Writer: Katherine Arden
Publishing House: Penguin Random House
Publication Date: January 10th 2017
Rating: 4 stars
“Father Frost and the Maiden” From the village of Mstera
(image source: https://josonja.com)
‘’Fairy tales are sweet on winter nights, nothing more.’’
Russian fairy tales are unlike any others, in my opinion.They are not simple, ‘’happily-ever-after’’ myths, but wonderfully detailed glimpses in the daily lives of people born in times gone-by and tales that hide themes that are relevant to our era. They contain female heroines that surpass inexplicable odds and many have ambiguous closures. There is a sadness that permeates the Russian fairy tale tradition and a fierceness, a strangely modern idea of feminism. All these features are included in Katherine Arden’s beautiful first installment of the Winternight Trilogy.
(image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_Fairy_Tales)
This book has been sitting in my TBR for practically forever, and when the second part came to me as an ARC, I thought it was finally time to begin my journey to Lesnaya Zemlya. In a Russian village, during the late medieval times, a child is born but the mother dies. Vasya has inherited the extraordinary, otherworldly gift of her mother, along with her kind heart, her free spirit of adventure and tolerance. Vasya can see what noone else is worthy to see, but her gift puts her in danger when her father decides to wed another woman. Her name is Anna, a fundamentalist as any has ever seen in any genre in Literature, and another woman who has the ability to see ‘’demons’’. Terrified of the traces of the pagan culture in her husband’s territory, she calls for a priest to come and cast away the demons. Konstantin arrives and everything in Vasya’s life changes.
The essence of the tale is the battle between the pagan tradition and Christianity. Still, ‘’’battle’’ isn’t the right word, since this division is completely constructed by a small number of people who wish to serve their own false convictions. Before Anna came to the community, the people had found the perfect balance between the teachings of Christ and the old Russian deities and traditions. Until priests started talking of demons, fire, and eternal damnation. It’s always been a point of great discourse (and discord) in Literature and in History. In any case, Vasya, Dunya and most of the women are respectful followers of both religions. Anna cannot understand it, locked as she is in her own hallucinations and she descends into a darkness where fear and demons reign. The problem is that she takes everyone else with her.
(image source: https://gr.pinterest.com/source/visionsofwhimsy.blogspot.com)
Arden has composed a tale out of many familiar characteristics of Russian fairy tales. The well-known legend of Lord Winter and the beautiful Maiden lies at the heart of it, while we meet the Baba Yaga, the domovoi (the peaceful spirits that protect the hearth of the Russian household), the vazila, the enchanting Rusalka…The supernatural characters become the heart of the story, because the human characters, well…they’re not very interesting. Anna would make a fine couple with the Devil she so hates (although I’d pity the poor man…), Vasya’s father is a doormat and Dunya is kind and comforting, but not that original. The one who had my unwavering attention was Konstantin, the young priest. An ambiguous character, fully conflicted, dark and perplexing as he is perplexed. He desperately wants to believe and serve but in what? In whom? His interactions with Vasilisa were brilliant and very intriguing. Besides Vasya and Konstantin, there is another major haunting character, but you’ll have to read it to discover it….
So, does the novel worth the hype? In my opinion, yes. Absolutely and definitely. The atmosphere and the transition of the traditional story are exceptionally constructed. Do I think it would be even better if it was written by a Russian writer? Allow me to say that yes, I believe it would. You see, there is a distinctive, haunting veil of sadness, threat and death in the Russian tradition and, while these elements are present in Arden’s work, they weren’t as tense and concise as I’d like them to be. At times, the writing became a bit too YA, a genre that I do not appreciate much. This is strictly my personal opinion, formed out of many years of familiarity with Russian Literature and Culture. However, I definitely enjoyed ‘’The Bear and the Nightingale’’ and I hope that ‘’The Girl In The Tower’’ will be equally satisfying.
(image source: https://gr.pinterest.com/source/comgun.ru)