It is quite a coincidence that both of the books in this post involve snow that doesn’t belong. Halfway through April we get a sheet of ice where I live, where other people not that far from me are posting warm days outside with small children.
It could be why I feel like I am hosting Sunday brunch with all the tiny birds in the neighborhood. Even a pair of ducks. The weather just won’t cooperate to feed them.
I sometimes listen to the Myths and Legends podcast on my way home on Wednesdays when my evening commute is at its longest. I do it to fresh up on basic available plot elements, just to help them be more available when my writing brain needs them. He did Vasilisa the Beautiful and I was like oh! I should write that in modern times! I could make the nefarious Baba Yaga sooo cool!
And then The Bear and the Nightingale and Vassa in the Night came to my attention, so my idea was already long taken. What do you do in such irritation? Buy them both, of course! And then read your face off in a weekend to be able to review them in the same post! Living the dream, people.
I wish I had written either one of these. I’d be happy with that.
While they share the same fairy tale as a starting point, these are two very different books.
A book set in or about one of the five BRICs countries:
The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden
This was almost scooped by my recent purchase of An Association of Small Bombs, but this one is YA and not quite so real life. And it waited and pined for me longer.
While the plot line diverges from the original, I think the atmosphere reflects the intention of the original fairy tale. There is still Vasilisa, who is somewhat beautiful, a wicked stepmother, and some supernatural gifts. A bird that cannot be caged by the lot of women in that day and time.
It evokes the cold and dark, the people living on the edge of survival in a severe climate of months of winter (sounds familiar lately!), which I think is in the spirit of the original. And I suppose I can get over my ire with Katherine Arden because she actually lived in Russia a year before creating her own retelling of the tale, so she was better suited. But while there is the frost king, there is only a hint of mention of Baba Yaga. The magic/spiritualism lies in a man, Konstantin, coming to their town telling them to turn away from the nature and demon worship they engage in to stay alive and keep the nefarious forces bound and at bay, in favor of the one Christian God. This wreaks havoc, of course, and Vasilisa, who shares her ability to see the demons with her stepmother in a delicious plot element, helps to save her people from the damage caused by people turning away from their nature worship. While her stepmother is afraid of the demons she sees, Vasilisa communicates with them and befriends them, and is simultaneously hated by her stepmother for it. And I do like that the relationship between Vasilisa and her half sister Irina is close and loving instead of spoiled, like it was in the original.
Even though the plot diverges more from the story that I know, it was atmospheric and beautiful, and I liked that Vasilisa finds a way out of the typical entrapments available to adult women to continue on the story of her being in her power and being herself. I love love love a witch and I love an unexpected and retold tale. Even if I did want it to be my story, I can concede that she pulled it off. And of course there is a sequel, so this also counts for the first book in a new to you YA or middle grade series.
Vassa in the Night, Sarah Porter
So, I loved When I Cast Your Shadow, so Vassa in the Night, although published sooner, had somewhat of a bar to reach. A standard. A high standard that I would need a step stool to reach myself. I didn’t like it as much as When I Cast Your Shadow, but I don’t love Porter’s work any less than I did.
Vassa sticks more closely to the original story of Vasilisa the beautiful, but set in modern day Brooklyn. I am glad I wasn’t peeking at this one There is Baba Yaga, the wooden doll, the hateful part sister, and the journey to bring light back to her house. The prologue is gorgeous and made me excited that I was digging into another Porter novel, when the night is trapped by Baba Yaga.
You can’t love Sarah Porter unless you are okay with things becoming completely weird and gruesome. Unless you crave it. I don’t know how it is with her Lost Voices trilogy, but in this one and When I Cast Your Shadow, people have bloody deaths, maybe a resurrection, and things completely spinning off their axes in the lives of the characters. Weird creepy horror times a million. Maybe some body parts animated past the times of their deaths. That sort of thing.
She better develops the relationship between Vassa and her late mother and the doll. It is really its own subplot in the middle of the main plot madness other than just Vassa’s help like it is in the original. There was a better reason for her stepmother to despise her, other than in that possessive of your man, fairy tale way. Vassa is stronger in herself and her sense of family after the twisty and strange debacle, much like Arden’s Vasilisa.
Of course I love Vassa and want to write her, she doesn’t take any crap.
And I think the reason I liked her other book better was I loved how she perfectly wrote the ambivalence of family members toward someone who is using. How you can love and hate them and those feelings can polarize whole families. Members who are pulled in and duped and still love fiercely, those who stand back for self preservation and are painted as enemies because their refusal to enable is cast as ‘not understanding’. Vassa had its relationship depth, but not the artfulness of how she wrote that family dynamic.
Both of these books feature beautiful writing and those statements about life you didn’t know were true until you read them and you knew they were true all along. You love the dark, the minor demons who aren’t the real antagonists, the magical twists and how Vasilisa is magical in her own.
I feel like fairy tales lend themselves well to re-tellings because the characters are flat. You already know what they have to do but you can color in your own motives and backstories. You can make a classic plot that already has its staying power your own.
I am at a point with my novel where I am not in the heat of drafting and I am meeting with my teacher before I spiral into the passion of the revision. So I used that tiny bit of space to read a second book and get in one of them on audio! (Vassa. It didn’t have whispersync and I have used my audible credits a full month before they refresh.) The luxury. Maybe I should have split this into two posts so when I am back into the fervent novel work I still have another post on deck to buy me time. But I am glad I didn’t put this on hold to novel. This is a welcome change of pace. A break from the anxiety when I am stalled.