Babayaga

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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*I received a copy of Uprooted through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

Agnieszka (pronounced Ag-nee-esh-ka) is a young woman growing up at the edge of the Wood. Her family is industrious, and, by and large, they lead a normal life. Their town is small, but tightly knit. Her best friend, Kasia lives only a few houses away. It would be idyllic, if the Dragon, a wizard with dominion over their valley, didn’t take away young women of the valley for years at a time. When they return, they all leave the valley for good.

Agnieszka and her family has never been too worried about the Dragon. He takes girls who are beautiful, special. He takes girls like Kasia. Except this time. This time, for reasons they can’t figure, he has chosen plain, normal, woefully wild Agnieszka. The Dragon and Agnieszka are stuck together. What’s worse: the Wood is coming closer. Reminiscent of stories like Baba Yaga and the Brothers Grimm, Novik’s story features some vivid scenery and lots of fast-paced action.

The story is told in a first-person narrative from Agnieszka’s perspective. She’s a classic protagonist: young, empathetic, overly impulsive. The Dragon, her “captor,” is a brooding, impatient multi-centuries old wizard. He’s exacting. This kind of sucks for Agnieszka for a number of reasons. She’s not used to the prim and proper lifestyle and isn’t a very quick learner. I liked them both, typical though they may be.

I thought that the story was going to be an escape tale: young girl gets captured, uses her cunning and will to defeat the bad guy and escape.

I was wrong.

Definitely more menacing is the Wood in the valley. The Wood is dark, enchanted, and if you go in, you come out contaminated. The Wood’s victims become agents for its evil. The Wood is slowly edging further and further into the valley. The only thing keeping it in place is the Dragon.

Agnieszka begins to learn from the Dragon. I liked the conflict between the Dragon’s instructive style and Agnieszka’s learning style. The Dragon is a classic instructor. The instructions are clear and to be followed to the letter. Agnieszka, however, is clearly not a classic student. She thrives on experimentation and is an intuitive person. This was appealing because it echos conflicts I’ve seen throughout my life. And some of the exasperation and frustration that goes in hand with it struck me as being pretty true to life.

The dynamic between the two of them was a bit off-putting at times. There’s a romantic undertone in a lot of their interactions. For me, it’s tiring to see a romance of this sort. It’s really just my own personal pet peeve, because I have always had male mentors and these stories don’t really get at the heart of a teacher-student relationship the way I’d like. Fortunately, I really didn’t think that it took up too much time in the story. The romance was far from the main plot point.

Agnieszka gets herself into a lot of trouble. She doesn’t always think things out before she acts. I was glad to see Novik didn’t let her out of these problems too easily. I was, however, a bit disappointed that she was, by and large, successful. I would have liked to see Agnieszka struggle more and lose more of her fights.

The descriptions are vivid, and they are very visual. I enjoyed that aspect of the storytelling. The plot was fun. I liked a lot of the battles and the imagery that Novik uses to show them to us. It wasn’t always the most unique in storylines, but was handled fairly well. My only complaint on that front is that there were about four potential stopping points and so some of the final scenes lost their impact for me.

Overall, it was an enjoyable story and a fun twist on the fairytale retelling subgenre.

You can check out the book on Goodreads: http://bit.ly/1PQEN87

or on Amazon: Uprooted

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Review: Babayaga by Toby Barlow

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Title: Babayaga

Author: Toby Barlow

Publication Date: August 2013

Genre: Fantasy, Fairytale Retellings

 

For those who don’t know, Babayaga is a witch in Russian fokelore. She’s typically presented as your Hansel and Gretel like witch, punishing bad little children and eating them up. Babayaga also is known for being a fairly vengeful witch, destroying men who’ve scorned women. Think the Greek fates meet witch meets boogeyman. 

Babayaga in Hardcover

Barlow’s Babayaga follows a young man Will who is living in Paris during the end of the Cold War. He’s been working as a lower level intelligence gatherer and an advertising specialist. He gets caught up in an agency misadventure where he meets Zoya, a beautiful Russian woman who, unbeknownst to Will, is a serial murderer. For hundreds of years Zoya has been travelling Europe with her sister witch Elga killing men and conning their way in and out of riches. 

Zoya has most recently impaled a French man who had been sleeping with her on a barbed fence. 

Unfortunately for Zoya, the police are hot on her trail. She goes to Elga’s apartment, but leaves quickly after they have a fight. The police track Zoya to Elga’s home. Elga curses the two policemen, turning them into fleas, and must again pack up and leave. Elga, furious, decides that it’s time for Zoya to go. But first she must get help. No witch can be killed single-handedly. 

Meanwhile, Zoya is attempting to help Will to survive his encounters with the Agency. 

This book was an okay read. I wouldn’t say it’s great, but it isn’t bad either. I did enjoy the extensive backstory that both Zoya and Elga get. Though we could consider them anti-heroes at best, they’re at least anti-heroes with a history. It’s unfortunate that Barlow doesn’t explain why they seem bent on killing men without cause. Zoya throughout her history has picked men to seduce and swindle, then the two will invariably kill them. It’s made clear that Zoya hasn’t always wanted this, but that Elga has insisted and claimed it vital to their survival in a deeper way than someone simply finding out that they’re witches. What makes it so vital is never discussed. 

I thought Will was a fairly mediocre character. Though he is introspective, he’s ridiculously naive and doesn’t really gain in world experience throughout the story. This is a surprising feat for a man about to encounter conspiracy, the CIA, and witches. The inspector who follows the story throughout could have been cut entirely and the story would have been no worse off. 

What I didn’t like was how heavy handed that Barlow was with Elga’s man hating. It’s one thing to have her say and think that men are easily manipulated or that men seek power. Elga’s history has a great deal of precedence for this. But he lays it on pretty thick. He even goes so far as to have her rant about penises and power. I would suspect that a centuries old witch wouldn’t take too much stock in anyone who thinks they make the rules. Mostly, though, it was so frequently brought up without any real action on Elga’s part as to make the book drag and its pacing slow to a grind.

Rating: 3