I’ve always had an complicated relationship with fairy tales. I love their magic, the tales of heroism and love, but so often they present girls with the worst of lessons in life. They often tell of how girls who go against society's rules are rightfully punished. How beauty is a woman's most important feature. How respectable women are demur and subservient. That becoming a princess is the greatest accomplishment. And that women aren't the ruler of their own destiny, and should wait for a man to rescue her.
I was still a child, pouring through books and listening to an old collection of fairy tales on audio cassette, when I started to become uncomfortable with these stories. (I haven’t watched a Disney movie in over 20 years due to this. I know, they’ve improved a lot since I was a kid but I'm still biased!) I quickly moved on to other stories with more progressive messages for women, and for a long time I left fairy tales behind.
But their magic has always had a draw on me.
Which is why I'm so happy to discover such a wealth of books taking old fairy tales and giving them feminist makeovers.
One of my most recent discoveries within this genre is Katherine Arden's Winternight Trilogy. (Well, soon to be a trilogy; so far just the first two novels have been released.)
Vasya, a cousin of the Grand Prince of Moscow, is destined for one of two lives; married off for political reasons and largely confined to a terem (tower), or sent to a convent to become a nun. To independent and wild Vasya, both these options sound worse than death. With the aid of the vanishing cherti only a few can still see and her stallion, Solovey, she chooses instead to fight for a life she truly desires, even if she faces rejection from those she dearly loves.
The novels are set in medieval Russia at a time when it was ruled by the Mongols, and are inspired by the country's fairy tales. The first novel, The Bear & the Nightingale, focuses on the fable of Morozko, Father Frost, and the second, The Girl in the Tower, continues Vasya's connection with him, but another mythical character appears and plays a major part. It is fascinating to learn about fairy tales that, being from the UK/Ireland, aren't part of my own national mythos, and discovering a period of history that is massively underrepresented in literature.
Our hero, Vasya, is a loud and playful young girl, and later woman, who finds herself at home in the wilds of the forest. Yet this isn't the only way in which she differs from the other girls, including her own sisters. She has been taught the old tales of the spirits that inhabit her homeland by her nanny, at a time when these stories are being clamped down up by the church. And unbeknownst to her family, she can see these cherti. As she grows begins to understand how the weakening of the people's beliefs in them is causing disaster for her town.
As she grows, she becomes not only a traveller but also an adventurer, eager to see the cities she's heard of so often from her father and older brothers but, isolated for her whole childhood in the town her father rules, she's never seen. To escape the limitations on women of time, Vasya disguises herself as a boy for most of the second book, and tastes those things she has been denied as a woman; power and independence.
She is an example of how we should not settle for our lot in life, but instead should fight for what we want, even when it places us in mortal danger.
Another aspect I loved about the books was the relationship between Vasya and her siblings. We are presented with relationships that are true shades of grey, where they disagree with one another, sometimes to tragic levels, as she causes her brothers and sisters, especially Olga and Sasha, immeasurable trouble. But regardless, the strong affection they have for one another never dies.
I do admit to being first attracted to the books by their covers. I am a sucker for illustrated book covers (I'd wager that any book-loving illustrator or artist is), and the UK editions have ones that are both beautiful and enchanting, giving a real sense of the books' medieval Russian setting. And the third book's cover is a perfect addition.
But reading the blurb I knew they were something I had to read. I've always had a thing for Russian literature and history, and was fascinated to read books based on fairy tales I wasn't brought up with.
I'm so eager to see the new tasks Vasya has to challenge when the final book of the trilogy, The Winter of the Witch, is release in 2019.
Has anyone else read the books? What did you think?
If you want to keep up with what I'm reading, please head on over onto my Goodreads account.