I loved this book so much! In many ways, it was a straightforward tale, with many elements familiar with traditional fairy tales but Arden created such sympathetic character and played with history and religion so well to create something that went deeper while feeling completely true to folk tales and fairy tales.
Arden does not waste time in foreshadowing the themes that will drive the story. The novel begins on a cold, hard winter night with four children gathered around the fire to listen to a story. Dunya, the family’s nanny/cook/wise woman tells a traditional tale involving an evil stepmother, a spoiled stepsister and the good daughter. Both are sent to the forest, and Morozko, the winter-king (also know as Karachun the death-god), rewards one daughter while the other is punished for her mother’s arrogance. It’s a familiar story, and I even remember a very similar fairy tale in my Grimm collection without the winter aspect.
Marina, the children’s mother, is pregnant again, and though her husband fears this pregnancy could kill her, Marina wants a child like her mother, a woman who came to court years before from the forest, beautiful and wild and magical. Marina survives long enough to hold her daughter, Vasilisa or “Vasya”, and dies.
Years pass, and with Vasya’s older sister Olga being of marriageable age, her father feels it is time to find a new mother to provide his youngest daughter a steady hand. Since Marina is the half-sister of the current ruler, her remaining family has ties to the court, even if they are removed from most of the politics up in the northern part of Rus’. When Pyotr visits at court to receive his brother-in-law’s blessing and support, he finds himself wrapped up in court politics, and returns home with a stepmother for Vasya and arrangements for an advantageous marriage for Olga (which also reduces at least one threat to the succession of their cousin Dimitrii).
While Anna quickly falls into the role of the evil stepmother, Arden spent enough time introducing the character, that one can still feel pity for her. Vasya and Anna both possess the ability to see beyond, but their upbringing has led to very different reactions, including whether to view it as a curse or blessing. Vasya has grown up on folktales, in a community where Christian beliefs and old pagan traditions intermix and are followed side by side. It takes a while for Vasya to realize that no one else around her sees the household protectors, but she never sees them as anything other than living beings, some more good natured than others, but to be respected. As a result, they love and accept her, listening to her advice on occasion, and giving her gifts for her devotion and caring. Anna grew up at the court, and she never saw these beings as anything other than demons. Unaware of what she was seeing, she believed she was mad, and that they were evil, since that is what her religion would have her believe. Anna grew up extremely devout, partially to try to drive them away, and partially because the church was the only place she did not see the demons. Her greatest wish was to join a convent, a permanent safe space when her father arranged her marriage to a northern landholder.
While Anna’s arrival changes the daily lives of the household, and leads to slightly more secrecy in following certain old customs and traditions to avoid her hysterical screams, overall, Anna does not lead to a huge change in attitude in the community. It is not until the court advisor sends a young, rising star of the church north that things begin to change. Once again, the north becomes the place for the court to get rid of potential threats to the succession, not realizing the impacts it will have.
Konstantin is fascinated and repelled by the young woman Vasya has become, both repelled by and drawn to her wildness. He has no appreciation for the old ways, and his preaching makes the rest of the community turn from them as well, viewing them as sinful due his words. Prejudices develop, and with the weakening of the household protectors, an old evil slowly gains enough power to threaten everyone.
I loved the interplay between traditional folktale and exploration of how religious fanaticism led to the crumbling of a community. While this, too, has become a rather common trope, the interplay of the two fit together perfectly. Vasya’s love of her family and community shine through, and her brother Aloysha was easily my second favorite character, her protector among a world gone mad. I also liked Irina, her half-sister, who meets all the expectations of the fair maiden that Vasya does not, and avoids using their differences to fall into the wicked stepsister trope. Even characters that it would be easy to hate are given depth, leading to moments of sympathy for them. I ended up wondering how differently things could have worked out under different circumstances, with different opportunities for the characters? What if Konstantin had grown up in a society where he could have been a great artist rather than a priest and icon painter? What if Anna had grown up seeing her demons as beings that could be good or bad but had their uses? While their actions are often reprehensible, they are victims of their times as well.
To be honest, this novel felt like a perfect standalone story so I am not sure if I am excited that the story continues or disappointed it was not allowed to stand on its own, like any other fairy tale which leaves the reader to imagine the hero’s happily ever after. Of course I will read it, but I hope that maybe it will choose a completely new story to tell with the same characters rather than rehashing the battle between the winter-king and the Bear.