Book Title: Vassa in the Night (Standalone) Author: Sarah Porter Number of pages: 304
In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling out again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– Retelling of Vasilisa the Beautiful
– This Brooklyn is all kinds of dark and fantastical; longer nights, anthropomorphic creatures, and whimsically vivid imagery
– The prose is a hit/miss depending on the reader’s tolerance to sugary, purple prose
– There is romance but it is not the focus of the story (therefore does not necessarily hi-jack the plot)
– Though Erg, the talking wooden doll, is a secondary MC, there are moments the Deus Ex Machina trope is exhibited from her
“What the fuck did I just read?” — literal reaction upon finishing.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of Vassa in the Night from Indigo Books.
This book is weird.
Vassa in the Night brings to life the Russian fairy tale Vasilisa the Beautiful but has it set in Brooklyn, New York. It centers around young Vassa, sent by her sisters to fetch light bulbs only to find herself employed by Baba Yaga for three nights.
As I am not familiar with the original fairy tale, can I say with confidence that I understood this retelling? Yes and no. I was able to grasp most of the subplots nestled in the overarching conflict but the writing got tedious and can be a hit/miss at times.
Let me explain.
If there’s one aspect to this story that worked quite well for me, it’s that the fantastical backdrop was incredibly vivid, weird, and unapologetically grotesque. Between spires of decapitated heads spiked through to ward off intruders to the store’s infrastructure having a pair of chicken legs, Baba Yaga is a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare as the story unfolds in such a tight space.
Eyebrow raising weirdness is where Vassa in the Night is at it’s strongest. If you aren’t “wtf-ing” every few pages, I really question if you’re reading this book at all (I’m completely serious). The world which Porter paints with her words enthralled me with its genre bending appeal.
It’s not quite urban fantasy and magical realism, but it is.
It’s not quite mystery and horror, but it is.
It’s not quite romance and realistic fiction, but it is.
Though there is room for depth in questioning the magical systems in place, it is exactly the case that they should not be questioned at all; that fairy tales remain fairy tales and it persists being mysteriously enchanting. It’s odd to think of it like that but did you question Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother uncanny ability to summon a pumpkin and shit? I doubt it.
Case in point: the overarching issue with the setting is not really a problem with the world building itself. It’s that while all of this grounds the narrative, the characters and plot has to be able to dance and float and thrive upon the base which it stands. It does and doesn’t.
In most books, I typically do appreciate the vignettes of alternative POVs and/or historical context re: characters in the past. It aids in bulking up the story. My concern is that not only were there loose ends not tied up, some parts were added to little effect of being a plot-or-character game-changer. This is compounded by the fact that although the imagery is visually sound, it can often feel like a bit much; overwritten, sugary, and tempts confusion. (I had “this feels like I’m high on an acid trip” in my reading notes.) This raises the red flags of disengaging readers with overly lush prose.
I’ll be frank and say that the ending to Vassa was underwhelming and felt a tad rushed. It’s odd because everything up to that point felt so meticulously plotted and then the story just seemed to run out of steam. Another 50 or so pages (or the removal or certain narrative threads in the vignettes) could have made this book more tighter in terms of scope.
What I appreciated was that every character held their own agenda to their highest standard. Baba Yaga did what she had to do to keep her store running. Inquisitive Vassa simply tried to survive. And Erg — arguably my favourite character — is a tiny wooden doll who gives zero fucks as to what she is doing as long as she (a) gets fed and (b) is making good life choices to help Vassa along. To be fair, Erg is kind of an enigma in this book. At times she’s this useless plywood and other times she’s the Deus Ex Machina trope reincarnate. It is quite odd. And weird.
There’s a bit of romance in this story that was difficult to buy into. It wasn’t forced per se but because (as mentioned) the prose may have been difficult to digest that that aspect was left rather unexplored in my reading experience. By romance, I also mean love-triangle territory.
I am very back and forth with Sarah Porter’s Vassa in the Night and will find difficulty in recommending this story to just anyone. While the imagination oozes with evocative vibrancy, the story cannot stand up on just that alone, and that’s where I’m at a loss for truly appreciating this retelling.
If there’s one thing I’m certain about, it’s that this book is still very weird, very odd, and perhaps that’s the charm.
Read An Excerpt:
BY’s starts pitching and shaking. I can tell it’s getting bored. I hold Erg up and look into her blue blob eyes, trying to see through the paint to whatever is back there. “Erg, listen to me, you have to promise . . .”
“I already did!” Erg sniffs.
“I told you everything will be fine! We just have to stay together!”
BY’s door lifts a foot off the ground; it’s getting ready to rear up again. I look from that deep crevice in the wood to Erg’s eager face, then to the slowly ascending door. I could just give up on the whole lunatic plan. The empty street beckons, commas of amber light shining on the windshields of the sleeping cars.
And then I’m suddenly running: away from the street, toward that drowsily floating glass door. It’s swinging open, clapping back and forth although there’s no real wind, at least a yard above the ground now and rising fast. Erg is still clutched in my hand. It’s madness, but I leap and land sprawled inside the open doorway with my legs dangling out into the night.
I can feel myself sailing up, and up.
Only now does it occur to me to wonder if singing the jingle works when you’re inside the store? Or, um, only outside? The store cants abruptly so that the floor in front of me is sloping down instead of up and then gives a little jump. I’m jolted free of the sill and I go skimming across slippery linoleum until my head collides with a display of laundry detergent. As soon as I catch my breath I stuff Erg back into my pocket; keeping her hidden is practically a reflex at this point, but now I catch myself wondering if someone will think I’m stealing her.
Nothing happens, though. The floor settles so it’s reasonably parallel to the ground and I haul myself to my feet, gaping. I expect to see horrors, hooks with dripping human hearts or something. Entrails looped around the barbecue sauce. But no: it looks like any other convenience store in Brooklyn, only much brighter and neater. The floors are neon yellow and so clean it’s like they’re screaming at me. The back wall is covered in the usual tall refrigerators with sliding glass doors, and then there are graded racks of candy bars, and bristling bags of chips, and orderly rows of shelves full of soup and toilet paper. Coffee and magazines and hot dogs under a glaring orange heat lamp. The same old whatever. The same assorted nothingness, now available in a pack of five tropical flavors.
I can’t imagine what I was so afraid of.