Sequels are a curse for book reviewers. Sure, that novel looks interesting but it's book twelve in a series I have never touched and so I need to ignore it for the sake of my sanity. I am, however, ecstatic that I saw Katherine Arden's second novel, felt that it looked intriguing and asked if the first was still available. That it was is why you're reading this review.
I'm particularly happy that I started reading it in December because it's very much a winter novel, something to escape into while snuggled up in a warm bed in a cold room. You won't be shocked to find that the frost hasn't visited us here in Phoenix, but just a hint of winter helps the magic of this book take hold even more strongly that it would otherwise and Katherine Arden's work is full of magic already. This book is something special.
We're in the lands of the Rus', which is to say Russia before there was a Russia. It's the early fourteenth century, I believe, though Arden did take some liberties with timeframes. Ivan the Fair is the Grand Prince in Moscow, a Grand Prince because the Tsar at this point is the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and there's still power on the steppes too with the Golden Horde in the east; Mediaeval Russia was a patchwork of principalities which hadn't yet forged a common identity. Ivan's half-sister, Marina, was married off to the boyar of Lesnaya Zemlya, a village located far to the north where winter lasts for most of the year and that's where we spend most of this novel. The name translates to 'Land of the Forest' and that's highly appropriate.
Marina's husband is Pyotr Vladimirovich and he's the big fish in a small pond, a hard but decent man who does what he can for his family and his people. They have many children and Marina dies giving birth to the latest of them, Vasilisa, whom she knows will be like her, meaning that she'll have the second sight. Without a mother, Vasya grows under the guidance of the family's nanny, Dunya, who tells folk stories and fairy tales around the oven in the kitchen that keeps them all warm as well as fed. Those stories speak of the old ways and we soon find that a young girl with the second sight has a special connection to them because she can see and talk with the chertyi or local spirits, which nobody else can: a domovoi in the house, a bannik in the bathhouse, a vazila in the stable.
The author immerses us in life in Lesnaya Zemlya, especially in Pyotr's home. Time passes seamlessly, whether it's a night or a year, just like in fairy tales, because our novel really is a fairy tale that happens to contain fairy tales, and it has to do with little Vasya growing up part of the family but something different too and gradually discovering who she really is. The trigger, as the back cover blurb suggests, comes from Pyotr's eventual second wife, Anna Ivanovna, who's a devout Christian, albeit because she can see the spirits too and believes them to be demons. I adored how Katherine Arden phrased this throughout. Every author should learn how to begin a paragraph with a line as great as, 'A demon sat sewing in the corner, and she was the only one who saw.'
The other key character is Father Konstantin, a charismatic priest who's exiled to Lesnaya Zemlya because he's getting too popular in Moscow. There's a lot of politics here, but it's all at a distance; the manouevering of higher ups does affect Pyotr and his family but only at a remove. This ably textures the background for us but without bogging us down in what isn't important to the story at hand. What's important is that Father Konstantin is the new priest and he's a driven man, a painter of icons, a man who believes that his flock must fear the Lord to be saved.
Under his influence, the villagers of Lesnaya Zemlya gradually move away from the old folk customs that they have followed for generations. They stop leaving offerings for the spirits of their household or their forest and, over time, the chertyi accordingly begin to fade. Winter hits their village harder. Wood burns faster in their stoves. Fire is an increased danger. Of course, Father Konstantin interprets all these as tests of faith and forbids any return to the old ways. While Vasya, whose wild spirit, which is notably inappropriate for a girl, is clearly the only person standing in the way of calamity, her stepmother, who believes her to be a witch, plans for her to enter a convent to save her soul, not realising that it would doom them all.
I found it fantastic to read a modern fantasy novel with the opposite moral approach to usual. These people's salvation doesn't rely on their faith in Jesus, it's actively threatened by their faith in Jesus. This is a folk tale with meaning and part of that meaning is that Christianity is a threat because it steals belief away from folk customs that have purpose. That the lead character is female and highly able is just another dangerous deviation from the norms of the time, which we see in a new light because of that. I'm eager to see how that feminist angle continues in 'The Girl in the Tower', the sequel to this book, because it can only grow.
I adored this battle of beliefs, all the more because Katherine Arden is uncannily good at painting a background for us, not just a location but a time, a culture and a way of life at a key point of historical change. I particularly loved this because I had a Christian upbringing in the Church of England but also grew up reading folklore and fairy stories, including four oddly bound sets of 'Picture Tales from the Russian' for children, published in the early twenties. I revisited those after reading this book and wasn't surprised to discover that the one I read the most kicks off with the story at the very heart of this novel, that of Mr. Frost. I'm also very aware, from the extreme metal scene, of the recent rise in pagan beliefs in Scandinavia, especially Norway, partly as rebellion against perceived oppression by national Christian churches. What Arden places in the early fourteenth century is also a contemporary issue.
I can't recommend this book highly enough. It's enjoyable fiction that will entertain even on the surface, but dig into what it's exploring and it's as lush and rich a novel as it is an important one. Fortunately I have its sequel in hand and I can't wait to dive into that one too. Arden may be young but she has a surprisingly old soul and I revel in having now discovered it. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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