The central character is Marya Morevna, who we meet as a little girl living in her parents' large house in St. Petersburg. As birds fall from the trees and come to claim her sisters as husbands, and as Marya herself is spirited away to the underworld beneath the woodstove where the house sprites live, we realise nothing about this novel is going to be straightforward. In the background is the inexorable march of Russia's bloody modern history, but the events in the story play out through Marya's eyes as she is drawn into a world of myth and magic, where the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death fight a seemingly unending war for supremacy.
What did we think of it?
It would be fair to say that the majority of our group struggled with this book. Generally it was felt the novel 'bounced around all the time' – at every point where the reader might be drawn into the characters or situation everything changed. We found it hard to imagine characters such as Naganya ('...her left eye was less an eye than a rifle scope, jutting out from her skull, made of bone and glassy thumbnail'), or Zemlehyed ('...more or less like what you would get if a particularly stunted and ugly oak tree had fallen passionately in love with a boulder and produced, at great cost to both, a single child'). The novel is underpinned by the true events of Russia during the 20th century and this could occasionally be affecting, particularly towards the end during the terrible siege of Leningrad. But it was hard to understand how the twin kingdoms of Life and Death interacted with the real world. Indeed, the Kingdom of Death sounded relatively pleasant – much like the Kingdom of Life except people lose their sense of who they once were. The novel is so strongly rooted in the fantasy that it's hard to really care about any of the characters; none of them seem real, and the author didn't manage to convince us enough as readers to take us where she wanted us to go.
Would we recommend it?
Only, I think, to very committed lovers of fantasy, or to those with a particuar interest in Russian myth and folklore.
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Of further interest
I found this really, really hard to read. I didn't find anything that hooked me or drew me in. Every page felt like a struggle. It just wasn't a world I could picture or understand. Maybe I needed more background but I don't think there was enough for anyone unfamiliar with the world of Russian myth and fable. It needed a good editor.
Despite the fact that I resented the time spent reading it as a waste of my life, I did appreciate the fact that it was beautifully lyrical. It created another world, but I just couldn't get the point of it. Without references it didn't make sense – the symbolism and allegory was lost on me. I like plots driven by psychology and relationships between characters that I can intuit and understand. This didn't have any of that.
Really enjoyed it, but I love fairy tales, and I did love Russian fairy tales as a child. I enjoyed the interrelationship with Russian history, the house elves and their commune, the siege of Leningrad. But I do think it could have done with a tight edit. I didn't get the Kingdom of Life and the more minor mythological figures (Naganya, Zemya, Madame Lebedeva); they weren't convincing to me and I couldn't visualise them in my head.
This is the kind of novel I would normally love, but I thought the writing was sloppy; the author's ambitions were grander than her abilities. The concepts were there, but it fell down for me in the execution. I didn't care about any of it, and I couldn't keep track of what was happening and what the connections were. There were also some awful sentences.
Although I agree with the negative points that were raised in the discussion (characters not fully detailed, things feeling sketched rather than fully drawn, over-use of repetition) I was nonetheless charmed by this very unusual book. I don't think I've ever read anything quite like it, and I felt that the flaws in the description somehow added to the dreamlike quality that suffuses this whole novel. A mad fantasy world that is somehow no more terrible and strange than the true events of Russian history that are obliquely alluded to throughout. It's almost as if the author is saying 'what words could there possibly be to describe these awful events directly?' and so instead we have fables and strange imagined worlds. And yet, firebirds and caviar are all very well, but I would have liked to have cared about the characters more.