The story starts off with a tale of a beautiful girl who bravely faces the winter demon Morozko and is rewarded riches beyond imagination. This old folktale slowly unravels in the novel to be the story of Vasilisa, the youngest daughter of the Russian boyar Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife Marina Ivanovna, who dies while giving birth to the girl. Vasya, as she is nicknamed, is set apart from her siblings with her ethereal beauty, her wildness, and her close ties to magic. She has the ability to see the old spirits that populate the hearth, stables and woods of the village, keeping the villagers warm, well-fed, and safe. Her new stepmother can also see these spirits, but fears them intensely believing them to be demons.
Her suspicion and hatred of Vasya, is echoed by the villagers at the encouragement of a young and charismatic priest. The priest insists that everyone turn their backs on the old spirits, as they are demonic and unchristian. The weakening of the old spirits leads to the reawakening of a nasty and powerful evil, intent on destroying everyone and everything, starting with Vasya’s village. Vasya must face the realities of becoming a woman in medieval Russia, while also facing both human and supernatural threats to her and her family.
The Russian setting helps create a rich and fantastical backdrop that adds depth to the story. Arden works hard to describe the cold and deadly Russian winters that last a long time and leaves many hungry and near-dead. As the years go by in the story, the winters become harsher, yet more beautiful, the cold described so vividly I actually shivered.
At its core, this story is about family bonds and the lengths that people will go to protect their loved ones. The relationships between Vasya and her siblings is heartwarming and feels very real. Her father’s attempts to give het a good life, though misguided, come from a place of love.
The story also shows the struggles of growing up as a woman in a time where she was expected to act docile and when she grew to age, she would be expected to marry and submit to a husband, though this goes against Vasya’s very nature. Her struggle against social expectations is one that many of us can empathise with.
Where the story breaks down is in its third act. Certain stories are never fully elaborated with characters leaving without tying up their stories. With so much lead up and preparation, the final battle is almost disappointing, and it is too close to the end for there to be any real closure for the readers. Overall, though the book tells a vivid and beautiful tale that is worth a read.
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