As a child, I loved reading fairy tales. One of my favourites was a Russian story about a golden-haired warrior princess called Mar’ya Morevna, her dashing suitor, Prince Ivan, and her evil enemy, Koshchey the Undying. Years later I was delighted when I discovered a Fantasy series based on these characters by British author Peter Morwood. This trilogy is sometimes called `The Prince Ivan Saga’  and sometimes `Tales of Old Russia’. This week I’m recommending the first of these novels – `Prince Ivan’ which came out in 1990. You can find cheap second-hand copies on Amazon or ABE  or buy it as an ebook or download from the author’s own website (www.PeterMorwood.com). A new paperback edition of `Tales of Old Russia’ (with beautiful covers) is apparently due out this year.

The story is set in medieval Russia where Ivan is heir to the small Tsardom of Khorlov. He and his three older sisters are being pressed by their parents to get married. The princesses aren’t keen on any of their suitors until they are courted by three mysterious royal brothers. These brothers are sorcerers who can each take the form of a different bird.  After the Falcon, the Eagle and the Raven have carried off their willing brides, Ivan sets out to visit his sisters. When he manages to find them, Ivan discovers that his sisters are very happily married. The princesses want Ivan to be equally happy, so they suggest that he seeks out Mar’ya Morevna, `the Fairest Princess in all the Russias’, but his brothers-in-law give him cryptic warnings about a necromancer known as Koshchey the Undying.

Ivan has one narrow escape before he meets the dazzling Mar’ya Morevna at the head of her army. Luckily for Ivan, it is love at first sight.  They are blissfully happy until Ivan accidentally releases the imprisoned necromancer. Koshchey is the only being powerful enough to overcome Mar’ya Morevna and he carries her off on the swiftest horse in the world to his sinister Kremlin. Ivan is desperate to undo his mistake but killing Koshchey in combat proves to be impossible. In order to save Mary’ya,  Ivan will have to deal with a river of fire, man-eating horses and an iron-toothed witch, and find a way to destroy an unkillable sorcerer.

Morwood keeps quite close to the plot of the original story and the narrative shares many of the qualities of an authentic fairy tale. Things happen in threes, much of the story is told through lively and humorous dialogue, and there is a matter of fact attitude to the supernatural.  Sorcerers can change their shape and move their palace to any location, objects can reveal what has happened to their owners, and animals may speak and be more intelligent than people. If  you love horses, you will find some particularly brave and eloquent ones in this story. When Koshchey asks his fiery-eyed horse whether he can catch up up with Mar’ya and Ivan,  the stallion replies,`”If you were to pause and sow barley, wait for it to grow and bring the harvest in, and if you were to use that barley to brew good beer and drink it down, become well drunk and sleep it off, and only then ride in pursuit, even after all of that I should surely catch them.”  That’s how fast this war-horse is. Magic is shown as a force that can be used for evil or good and `Prince Ivan’ champions traditional values fairy tale values, such as looking beyond appearences and being kind to the weak and the vulnerable.

The original fairy tale is quite short, so how does Morwood expand it into a full length novel? Partly by filling in the historical background. A Russian setting makes a welcome change after so many Fantasy novels loosely based on the medieval cultures of Western Europe. Morwood’s Russia is an exciting mix of East and West, pagan and Christian and the book is packed with distinctive details such as a straw man soaked in scented oil burned to mark the end of winter and feasts of blood sausage, pickled cucumbers and great joints of beef with sour cream and horseradish, washed down with birch-beer, vodka or fermented mare’s milk. Morwood weaves in real historical events, like the struggle against raiders from Tartary and his vivid descriptions  make you see, hear and above all smell the terrifying Tartar warriors. A very Russian feature is how strong-minded and formidable all the women in the story are. Ivan’s sisters bully him and make their own decisions about who they will marry. Mar’ya Morevna is a dangerous enchantress and a great general. Even when she’s held captive by Koshchey she manages to drink him under the table. The scariest figure in the story is not the `rattlebones’ necromancer but the cannibal witch, Baba Yaga, with her hut that moves on chicken’s feet and her fence-posts topped with human skulls. If you’ve ever stayed in the sort of Russian hotel where malevolent grannies are employed to thwart the guest’s every wish, you will recognize Baba Yaga’s very special brand of hospitality.

The other thing that Morwood does to turn a fairy tale into a novel is to get beneath the skin of his central character, Prince Ivan. At the start of the story, Ivan is not the warrior-hero he dreams of being. He’s just a good-natured young man, who allows his sisters to push him around, and wants to have a few adventures before he’s forced to settle down. In a reversal of the male and female roles you might expect to find in a tradional tale, Mar’ya is a ruthless war-leader who destroys whole armies while Ivan has never drawn his sword in anger or harmed anyone. Ivan’s tendency to pity his enemies seems to lead to disaster when Koshchey escapes but the prince goes on behaving decently. Mar’ya has something to learn from Ivan’s compassion and their union becomes a more equal one as Ivan’s courage and endurance are tested to the limit. Grim things happen in the course of `Prince Ivan’ but Morwood retells this very Russian story with humour, warmth and delicacy.  This is a book I can recommend for readers of any age. Until next week…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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