I have something to tell you: I had a Slavic grandmother, a Russian-Polish woman whose parents met in Bessarabia. She was born in Harbin, Manchuria, where there was a Russian colony, and then her family immigrated to the U.S. I went through a serious Russian phase in the nineties, trying to learn the language and living there three times. I’m not sure if this makes me particularly well qualified to review this book or already biased in its favor, but you don’t need my background to be fascinated by Baba Yaga, the most famous witch of the Russian fairy tales, an entity as multi-faceted as she is dreadful.
The Baba Yaga tales are being rewritten all the time, especially by women authors. Marika McCoola’s heroine, Masha, is a young woman who has lost her mother, much like Vasilisa the Wise, of the Russian version. Adjusting to a new family dynamic, which Masha must do when her father remarries, is a daunting task in and of itself. Naturally, there is a stepsister in the mix, and she is the troublemaker here. Masha’s efforts to untangle the little girl’s misdeeds will ultimately unite these new sisters.
What’s so special about Masha? Not only is she unafraid of Baba Yaga, she actually seeks her out. Nobody sends her into the dark forest: she goes of her own accord, after answering a classified ad placed by the witch. She has her magic doll, of course, but she also has an excellent understanding of the guile necessary to contend with Baba Yaga. And she has more power than she at first realizes, which, we come to discover, is part of her inheritance.
There is a lot of work waiting for Masha, all of it in the setting that many of us know by heart. We have the famous house on chicken legs, the skulls, and the witch herself, rendered here by the inimitable Emily Carroll in delicious tones that belong to the night. The tasks Masha must perform are a nightmare version of the cooking, cleaning and general caretaking that underscore the hard labor of domesticity. McCoola adds her own creative touch to Baba Yaga’s arsenal of magic. Who can resist such details as powdered eels, drowned maiden’s hair, harpy feathers, or bleeding hearts? Juxtaposed with magical scenes in the witch’s hut are Masha’s flashbacks to her mother’s death and what it was like growing up without her. We aren’t allowed to forget that the loss of the mother is one of the earliest sources of darkness.
McCoola’s Baba Yaga is unusually personable and even funny. (Youth potions are her specialty!) This book is for ages ten and up, but I think it’s really for all the girls, of any age, who want to go into the forest and keep company with the witch. We are the ones who, when we read the fairy tales, are more intrigued by the witches than by promises of beauty, wealth, and marriage. We know the witch has something to teach us and we would jump at the chance to be her assistant.
This book is scheduled for release in August, but you can boost a debut author and an ancient witch by pre-ordering here:
Or bookmarking it here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24727085-baba-yaga-s-assistant