Flavorsome fantasy set in the hidden underworld of newly capitalist Russia, from an ex-Muscovite and current New Jersey resident.
Galina, a medical translator, lives in Moscow with her pregnant younger sister, Masha, when Masha suddenly gives birth in the bathroom, then turns into a jackdaw and flies away, leaving a baby boy squalling on the floor. Because of her history of mental illness, Galina’s reluctant to report this—until she meets Fyodor, an alcoholic artist with a fear of gypsies, who says he knows where the bird-people go. Galina, determined to find her sister, finally reports Masha’s disappearance—not the jackdaw part—to policeman Yakov, who himself that morning observed a man turn into a crow. Fyodor shows Galina and Yakov a magical doorway into underground Moscow, a realm inhabited by demigods and spirits from Old Russian folklore, transformed bird-people and others in ageless human form who found powerful reasons to escape the world above—such as Yakov’s English grandfather, David, who was hounded by the secret police. After meeting Zemun the Celestial Cow, Father Frost, spirits of forest and water and other, much stranger beings, the three inspect a corpse that by some means crossed from the world above. Once resurrected by Koschey the Deathless, Sergey the corpse tells them about his gangster boss, Slava, and the latter’s evil associates—who, somehow, may be responsible for all the weird events.
Great character sketches and plenty of magic-realist incidents, all set forth in charmingly Russian-accented prose. Missing a structured plot, however, the story lacks an essential firmness.