Archives for category: Russia

During this cold week I’m recommending a novel inspired by Russian history and folklore. “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden has only just been published, so the choice is between hardback and ebook editions. The charming cover of the British hardback looks more tropical than Russian. The American cover features a dramatic snow scene which is truer to the atmosphere of this dark and wintry book.

On the edge of a forest in medieval Russia lived a boyar (lord) called Pyotr Vladimirovich and his wife, Marina. She was a daughter of the Grand Prince of Moscow but because her mother was rumoured to be a witch, she was married off to a boyar in a remote northern province. This happy marriage produced three children but as Marina’s health failed she longed for a special daughter who would inherit her grandmother’s magic. Marina died after giving birth to a baby girl called Vasilisa (Vasya). Little Vasya was looked after by her older sister and by nurse and storyteller, Dunya.

After six years Pyotr decides that his older daughter needs a husband and his spirited youngest child needs a stepmother. He returns from Moscow with another royal bride, but the neurotic Princess Anna dislikes Vasya and soon has a daughter of her own to favour. The villagers who live on Pyotr’s estate are devout Christians but they also respect the spirits who inhabit the forest and lakes and leave offerings for the ones who protect houses and stables. Vasya has the rare gift of being able to see these spirits. She even befriends some of them, such as the beautiful but dangerous rusalka in the nearby lake and the squat brown domovoi who guards her family home. Her stepmother can see spirits too but she interprets them as demons and is terrified. Princess Anna is grateful when an ambitious young priest, launches a crusade to stop people following the old ways.

As Vasya grows up she has more encounters with spirits and learns to understand the language of horses. When the local people begin to fear Vasya as a witch, her only choices seem to be marriage or a convent. Evil is stirring deep in the forest and dark forces are threatening the village. Weakened by the lack of belief and offerings, the ancient spirits can no longer offer protection against wolves, fire and the walking dead. Vasya, and a magical jewel given to her by a mysterious stranger, may be the only hope…

This debut novel has been launched with much publicity and endorsements from big name Fantasy authors such as Robin Hobb and Naomi Novik. I think the hype is mainly justified. “The Bear and the Nightingale” isn’t as distinctive as Catherynne M.Valente’s mesmerizing Russian-based Fantasy “Deathless” but it is beautifully written and has a most appealing heroine. I was hooked as soon as the old nurse began telling the tale of King Frost. I’ve always been attracted to Russian Fairy Tales, which abound in forceful female characters and magical creatures. I have already recommended one trilogy based on them – Peter Morwood’s “Prince Ivan Saga” (April 2013). Morwood’s novels are primarily dramatizations of specific Russian Fairy Tales with added historical elements. The early chapters of “The Bear and the Nightingale” read more like an historical family saga with added Fairy Tale elements.

Arden has spent some time living and studying in Moscow and it shows in her vivid descriptions of the Russian landscapes and climate. Through young Vasya’s eyes, we see the beauty of the great forests which cover much of northern Russia but it also becomes clear that this is a harsh land. In a bad season, even the wealthy are reduced to living on black bread and cabbage soup for months on end. Weather is very important in this novel. Vasya and her family endure suffocatingly hot summers and bitterly cold winters. Family life is literally centered on the kitchen stove, which everyone sleeps around in freezing weather. Arden is excellent on domestic detail and family dynamics. All the members of the Vladimirovich family are well-rounded individuals. I was sorry when Vasya’s kindly elder sister and interesting oldest brother disappeared from the plot to go and live in Moscow but there is plenty of precedent for that kind of exit in Russian literature.

It is now more or less compulsory in historical Fantasy for the heroine to be a bold rule-breaker who refuses to accept the limited roles available to women. Vasya does fit this profile but she is also convincing as a child of her era. She tries to be a dutiful daughter but cannot conceal her unusual abilities. The men in Vasya’s family may find her hard to understand but they aren’t shown as oppressive  and the author doesn’t criticize Vasya’s gentle sisters for choosing more traditional female roles. The plot requires a cruel stepmother but Arden made me feel sorry for the hysterical Anna who has been deprived of the quiet convent life which was her heart’s desire and forced into marriage. I sometimes felt that Arden was torn between writing a realistic historical novel exploring the plight of women and writing Fantasy. Vasya is told several times that she can’t escape a woman’s usual fate because she isn’t living in a Fairy Tale but it turns out that she is.

The tone of this novel becomes much darker about three-quarters of the way through and the supernatural elements escalate. There are gruesome episodes which could come from a Horror novel when Vasya finds herself facing a demon who wants “to eat the world” (The Bear) and dealing with the walking dead. Anna suddenly behaves like a Fairy Tale stepmother and demands that Vasya find snowdrops in midwinter or be banished from her family home. From this point on, Vasya is immersed in a thrilling Fairy Tale world of danger and magic. We finally meet the Nightingale character and learn more about the enigmatic Frost King. The story ends back in the heart of a changed family but there is plenty of scope for a sequel. I would gladly follow brave Vasya on another adventure. Until next time…



This week I’m recommending a novel by Holly Black, a writer who excels at creating tough Urban Fantasy based on Fairy Tale motifs. `White Cat’ came out in 2010 and it’s the first in her `Curse Workers’ series. Although the leading characters are teenagers, the tone and content of `White Cat’ make it too dark a novel for young readers. It is available in paperback or as an ebook, and the audio edition (read by Jesse Eisenberg) is particularly good. Making modern New Jersey seem magical isn’t easy, but Black is up to the challenge. In her version of reality, the power to work magic with the touch of a hand runs in certain families. Each `Curse Worker’ has a particular skill. They may be able to affect luck, alter memories, dreams or emotions, or even kill with a touch. Working magic became illegal in America in 1929, so now `Worker’ families are usually part of the criminal underworld.

The story starts with a terrified boy on a rooftop. Seventeen year-old Cassel Sharpe is trying to fit in at Wallingford, a boarding school for wealthy  kids. It isn’t easy because his background is far from normal. His grandfather is a `Death Worker’, his father is dead, his mother is in prison for fraud and his brothers work for Zacharov, an infamous Russian-American gang-boss. Cassel feels like an outsider in his own family because he is the only one who doesn’t have a magical talent, so he tries to compensate by being the perfect con artist. Worse still, Cassel knows that he’s a murderer. Three years ago he stabbed his best friend, Lila Zacharov to death. Cassel can’t remember why he killed her, but he’s grateful to his elder brothers, Philip and Barron for covering up the crime. His mother has taught him that `there is no-one who will love you like your family’.

After a nightmare about a white cat causes Cassel to sleepwalk onto the roof of his dorm,  he’s thrown out of Wallingford. While he’s scheming to get himself reinstated, Cassel is forced to stay with his relatives.  He soon notices that something is very wrong with Philip’s marriage and he discovers that Barron has dropped out of Law School. The cat that haunts Cassel’s dreams turns up at the family home and is obviously no ordinary pet. Increasingly troubled by the gaps in his memory, Cassel begins to suspect that his brothers have been lying to him about a lot of things. He turns to non-Worker friends, his room-mate Sam and Sam’s girlfriend Daneca, to help him deceive his relatives and protect the white cat. When Cassel learns the cat’s identity, he also learns some frightening truths about himself and the powers he never knew he had. Betrayed by the people closest to him, Cassel is drawn into a dangerous plan to gain revenge…

`White Cat’ combines a common Fantasy theme (young man discovers that he has unusual powers) with a standard gangster-thriller plot (young criminals conspire to take over the family crime business, even if it means murdering people they’ve sworn to be loyal to) but the result is surprisingly distinctive. This is partly due to Black’s subtle world-building. To begin with, Cassel’s world seems virtually identical with contemporary America. A few small details puzzle the reader. Why do students at Wallingford wear amulets and why is Cassel shocked to see his sister-in-law without her gloves? It gradually becomes apparent that gloves are mandatory because anyone might be a Curse Worker and everyone is afraid of being touched by one. Bare hands are considered `as potentially deadly as unsheathed blades’. In this America, people can be transformed into animals or objects, or have false emotions and memories imposed on them. The gangster chief, Zacharov can identify himself with Koshchey the Deathless, the unkillable sorcerer of Russian folklore (see my April post on `Prince Ivan’ for another version of this character) but genuine magical protection is hard to come by.

One of the things which makes Black’s magic so convincing is that it comes at a very high cost. Every time a Curse Worker uses his or her special skill, there is `blowback’, so Cassel’s Death Worker grandfather has rotting fingers and his Memory Worker brother, Barron, can no longer remember his own life without keeping notes of what he does. In the background, important issues with real life parallels are hinted at. Some politicians are advocating compulsory testing of all citizens for `Worker’ powers but Daneca’s mother is running a group lobbying for the decriminalization of magic, so that Workers are no longer forced to hide their skills. By the end of the story, Cassel has become more aware of the brutal persecution of Curse Workers in other countries, and the potential of some kinds of magic to be used for good, but he still fears it may be too late for himself to be anything but a monster.

At the start of `White Cat’ it is hard to see clever Cassel as a hero. He runs a betting business at school, lies, cheats and steals as a matter of course, and treats anyone outside his own family as a potential `mark’. If he’s really murdered the girl he had a crush on, he is also a psychopath. As we get to know Cassel from the inside, this seems less and less likely and it becomes easy to sympathise with his family situation. He has the ultimate in emotionally manipulative mothers, his grandfather won’t talk about anything important, and the elder brother Cassel once idolized can’t stand to look at him. His relationship with his other brother Barron has never recovered from them both being obsessed with Lila Zacharov, a girl determined to prove to her gangster father that she is as good as any boy. Some of the things his close-knit family do to Cassel are deeply shocking, so Cassel tells the lies he wants to be true. In one of the saddest scenes in the book, Cassel tricks Barron into believing that they are loving brothers who hang out together. This is a novel with a real sting in its tail. If you become as interested in Cassel’s plight as I have done, you will want to read on as his story continues in `Red Glove’ and `Black Heart’. Until next week, probably…


This week I’m recommending Urban Fantasy Russian style. The recent appearance of a fifth volume in  Sergei Lukyanenko’s `Night Watch’ series has reminded me of just how fascinating these books are. Volume One was first published in English in 1988 and shouldn’t be confused with Sarah Waters’ more recent historical novel, `The Night Watch’. You can get  Lukyanenko’s novel in paperback or as an ebook but be a little wary of the films based on his fiction. The film `Night Watch’ only covers about the first third of the novel. Even more confusingly, the film `Day Watch’ is also mainly based on `The Night Watch’, rather than on its sequel, `The Day Watch’.  These films use characters and incidents from`The Night Watch’ but drastically change the plot. They are enjoyable horror films in their own right but are much less subtle and interesting than the novels.

In Lukyanenko’s fiction there is a multi-layered parallel world known as the Twilight, which can only be entered by Others. Recognizable by their auras, Others are humans who are born different and display an aptitude for magic. Among the Russian Others there are magicians and witches, seers, shape-shifters and vampires. A person’s mood or mental attitude when they first enter the Twilight usually determines whether they become a Dark or a Light Other. Dark Others use their magic to gratify their own desires and they draw power from negative human emotions such as anger and misery. Light Others try to use their magic for good and draw power from postive human emotions such as love and joy – though there isn’t much of the latter in contemporary Russia. The two sides fought for centuries causing terrible devastation to the human world until a peace treaty was signed. Each major city now has a Night Watch, a group of Light Ones who protect humans at night, and a Day Watch, a group of Dark Ones who protect their own interests. There are strict rules, policed by a neutral Inquisition, about how much either side can interfere in the lives and fates of ordinary humans. The heavy  price of peace is that there must be an equal number of Light and Dark interventions.

`The Night Watch’ is divided into three stories which are more closely connected than they initially appear to be. Most of the book is narrated by Anton Gorodetsky, a low grade Light magician who only discovered that he was an Other in his mid-twenties. Since then, Anton has been doing a desk job in the headquarters of the Moscow Night Watch. He is content with this dull life and even gets on well with the family of Dark vampires who live in his appartment block. Then Boris Ignatievitch (Gesar), the long-lived leader of the Night Watch, insists that Anton does some fieldwork, which includes tracking unlicensed vampires. While riding the Metro, Anton notices Svetlana, a  young woman with a black curse vortex hanging over her. Anton drains his protective amulet  trying to remove the curse but then has to get off the train to follow his target. He catches two vampires trying to lure a young boy called Egor. Anton kills the male vampire but the female one escapes and the boy has disappeared.

Anton soons finds that he is in all kinds of trouble. Zabulon, the terrifying head of the Day Watch is rumoured to be angry with him for killing a vampire, so Boris Ignatievitch assigns Anton an unusual partner, Olga, a Light Enchantress who has been transformed into an owl for some past crime.  A Dark Witch called Alisa catches Anton illegally using his powers for good and when Anton tries to protect Egor from the female vampire, it transpires that the boy is an emerging Other who has yet to choose between Light and Dark. Meanwhile the curse on Svetlana has become so powerful that it may destroy the whole of Moscow. Anton manages to work out the origin of the curse but Svetlana remains a dangerous person to know. As the story continues, Anton is framed for a murder he didn’t commit and is forced to fight a mysterious serial killer known as `The Judge’ . He comes to realize that he, Svetlana and Egor are all being used in the great game between Boris Ignatievitch and Zabulon, a game in which the prize seems to be the Chalk of Fate that can rewrite the destiny of the world…

Yes, there is no shortage of plot in `The Night Watch’. It’s a story full of startling twists and dramatic revelations which change Anton’s view of everything that has gone before. Events are being manipulated for unknown reasons and Anton learns to be as wary of his colleagues in the Night Watch as he is of his official enemies in the Day Watch. Much of the book reads like a supernatural version of John le Carré’s Smiley novels, so if you like complicated spy stories, you will probably enjoy this book.  As Anton becomes increasingly attracted to troubled Svetlana,`The Night Watch’ also turns into an unusual love story. Not many novels deal honestly with the problems faced by a man who falls in love with a woman who is much more powerful than himself.

The Russian setting also helps this series to stand out from the mass of Urban Fantasy that’s on offer. Lukyanenko can draw on Russian folklore to make his werewolves, vampires and witches distinctive. Did you know that Russian vampires react badly to vodka? Quite a disadvantage. I did feel that I’d learned a lot about post-Communist Russia by reading this novel. It’s a portrait of a society living in the aftermath of a gigantic failed experiment. There are new freedoms, which no-one quite knows how to use, but there is also chaos and corruption. No wonder Anton gets into trouble for `remoralising’ one of the petty criminals who make people’s lives a misery.  There is plenty of wry humour in Anton’s narrative but you can rely on Russian characters to  have deep, soulful and often melancholy conversations, even when they are supposed to be enjoying themselves at a party thrown by a were-tiger. Russian novelists have never been shy about dealing with big emotions and big issues. It is no accident that the first part of `The Night Watch’  is called `Destiny’ as the story queries  how far anyone is in charge of their own destiny and whether visionary leaders can or should shape the destiny of all humanity.

`The Night Watch’ is very far from being a straightforward battle between good and evil. Anton believes that the Dark Ones can only be eradicated if humans cease to have the negative emotions which the Dark Ones feed on, but altering states of mind involves tampering with free-will. In other books in the series, Lukyanenko writes sympathetically from the point of view of Dark Others. The witch Alisa flits in and out of the ongoing storyline as a kind of anti-heroine, who is shown to have a passionate love for her country. Disturbingly, the novel raises the question of whether the Night Watch’s well-meaning attempts to do good, have actually ended up causing more harm than the mere selfishness of the Day Watch. Anton Gorodetsky begins as an everyman figure but gradually acquires the powers of a `Great One’. He still tries to do the right thing but can never be quite sure that he has. That is what keeps the `Nightwatch’ series interesting. Until two weeks time…


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 ( 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…