Arden’s supple, sumptuous first novel transports the reader to a version of medieval Russia where history and myth coexist.
In a village in the northern woods where her father is the overlord, Vasya, a girl who has inherited her royal grandmother’s understanding of magic and the spirits that inhabit the everyday world, is born to a mother who dies in childhood. Raised by a kind father, an anxious and spiteful stepmother, a wise nurse, and four older siblings, the feisty and near-feral girl—“too tall, skinny as a weasel, feet and face like a frog”—learns to talk with horses and befriends the household and forest spirits that live in and around the village. These, say the handsome young priest who has been exiled to serve their household, are demons and deserve to be exorcised. The battle between Vasya and driven Konstantin, who spends his free time painting icons, fuels the plot, as does the presence of two of the old gods, who represent death and fear. Arden has obviously immersed herself in Russian history and culture, but as a consummate storyteller, she never lets the details of place and time get in the way of a compelling and neatly structured narrative. Her main story, which has the unmistakable shape of an original fairy tale, is grounded in the realities of daily life in the time period, where the top of a large stove serves as a bed for the elderly and the ill and the dining hall of the Grand Prince of Moscow reeks of “mead and dogs, dust and humanity.” Even minor characters are given their own sets of longings and fears and impact the trajectory of the story.
Arden has shaped a world that neatly straddles the seen and the unseen, where readers will hear echoes of stories from childhood while recognizing the imagination that has transformed old material into something fresh.