Review: “Vassa in the Night” by Sarah Porter
Publishing Info: Tor, September 2016
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: 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…
Review: Another book that I had on my highlights post for Septmeber that finally showed up a week or so ago! I wasn’t familiar with the original Russian fairytale that inspired this book, so I came into it with very little idea of what it was going to be. Magic in Brooklyn and a Baba Yagga villain. Sounded awesome.
And large parts of it were! The general worldbuilding was very interesting. Your mileage with this will largely depend on how willing you are as a reader to “just go with it” as far as explanations and magic systems. There’s really no explanation for why and how magic exists in this area of the world. Further, the type of magic that is presented is much closer to the nonsense magic seen in “Alice in Wonderland” than to a more outlined and rule-bound magic like “Harry Potter.” That being the case, there is a lot of things popping up here and there with no rhyme or reason and then disappearing just as quickly. Some of these things I particularly enjoyed, like a group of swans that Vassa befriends, and a pair of sinister hands that operate as Babs’ henchmen, essentially.
Other parts felt a bit contrived, however, and as if Porter was simply trying too hard. Particularly some of her efforts to involve nonsense word-play (similar to the Fairyland books I had just read). And maybe having just come off those which were almost the perfect example of nailing this writing style, I was a bit biased against Porter’s attempts here. But I also feel that it was simply not executed well. While nonsense writing can be very insightful, this was clunky and actually confusing. At several points I had to re-read section to try and understand them and then, more often than not, came away with the conclusion that this was just another unexplained element. And while some of these unexplained magical oddities were enjoyable, it didn’t translate here. Dialogue and descriptions needs to be clear, regardless of how little you as an author are providing insights into other magical elements.
Vassa was a very strong protagonist. Her voice was unique and interesting, and I especially enjoyed her relationship with her sisters, especially her elder sister. As I’ve said, I always like sister stories! And, of course, Vassa’s primary partner in crime: Erg, the animated doll. I was both creeped out by and intrigued by Erg. I don’t think I was supposed to be as creeped out as I was, but there were certain elements of her and Vassa’s relationship that was confusing to me. Erg is definitely an intelligent individual with her own opinions, motives, and outlooks on life. So it was very strange switching from her and Vassa debating what do do about some problem or another to Vassa petting and nuzzling her the way you would a kitten. It was strange. But, as I’ve said, so was the whole book.
Ultimately, this book was stronger as a concept than it was as an actual story. There were almost too many weird things thrown in at every moment which prevented me from ever becoming fully invested in the story. I was too busy being confused by some of the writing choices and bouncing from one thing to another to really be able to draw a connecting line throughout the book or form real attachments to characters. There were random chapters inserted here or there attempting to provide some background information that only opened up more doors and left more dangling plot lines (Vassa’s father’s storyline was one of these). While this book is probably the closest thing I’ve seen to an actual dark fairytale set in an urban setting (vs. most urban fantasy which often is the usual, generic, vampires and witches and such in an in every other way normal city), it was too weighed down by its own concept to every really take off.
Rating 6: A unique concept and interesting worldbuilding places too much burden on a confusing plot.
“Vassa in the Night” is a new book and isn’t included on many Goodreads lists. However, it should be on “Dark Fairy Tales.”
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