forest, night skies, winter woods, spooky mist and the lonely, but warm-looking cottage in the woods, with a lone female silhouette walking towards the warmth and the light. The image fits perfectly with the action of the last quarter of the book and has a suitable fairy-tale feel.
Crossposted on my blog.