It Takes Two: Slavic-Inspired Fantasy

Over the weekend I finished Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale and it was great and full of really interesting women and frost demons and Russian folklore, and maybe it was because I listened to the audiobook version of it but I kept thinking it had a lot in common with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, which I also listened to on audiobook.

While The Bear and the Nightingale is more historical fantasy and Uprooted is second-world fantasy, they both draw on Slavic history and folklore for their worldbuilding and fantasy elements.  The Bear and the Nightingale is about a boyar’s family in the Russian countryside who live close to the great forest where dwell the frost demon and his brother the bear, along with a host of other nature spirits, and focuses on the life of Vaselisa Petrovna, a  young woman born with her great-grandmother’s gifts to communicate with these spirits, whom many people consider no more than fairy tales.  Vaselisa is called upon not only to fight the bear, who would overrun all human settlements near his forest, but also the religious fervor that is driving the old spirits from the land before the new Christian religion.

Agnieszka, in Uprooted, on the other hand, becomes the assistant to the Dragon, a powerful wizard who has vowed to protect her valley from the forest that constantly threatens it, for as long as he lives.  Agnieszka is chosen as his next assistant because she possesses some magic abilities of her own, and the two develop a relationship because he feels he must teach her to use her power.  Eventually, Agnieszka must face the malice of the forest and try to defeat it.  The secrets of the novel, of course, lie in Novik’s reinterpretation of Slavic fairy tales, including Baba Yaga, and the pseudo-fae history of the forest and the valley in which it lies.  Agnieszka must use the magical knowledge she’s obtained, combined with her village’s old tales, to understand what is really happening in the forest.

Each novel deals with the ramifications of being a powerful woman in a society that distrusts women and magic, as well as the feeling of being trapped or hemmed in–Agnieszka in the Dragon’s tower, and Vaselisa in her family’s house, wrapped about by winter and the stifling presence of her step-mother and the priest who seeks to rid the village of the old spirits.  Both novels also find a way to build strong relationships between women, and show what happens when those relationships are curtailed or threatened.

So if you like Slavic folk tales, forest settings, and strong-willed young women, both of these novels are for you.

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The Tuesday List: Selkie Stories are for SFF Lovers

Bear with me.

I’m not into the kind of paranormal fiction that features werewolves and other shape changers, but for some reason selkies really intrigue me.  So here’s a list of stories with Selkies, some short stories, some not.

  1. “Selkie Stories are for Losers” by Sofia Samatar, as published in The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle.

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This quick read takes the familiar mythology of the selkie and gives it a modern twist.

 

2. “Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon, also as published in The New Voices of Fantasy.

This isn’t about actual, named Selkies, but Jackalopes, which also change to human women by shedding their skin.

3. The Story of the Selkie in Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden.  Like all the tales in this book, it’s monstrous and wondrous and a little tragic, all rolled into one.

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4. The Promethean Age novels, by Elizabeth Bear, featuring Uisgebaugh, a Kelpie, which is of course not actually a Selkie, but it is a mythical creature that lives in water and can take human form.  But in this case, it’s a horse, not a seal, and it usually becomes a man when it takes human form.  Oh, and also it eats people.  But if you’re into fae-based fantasy with a touch of urban and a lot of people making questionable decisions, this series is for you.

 

5. Song of the Sea, a 2014 animated film from the people who created The Secret of Kells, it’s about Ben and his younger sister Saoirse, who must discover the secret of their mother’s life and death in order to save Saoirse’s life and return to their lighthouse-keeper father.  It’s adorable, and well-animated, and has really neat music and sound effects.

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The Girl From Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

Where would you go if all you needed was a map to get there? Nix knows exactly where she would go, but has a hard time believing she’ll ever have the opportunity. Tied to her father’s consuming search for one specific map, Nix can only collect fantastical creatures and fairy tale wonders along with a prodigious knowledge of history, while always knowing that every person she’ll meet will eventually be left behind.

Everyone leaves eventually, Nix’s father says, which could be felt as a little on the nose, considering he’s been leading his crew on a wild goose chase for Nyx’s entire life, but Heilig’s measured drawing of Captain Slate’s character instead adds to the pathos of Nix’s constant emotional reserve. Nix may have worlds of possibility open before her, but what she lacks is an anchor, a deep connection to a place. She attempts to find this anchor in the people who have been a part of her life for many years, but nothing can take the place of a real home—time and place.

Tales of resourceful orphans abound, but what sets The Girl from Everywhere apart are the cunning ways Heilig approaches going home, with time travel paradoxes and the concept of the mapmaker’s intentions controlling the world’s realities, as well as Nix’s found family—think a more diverse and interesting version of Pan’s Lost Boys, people who have made their way aboard Slate’s ship from real and fairy tale worlds of the past—good people with haunting experiences of their own who look after Nix but whose characterization doesn’t push too far into the surrogate parent role that many orphan stories rely upon.

Readers who love a good time travel yarn will find the twists and turns of The Girl from Everywhere compelling and entertaining. Those who enjoy character-driven stories with a strong sense of self will love Nyx’s slow, delicious journey through fear and bitterness to confidence and a powerful ability to accept people for who they are. Anyone who ever wanted a fairy tale to come true will appreciate the many journeys Nyx has made and her vast store of treasures and lore.

In the Night Garden, by Catherynne Valente

In
the most perfect garden in the world, a place of planned and controlled beauty,
a girl tells a boy tales, the kind that tell the story of what happens off the
beaten path, in the wilderness of life. 
She tells tales of monsters and princesses, and sometimes, monstrous
princesses.  She tells the story of
a world through the tales that the world has created.  She tells the story of life, the kind of life the boy would
give up nearly anything to hear.

Structured
as layers of lives, each creature encountered telling their own story, blending
with the overall tale the young girl whispers at night to the lonely boy,
Valente builds a world.  Rarely
does one encounter such a vivid world, or characters who shine so brightly,
with so little exposition.  Though
different cultures and creatures war with each other, each aspect of this world
blends together to create a tapestry of beliefs, peoples, lives, and deaths.  It is a complex ecosystem where a
single action, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, can have great
ramifications for hundreds of years.

Valente’s
writing is stylized in the way of fairy tales, but also simple.  The narrative does not shy away from
what is ugly, or horrible.  It does
not shrink from the overwhelming ambition that leads sons to kill their
fathers, or that leads wizards to turn young women into deformed creatures in a
quest for immortality.  It also
allows the small and forgotten to forge a place of significance through
bravery, honesty, and every good quality that is best exemplified by the
insignificant.  It is a masterful
piece of storytelling.

Readers
who enjoy stories of the ‘once upon a time’ variety will find themselves
spellbound by Valente’s ever-spiraling tales.  Those who like fantasy that pushes the limits of
storytelling and world building will enjoy these tales that have so much to say
in so few words.  Anyone looking
for a complex narrative that combines a rich tapestry of folk and fairy tales
need look no further than In the Night
Garden
.