Rusalka takes fantasy fans across Europe. Review by S.K. Slevinski
C.J. Cherryh does a wonderful job of taking fantasy into new cultural territory, I only wish she had taken us out of the forest.
As this story opens we meet Pyetr Ilitch, a medieval Russian villager who is on the run, having been wounded by the husband of his mistress. He finds refuge with Sasha, a village youth with emerging powers peculiar even to himself. Sasha hides him in the family stables, but is soon caught harboring the fugitive Pyetr. Now both fugitives, they escape into the forest, hoping to find their way south to the city of Kiev. On the way, however, they find shelter with an old man, Uulamets. They quickly discover that Uulamets is a wizard, but the old man harbors a deeper secret. His beloved daughter, Eveshka, had been killed and turned into a Rusalka—a siren-like spirit formed by dark forces from the souls of drowned maidens. Sasha and Pyetr agree to help Uulamets figure out how to save his daughter from her fate and bring her back from this ghostly state. However, despite her love for her father, and growing affection for Pyetr, Eveshka is still dangerous—and her forest home is filled with a variety of malevolent forces.
In many ways, Cherryh's Rusalka is an engaging historical fantasy. Her research into Russian folk belief is accurate and richly woven into this tale. I'm not completely in agreement with her translation of the various spirit names using the suffix "-thing". Calling the domovoi a "House-thing" gives it too much of a demonizing interpretation—but that's just the opinion of one humble student of Russian folklore. On the whole, I was delighted to see the idiosyncrasies of Russian folk-belief used as the cosmology of a fantasy world. While this book is well-written and well-researched and well-characterized, I found myself frustrated by the lack of variety. On the one hand, I applaud Cherryh for concentrating on a small circle of main characters—rather than a Tolkien-esque plethora of cast members. But in following this handful of characters through their adventures in a basically unchanging forest setting, I found myself longing for a change of scenery. Perhaps the novelty of Russian folk magic will make this forest setting lively and engaging to the eyes of those uninitiated into Russian folklore, but the forest setting grew tiresome for me.
Fantasy fans will find Rusalka to be an exciting new adventure into underused historical folk belief. Despite the unchanging forest setting, this book is both readable and well-written.
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S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.