In a village in the wilderness of northern Russia, where snow falls for many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery and folklore, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for young Vasya, these are more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods.
This is a beautifully written fairytale, a unique and engrossing story that will appeal to fans of Erin Morgernstern and Naomi Novik. The Russian setting marks this book as something different, its atmosphere of superstition and old magic adding extra dimensions to what is, at its heart, the story of a girl who rebels against the restraints placed on her because of her gender.
Our protagonist, Vasya, is undoubtedly one of the best things about this novel. She is a great role model for girls, fearless and brave and always willing to do whatever needs to be done and to hell with the consequences. She refuses to bow down and meekly acknowledge the fact that she will either have to marry or go into a convent. She dares to ask why these are a woman’s only options, and why she cannot go out and see the world.
In fairytales characters are often easily recognisable stereotypes, but in this novel Arden has fleshed out each and every one of them so we know what drives them, what they fear and what they want. This makes the story that much more enjoyable as you find yourself sympathising with their plight.
The atmosphere is beautiful and otherworldly, full of both magic and monsters. You will find yourself transported to the snowy wilds of Russia, where spirits creep in the dark and a wrong step could mean the end of your life.
The writing is both lyrical and easy to read, immersing you in the wild lands of northern Rus and inviting you into a world where the only limits are what you can imagine.
I especially enjoyed the contrasts in this book. The contrast between Vasya and the other women who are content with their meagre lot in life; the contrast between old magic and the new rites of the church; the contrast between the snow outside and the fires burning inside. The effect is gripping and engrossing; so much so that you won’t want to turn the last page and finish the story.
I have to admit that parts of the ending left me disappointed. Arden sets up the forces of good and evil on either side of a battleground but the ending ultimately goes against everything that made the first two-thirds of the book so enjoyable.
Even despite these problems, I would still highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy and fairytale. This is a fairytale for adults, and it doesn’t lack in depth or complexity.
Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.