A debut novel tells the story of a highly imaginative Russian immigrant boy in 19th-century America.
From a vivid but very disjointed dream to his first crush on Krissie Girl, Samuil’s life is a series of picaresque adventures. Accompanied by his imaginary best friend, Teddy the bear, Samuil eagerly explores his environs. Whether he’s struggling with New York City street gangs or lost in a magical snowy forest, he constantly encounters obstacles and barely escapes danger—with his worried parents in pursuit. He also copes with his personal demons: “Day after day for as long as he could remember, Samuil struggled with his monsters. From sunrise to sunset, he was always vulnerable to attack. Samuil fought the dark enemy with all his might every time it appeared. But the difficult encounters were extremely draining. Most of the time he was left exhausted and brain strained.” Much of the book takes place in his native region of Ukraine, but because Samuil’s interactions involve humans, animals, inanimate objects, and other creatures with eccentric personalities, the boy is always able to indulge his vast curiosity. Eventually, the tale turns its attention to Samuil’s father, Pe’tro, in the time when Samuil was just about to be born, and to Pe’tro’s deadly conflict with dark forces that have arisen in the nearby Badlands. This is an intriguing and idiosyncratic tale told with great energy and essentially in reverse chronological order. Characters are vivid, and the pacing is breakneck fast, but the point of view jumps from player to player, and the story structure remains remarkably unclear. There is no lack of action, but there is often a sense that things happen arbitrarily. A multitude of new personalities enters each chapter without much introduction or even description. Setting and period are wobbly; many things and people speak like 21st-century Americans. The story offers many passages of isolated, dreamlike prose—some of it made up of one-sided conversations—that can easily leave the reader adrift, disconnected from the narrative and any appeal it might have. The author’s talent, enthusiasm, and energy are evident but extremely unrefined. As is customary, sequels are planned.
While delivering a young, vibrant hero, this ambitious and original fantasy fiction lacks polish.