Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Although I have never read the Russian tale “Vassilissa the Beautiful,” I enjoyed the story Porter told in Vassa in the Night. I wanted to read this novel because I love fix-it stories, where the protagonist finds something broken or gone terribly wrong and must correct it. The empowerment journey those characters take appeals to me, time and time again. Throw in some urban fantasy and I’m excited to pick up your book!
There were a few moments in the first half of this novel where I considered putting the book down and marking it as “did not finish,” but Porter always managed to bring me back with an interesting character or one of Vassa’s wry self-observations. I wasn’t sold on Erg at first (she seemed more of a mechanic than a character), but by the end I was definitely in an “I’m not crying, you’re crying” situation. Even more than Vassa’s sassy self-awareness, what kept me going was how violent the story is, not for the sake of the gore, but for what it represents. This novel has real teeth. Beneath the feisty and sarcastic narrator is a darkness that Vassa feels helpless against, and that she must contend with to reach her goal. This book did not feel safe, and that uncertainty kept me turning the pages.
I’ve read a number of interpretations of Baba Yaga, set in different periods of time, and this was the most violent and irredeemable. Baba Yaga is not a cranky old woman who is painted as a monster by the patriarchy because she is powerful (although I have read good interpretations taking that stance). She is not a misunderstood protagonist, or an agent of revenge against bad people. She is not to be rescued by the end. She is the villain and is unapologetically brutal in a society that prefers to think it is less dangerous and more civilized than it used to be. Porter deftly employs the physical violence of the story not only to explore the brutality of modern society against people of color, but also to prepare Vassa to face the violence of her own emotions. Vassa’s feelings are as repressed and disassociated as a lot of people’s willingness to believe that the world is like navigating a BY’s: you are vulnerable to the capriciousness and ill will of people in positions of power who may hurt you with impunity. And like modern society, Vassa must learn to carry the burden of her feelings and embrace them in order to set the captive free and set the world to rights. I’m glad I took this journey with her.