Sarah Porter – Vassa in the Night

I am so glad that one of the last books I read in 2016 was this weird, atmospheric modern twist on Russian fairy tales. It’s by no means a perfect book but I fell in love with Sarah Porter’s ideas and the way she incorporates fairy tale elements into a world sort of like our own, just more magical.

vassa in the nightVASSA IN THE NIGHT
by Sarah Porter

Published by: Tor Teen, 2016
Hardcover: 296 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: When Night looked down, it saw its own eyes staring back at it.

In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away 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.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…

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The nights have gotten weird in Brooklyn. Vassa and her two stepsisters all know something is up, that the nights feel too long, that although they seem to drag on forever, time itself doesn’t slow down. But something is definitely not right. When Vassa storms out on a dare and walks straight into the local BY’s – a 24 hour convenience store whose parking lot is surrounded by heads on spikes (yeah, I know), that’s when things get going.

I loved every aspect of this story. In the prelude, we learn that something happened to Night, which explains the strange way nights behave for our protagonist. In the first chapter, we meet Vassa, a wonderfully practical girl, and her doll friend, Erg. This is where I started figuring out that this was going to be a weird book. Talking dolls, a supermarket whose owner beheads shoplifters, and nobody really batting an eye? When Vassa arrives at BY’s which is also supported on huge chicken legs, the connection to the Russian folktale couldn’t be clearer. BY stands, in this case, for Babs Yagg, the old and scary owner. And because Vassa isn’t all that careful, she gets herself into a big mess and has to work for Babs for three nights… however long those last.

While I marvelled at the originality of the plot and the way Sarah Porter mixes folktale and modern Brooklyn. But there is also a lot going on under the surface. Vassa’s relationship to her doll Erg was as touching as it was strange, and until the end, I was never sure what exactly Erg was or why she was there, such a clearly magical object in Vassa’s otherwise magic-free life. As we get to know Vassa more, it also becomes clear that her family situation isn’t exactly easy. Sure, the stepsisters aren’t as bad as Cinderella’s but their family is still a broken one.

I wish I could tell you all the other little things and ideas that made this book so much fun for me, but at the same time, I want you to be as surprised as I was. Well, one thing I’ll tell you is how refreshing it was not to have some forced romance pushed onto a story that doesn’t need one. Vassa is a teenage girl and she does show interest in certain characters, but there is no relationship drama because – come on! – Vassa has no time for that shit. She has to save her neighborhood, maybe even the world, and trying to survive leaves little time for flirting or putting on fancy clothes. I LOVED THAT!

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A lot of reviews I’ve read complain about the book not making sense or the plot being too crazy. I didn’t have that impression at all. In fact, there is a beautiful internal logic to everything, although, sure, dreamwalking and speaking to dolls while working the night shift in a chicken-legged convenience store can be construed as slightly insane. And I concede that certain side characters didn’t really have a place in the story. I loved Picnic and Pangolin, I adored the swans, but like many others, I thought this would have been a better story if Bea was never mentioned. But her presence also didn’t do a lot of harm, so you know.

The one thing that I believe still hasn’t reached its potential is Porter’s language. There are already moments of greatness in Vassa in the Night, stuff you’d want to hang on your wall as an inspirational quote, but then there are also passages that weren’t impressive, just pure worksmanship. The words get the meaning across, but there’s nothing extra to them. The only reason I mention this is because I think Sarah Porter is the kind of writer who gets better with every book.  If you hadn’t guessed, I will be keeping an eye out for any new books from this author because although it wasn’t perfect, this book completely took me out of my world and into another and it’s playing with fairy tales. What more can a girl ask for, really?

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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Naomi Novik – Uprooted

Sometimes, special books come from unexpected places. I had read the first two Temeraire books by Naomi Novik and, while liking the first one, didn’t like them enough to continue the series. There was something missing that I couldn’t put my finger on, so I pretty much dismissed the author as “just not my cup of tea”. Then I won an ARC (which turned out to be a beautiful finished hardcover – THANK YOU, Macmillan! Really, it’s beautiful.) of this fairytale-esque new novel and it took exactly one sentence for me to fall in love.

uprootedUPROOTED
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover: 437 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.

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This has to be one of the best opening sentences I’ve read in a long, long time and Uprooted is my favorite book of the year so far. The first chapter does exactly what a good beginning should do. It establishes a world, it introduces the main character, and it sets its hooks firmly into your mind and makes it impossible to stop reading.

Every ten years, the local wizard, called the Dragon, chooses a girl from Agnieszka’s valley and takes her away to his castle. Nobody really knows what he does with them, although they all say he never laid a finger on them. Agnieszka is the right age to be chosen but she isn’t worried. The entire valley knows that her best friend Kasia – beautiful, talented, brave – is the most likely choice. But of course things don’t go as expected and Agnieszka is chosen instead of her childhood friend.

The first few chapters are a bit misleading as to where the story will go. The mood of the novel screams Fairy Tale right from the start, so I thought I’d get a sort of Beauty and the Beast retelling. But while Agnieszka’s first months in the tower are spent cleaning, cooking, and bickering with the Dragon, her presence seems to irritate him more than excite him. She is clumsy, constantly gets her clothes dirty, and stubborn. It’s a match made in heaven. Despite their dislike for each other, Agnieszka slowly learns some magic from the wizard, and we readers learn what his “job” is in the first place (more on that later).

One aspect that made this book so great is Agnieszka’s development as well as her relationship with the Dragon. I understand some people’s criticism of the romantic sub-plot, but it pushed so many of my buttons that I couldn’t help but adore it. These two spend most of the novel bickering, arguing, and generally disagreeing – but it is their differences that make them so compatible. While the Dragon works every spell meticulously and by the book, Agnieszka takes a more intuitive approach and shows amazing talent. But it is only when they work together that their greatness can shine. In fact, her actions are what drives the plot, unlike so many reactive fairy tale heroines.

So Agnieszka is a wonderful protagonist and I loved her cleverness and fierce loyalty, the real main character of Uprooted is the Wood. Its menacing presence can be felt on every page, and the magician’s job becomes much more interesting once you know just how evil that Wood really is. Sometimes, it takes people, sometimes it gives them back, but they are never the same. Other times, it kills anything in its path, it eats entire villages, it ruins people’s lives with disease or madness. As an antagonist, this was one of the more original and disturbing ones, and I completely loved how the Wood’s influence was shown. The author made sure that, once the characters venture into the Wood, her readers are properly scared of what they’ll find there.

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Naomi Novik manages to pack an impressive amount of plot into the 400 pages of this book. Some reviewers mentioned that a trilogy would have been more suitable, but I like Uprooted just the way it is. It builds its world slowly, then relies on Agnieszka’s actions to be the catalyst for change. Her friendship with Kasia is what sets in motion the actions that will lead to a thrilling climax. I loved how front and center this friendship between women was in the novel, but it is also the one part that I had issues with. The fact that Kasia and Agnieszka are friends is explained in the very first chapter, and while we’re told that they’ve spent their entire childhood together and are very close, there wasn’t any time to show us this friendship before Agnieszka gets taken by the Dragon.

But the author makes up for that minor flaw by making Kasia in important character throughout the novel. You’d expect her to be nothing but a memory in Agnieszka’s mind, to maybe be mentioned once or twice, but you wouldn’t expect her to turn into a badass heroine in her own right. Kasia’s development was as gripping as Agnieszka’s and I loved seeing them work together as a team.

uprooted USThe Dragon… oh, the Dragon! This may say more about me than it does about the book, but I adore grumpy guys as romantic heroes. The Dragon was a Mr. Rochester of sorts, albeit a bit more cold-hearted and distant. As I said, Agnieszka spends most of her time disagreeing with him, and even when he should be proud of her or magical abilities, all she gets are off-hand remarks that sound more like criticism than praise. So the sexual tension is pre-programmed and I will go on record and say that the romantic scenes were butterfly-inducing, sexy, and beautifully written. I wouldn’t have minded more of that…

Uprooted is a stand-out novel that can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a fairy tale (Baba Yaga! Evil Woods! Magic!), it’s a story about place and belonging, about friendship and bravery, about politics and talent. Much like The Goblin Emperor last year, this book stole my heart and I already look forward to reading it again.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection

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