Anyone who follows my blog knows that I have been INSANELY busy all summer. It’s left me little time to read, and no time to blog – but I finally managed to squeeze in some reading time, and now I have to tell you all about it 😛
First things first – a huge thank you to ABA Whitebox and TOR/Macmillan for the ARC – this advance copy was provided for free as a bookseller promotion, and this is an unsolicited, unpaid, and 100% honest review 🙂
I don’t know about you, but I have a lifelong obsession with fairytales. Whether it was Disney, a dusty copy of Grimms, Ella Enchanted, a folktale collection I found at the library, or Once Upon a Time, I’ve given them all a shot. However, for all of the fairy tales and folktales out there (and there are thousands), only a handful ever seem to make it into novels. So when I saw the synopsis of Vassa in the Night, I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. (Official Synopsis Below)
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 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.
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 .
Basically, Vassa in the Night is a modern reimagining of Vassilissa the Beautiful (there are a lot of Vassilissa stories out there), set in Brooklyn, NYC.
And before you point out how many fairytale/folktale retellings are out there, scroll down for my
Top 5 Reasons to Read Vassa in the Night:
The Prose is beautiful.
There are sentences that my writer’s brain was wishing I’d come up with. And Sarah Porter’s “stage-setting” and descriptive writing roots you immediately – just read the first couple paragraphs and you’ll see what I mean:
People live here on purpose; that’s what I’ve heard. They even cross the country deliberately and move into the neighborhoods near the river, and suddenly their shoes are cuter than they are, and very possibly smarter and more articulate as well, and their lives are covered in sequins and they tell themselves they’ve arrived. They put on tiny feathered hats and go to parties in warehouses; they drink on rooftops at sunset. It’s a destination and everyone piles up and congratulates themselves on having made it all the way here from some wherever or other. To them this is practically an enchanted kingdom. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now, but not the part where I live.
Not that there isn’t any magic around here. If you’re dumb enough to look in the wrong places, you’ll stumble right into it. It’s the stumbling out again that might become an issue. The best thing you can do is ignore it. Cross the street. Don’t make eye contact—if by some remote chance you encounter something with eyes.
(Excerpt from Chapter 1, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter)
Porter takes her time in setting the scene, enveloping you in a fantastical, yet familiar version of Brooklyn. Her writing has its own sort of magic, and it will immerse you in the world of the story in no time.
Baba Yaga as a demented shopkeeper? Yes, please. Vassilissa as a purple-haired teen from a blended family? Works for me. Demented, bodiless hands for sidekicks? Sure. Another world on the fringe of our own, populated by characters that Lewis Carroll would envy. SOLD. This is definitely one of the more inventive YA novels I’ve read, and I couldn’t wait to see where it would take me next. I also loved seeing how Porter worked elements from the Vassilissa story into the book.
3. It’s laugh-out-loud funny.
There’s a healthy dose of sarcasm, usually provided by Vassa herself, and a borderline-hysterics sort of humor that balances the macabre setting and rather dark subject matter (i.e., severed heads and gruesome, fairytale style deaths) The side characters and bizarre situations also provide a lot of humor. Erg (Vassa’s “doll), in particular, is a source of hilarious one liners and dry observations.
4. Reality checks.
I love how Vassa in the Night doesn’t have a “perfect” ending. Everything isn’t resolved or tied up neatly. More importantly, throughout the book, we don’t forget that Vassa is a young girl plunged into a world far beyond her comfort zone. None of her problems are magically solved, and she has to work for a resolution. Vassa’s relationships with Erg, her stepsisters, school peers, and missing/late parents are all extremely important, and she has to deal with them in “real-world” ways to grow as a character, and accomplish her goals. And hey – if Baba Yaga was real, I could definitely see her setting up a sinister convenience store chain in NYC. And getting away with it.
She’s everything I love in a heroine – smart, funny, snarky, empathetic, and believable. Despite her tough lot in life, she is determined and stubborn, and she refuses to give up when it matters the most. Also of note, though Vassa is obviously our heroine, she doesn’t fall into the stereotypical chosen-one mode at all. Her character growth and arc were well done and satisfying.
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars.*
A lush and inventive modern folktale for readers looking for something a little darker and less romantic than the majority of the fairytale retellings out there. A strong heroine, crazy strangeness, and beautiful prose help Vassa in the Night stand out as one of my favorite YA reads of 2016.
*Here are my minor quibbles (which are really only relevant after you’ve read the book:
- Was there a point to the whole story about Vassa’s dad (other than showing his extreme immaturity and selfishness)?
- I felt that “The Rules” (governing the magical world/characters) could have been fleshed out a little more. Obviously, like Erg, Babs had rules she was following – otherwise, she might have stopped Vassa more effectively at times. It makes it a bit harder to suspend your disbelief if you don’t know the rules that the world operates by.
- Babs defeat was slightly underwhelming. It was fairytale-esque, but (see #2) I felt like it would have worked a bit better if we knew how/why she was defeated.
Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter will be released in Hardcover on September 20th, 2016.
Do you plan on reading Vassa in the Night? Why or why not? Have you read Vassilissa the Beautiful or any of the Vassilissa stories?