I've a weakness for Russian folktales, probably discovered through
Orson Scott Card's excellent Enchantment, and I picked this up
expecting something along the same lines. In a way I was right, in that the
broad structure of the story, swinging back and forth between myth and
modernity, is similar. But the fairytale Valente builds on that
scaffolding is much darker, and in some ways more interesting.
Disney this is not. The title notwithstanding, lots of characters die.
Sometimes repeatedly (the metaphysics of this aren't thoroughly
explained, but they're intriguing to those who believe in the power of
stories to shape reality). There is quite a lot of sex, much of it
with a cruel edge. The morality is all in shades of grey, with that
non-judgemental Slavic fatalism that implies that there are no good or
bad people, just people being harsh or kind for their own personal
reasons. I wouldn't let this anywhere near a child, or even an
emotionally vulnerable adolescent. But it *is* a fairytale; an account
of the collision between Russian folklore and the twentieth century, of
the different approaches taken by different myths seeking to adjust to,
or at least to survive under, revolutionary socialism. It's an outsider's
take on Russian legends, penned by an American clearly in love with the
material, and it's reasonably accessible to us foreigners. It helps to
be aware of the broad sweep of early Soviet history and of the first
names of key figures, but you'll get the atmosphere even if you're not,
and come away with an appreciation for the horrors of the siege of
It's also a complicated sort of love story, an account of relationships
sometimes joyous, sometimes abusive, never simple and rarely happy.
One can read it as a meditation on the lengths people (and demons) will
go to in the hope of maintaining the illusion of control in the
relationships on which they depend. Relationships that have more red
flags than the Soviet army.
But mostly, this is a beautiful piece of writing, ringing with echoes,
resplendent in carefully chiselled metaphors, filled with allegories.
Writing I kept going back to reread to find another layer of meaning.
I'm not sure I like the world Valente describes, but I love her
description of it. You can take that as a recommendation or a warning.