Another retelling of a fairytale that I did not know prior to reading this book, Vassa In the Night is a vastly different approach when compared to East. *here there be spoilers*
The feeling is this novel is very surreal, dark and almost grotesque, but in way that draws the reader in. The feeling is similar to that of the podcast ‘Alice Isn’t Dead’; sinister unhuman enemies, an uncaring police force, a strange and bizarre reality. I was also heavily reminded of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, with the witch who forces the protagonist into working for her, house on legs, etc. (although of course the aforementioned movies’ influences came from fairy tales to begin with).
Certain fairy tale elements were familiar to me, such as the accomplishment of impossible tasks and once-human swans, but others were very unexpected. For instance, Vassa’s father turning himself into a dog felt kind of random and unnecessary to the story, though I expect it’s a reference to some other Russian fairy tale. The big ‘reveal’ that Erg was part of Vassa’s soul also felt odd; she had her own completely different personality for the entirety of the book, and knew lots of magical secrets that Vassa had no idea about. Wouldn’t this mean Erg is a separate person to Vassa? Is Vassa’s soul just a battery for Erg? This plot point felt confused and messy. Erg as her own entity worked perfectly for the majority of the book and I feel would have been better staying that way until the end. Also, reminding us every so often that Vassa is ‘so beautiful’ was unnecessary (even if this was a reference to the original fairy tale title of ‘Vasilissa the Beautiful’).
Like Sugar mentioned, there were many loose ends, some of which bothered me more than others. The swan storyline wasn’t wrapped up, although I assume they simply remained swans (as did Vassa’s foot). There was a magical man who was murdered – by whom? Did they stop? Is there an anti-magic movement? How many other kinds of magic people exist in this universe, and how ‘open’ in the world are they? Why does it seem only BY’s interact with ordinary people? I know the point of the story was to focus on the Baba Yaga, and the book may have become too long to answer all these questions, but in that case, these questions shouldn’t have been brought up in the first place.
I will concede that Tomin’s revival was ever so slightly foreshadowed when Pangolin was drinking shadow soda and dribbled a little on a dead fly that was laying in a patch of sunlight. This was, in my mind, the third night’s ‘impossible’ task that Vassa accomplished, and freeing Night the final act of her adventure .
Critique aside, I enjoyed this book overall. The atmosphere was superb and Vassa was a great protagonist. She was brave and smart, with attitude and human flaws to boot. Her motivation to go to BY’s just out of spite was well written, as was Vassa’s roller-coaster of complex emotions. You just have to root for her. Erg was a lot of fun too, despite my quibble with the ending. The story was well paced, and even with the old man’s execution, Tomin’s (very gory!) murder still surprised and shocked me when it happened. Vassa’s older sister was awesome; she didn’t fall into the shitty step-sister stereotype, and I actually wish I knew more about her (she seems like she’d do great as a star in her own story).
Finally, I appreciate how most of the major players in the story were women; the hero, the villain, the sidekicks, her closest family, even the swans. Come to think of it, all of the male characters were essentially saved by our heroine Vassa, aside from her father. Tomin, Picnic, Pangolin, Night, even Dexter and Sinister in a way (although these last three are only kind of male?).
I think the problems in the book came from trying to force the story into an urban fantasy mold, and its strengths came from the fairy tale soul; the dreamlike feeling, the magic and surreal atmosphere, the depth of emotion, and the hero you cheer for to win.