‘It was late winter in Northern Rus’, The air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains and runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.’
From the first paragraph, detailed above, it is immediately apparent that Katherine Arden has a skill beyond many other writers. The skill for weaving a story in beautiful language, a skill which usually comes around an author’s 3rd, 4th or even 5th novel. But this is actually Katherine’s debut.
Thank you firstly to Penguin Random House and Del Rey Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
This is not going to be a difficult book to review. Mainly because it was beautiful from start to finish. From it’s wonderfully, colourful cover to its neat black font. But mostly because of its imaginative, detailed and phantasmagorical story.
The story focuses on the family of a Russian lord. The setting I would say is around the time period of the 1800s and Russia is in the midst of a bleak winter. Pyotr and Marina already have 4 children, 3 boys and 1 girl when Marina announces she is with child again. She also announces that this one will be different, more like her own mother who came from nowhere and won the heart of Russia’s Grand Prince. Here is where Vasilisa is born. Vasilisa has a sight beyond that of her siblings. She alone can see the spirits and demons who protect her home from the threat in the forest and she alone can save them when the rest of her people turn to God.
The story is magical, in that it mixes the real world with that of fairytales and other worlds. I’m not talking the fairytales mass produced by Disney either, these are the dark tales of Russian folklore, demons in the night, whispers between the trees and the nip of wolves on your ankles. Placed in a setting of freezing midwinter when the trees are bare and families starving, mistrust and fear breed.
Though the story is far from fast paced it keeps the reader gripped with anticipation and dread as the threat comes closer. The bitterness of a jealous stepmother, the devotion and misplaced trust of a pious priest and the hint of devilry just around the corner sends a thrill down the readers spine.
The writing itself is beautiful, Katherine Arden creates a world and weaves the magic into her words with beautiful descriptive sentences, excitement and desperation as we, the readers sit with baited breath, unsure what is around the corner.
A truly magical and yet terribly dark story of what happens when bedtime stories become real life. Katherine Arden is the author to watch.