When a train pulls into the station of her impoverished Russian town, Elena is fascinated. Having grown up in the Russian countryside, she’s seen her father die, her brothers conscripted into the tsar’s army, her mother slowly dying from a wasting disease, and food grow more and more scarce. The train carries spoiled, wealthy Ekaterina, on her way to St. Petersburg — and with one unexpected event, the girls’ lives are catapulted in strange new directions.
Maguire draws on the rich history of Russian folklore and fairy tales for this story — newly out in paperback — and there are echoes of the great Russian novelists like Tolstoy and Pasternak in his slow-paced, lyrical prose. His Baba Yaga is delightfully reminiscent of some of Diana Wynne Jones’ sharp-tongued, kind-hearted mentors, and the scenes with her in her curious house that runs around on chicken legs are some of the book’s best. The Firebird — the enchanted glowing bird who brings either good luck or great sorrow to its owner — also plays a part. The journeys in this book are peopled with mystery: an incognito prince, a magic egg, a monk imprisoned in a tower.
I actually loved this book, which makes it hard to write about. But I cannot resist books that are about the experience of reading—where the way that the story is told is as important as the story itself. This little book just did it for me — I loved the language and the allusions and the fairy tale plot. It’s not a book that’s easy to recommend for a particular age, though, because what it needs is a particular kind of reader: a thoughtful, patient reader who doesn’t mind letting the words take their time to tell their story.
This review was originally published in Atlanta Homeschool.
AMY SHARONY is the founder and editor-in-chief of home | school | life magazine. She's a pretty nice person until someone starts pluralizing things with apostrophes, but then all bets are off.