My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Based on Russian history and folklore, this is a beautifully written and atmospheric story that I liked a lot. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite wow me as much as I had hoped it would but it’s definitely one I’d recommend as it could be the beginning of a very interesting series.
Synopsis (from GoodReads)
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
When I first finished this book I really couldn’t make up my mind about it and even now a few days later I’m still not sure. As a lover of fairytales, magic and tales of things that go bump in the night and lurk in the woods it should have been the perfect read for me. However, while I liked it a lot I found it to be missing that special something that would take it from good to great.
It is a beautifully written story. The author does a magnificent job of transporting you to a magical and wild land in medieval Russia. The writing is so evocative you almost feel like you are there, huddling around the fire, travelling across the cold and snowy wilderness or visiting the market and palaces of Moscow.
The characters are also very well created and believable and there is a unique and captivating story in there but for me it was missing the emotion I needed to really connect to it. When I was reading on the way home from work after a long day I found my attention wandering and had to re read certain pages more than once before I took it in.
This lack of emotion and connection to any of the characters was due, I believe, to the constantly switching point of view from one character to another. It moves from father to mother to nanny to Grand Prince to priest and on and on. I found this particularly bad in the first half of the book where I actually started to wonder who the main character was, if there was one and where it was all going. I also struggled a little with the different names used for the same character. I understand that this is accurate for the time and place and that the author had tried to make it easy for the English reader but I still found myself getting confused at times with so many different characters and so many names.
As a result of the switching focus and insight into each of the different characters the story felt quite slow in the beginning. It did give a real sense of time and place which was fascinating in some ways but I did feel like a lot of it could have been covered much faster without so many characters. I probably would have cut a whole part where the father visits Moscow as it didn’t really add much and I was close to giving up.
Thankfully however the story does turn around. There is a lot more focus on Vasilisa and the strange events that start to occur in the village where she lives. Vasilisa is a very likeable character. An outcast in the village due to some very unique abilities, she’s brave, a little wild and not cut out for the options available to her at that time (marriage or a convent). I loved almost every chapter she was in, I just wish the author had stuck with her and the events around her throughout.
The pacing of the story was a little bit off for me, too slow in the beginning and too fast at the end but it is a good story. It is the first in a trilogy so I think there is some real potential. I will definitely be giving the next book in the series a try.
I think whether you love this book or not will come down to why you read. If you’re looking for a beautifully written and vivid world with a slow building story and a mix of Russian history and folklore I think you’ll love this book. Unfortunately for me, while I could appreciate it, I didn’t love it.
Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC. As always all views are my own.