Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday! Remember when this was going to be posted in July? Well…oops. Anyway, today we are looking at our first ever retelling of the Russian fairy tale “Vasilissa the Beautiful.” This is a reread for me, and I’ve actually reviewed it before too, which you can find here. This is the winner of the poll for which retelling readers wanted to see featured for books-and-cookies‘s July Re-Read-a-Thon.

While “Vasilissa the Beautiful” is linked to “Cinderella,” it does stand as it’s own entity. It’s similar to the situation with “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and “Beauty and the Beast.” As I’ve done with those two tales, I will be treating “Vasilissa the Beautiful” as separate from “Cinderella.” So let’s jump into Vassa in the Night!

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

This retelling is set in an alternate reality Brooklyn, New York where bits of magic are commonplace yet something to be completely avoided if possible. Our protagonist is Vassa, and like the Vasilissa of the fairy tale, she is a beautiful young girl who lives with her stepmother and two sisters due to the death of her mother and absence of her father. From there, Vassa’s character veers off from the fairy tale. Vasilissa, like Cinderella, is kind and fairly passive. Vassa, on the other hand, is anything but. She is snarky, stubborn, and suspected by her family of being a kleptomaniac. Porter has some tweaks on Vassa’s family as well. Vassa’s father had two families simultaneously during the girls’ childhood and merged the two when Vassa’s mother died. The result is a large amount of resentment in the family. Though Vassa has a good relationship with her stepsister, Chelsea, she doesn’t get along well with her half-sister, Stephanie, or her stepmother, Iliana. Her father left the family after deciding he could only be happy by becoming a dog (yes, you read that right, no, I’m not explaining further). In the fairy tale, Vasilissa’s stepfamily conspires to send her to Baba Yaga to ask for fire in hopes she will be eaten. They purposely snuff out the fire and the candles in their cottage. Porter translates this to Stephanie unscrewing all the light bulbs in the apartment to make it seem as if they’ve all burnt out. Since she does this late at night, the only option for buying new light bulbs is BY’s, a 24-hour convenience store infamous for beheading shoplifters.

Though everyone thinks Vassa is a kleptomaniac, she really isn’t. In her words, she just harbors one. Erg is a magic wooden doll that Vassa’s mother gave her before she died, and she is by far the best character in the book. The magic wooden doll is taken straight out of the original fairy tale. Vasilissa’s mother gives it to her as she is dying and tells her it will help her in times of trouble if she feeds it. Vasilissa does as her mother tells her, and the little doll completes whatever difficult tasks her stepmother sets for her and the impossible tasks she later faces at Baba Yaga’s. Porter keeps this situation, but she gives the doll a name and personality. While the original doll is just helpful and comforting, Erg is a force to be reckoned with. She’s just as snarky as Vassa and she steals things just for the hell of it. She also has her own motivations outside of simply protecting Vassa. Porter provides a backstory for who made Erg and why, and Erg often acts to push Vassa toward the goal of the person who made her. I won’t give that away since it would ruin too much of the story. Unlike in the fairy tale, Erg and Vassa sometimes antagonize each other. Erg steals things when Vassa tells her not to, Vassa threatens to break Erg, etc. However, in the end they have a close bond and deeply love each other.

Porter also does fantastic things with Baba Yaga and her hut on chicken legs. The hut is no longer just her house but the earlier mentioned store BY’s. It’s still on chicken legs and anyone who wants to go inside must sing a little song telling it to stand where it’s mother placed it. The other notable feature of Baba Yaga’s hut is that it is surrounded by a fence made of bones with skulls on top. Porter tweaks this a little but stays with the spirit of it. BY’s is surrounded pikes holding the heads of the decapitated shoplifters, though we learn that they are all set up by Dexter and Sinister, a pair of disembodied hands who work at the store. The hands appear in the original fairy tale as well, but as with the doll, Porter gives them personalities and even their own character arcs. Baba Yaga becomes Babs Yagg, the owner of this BY’s location. As in the fairy tale, Babs gives Vassa several impossible tasks with the plan to kill her when she cannot complete them. However, she is not the only representation of Baba Yaga Porter provides. She also gives us Bea Yaggen, who is working against Babs. Baba Yaga’s function and personality vary depending on which Russian fairy tale you look at. In “Vasilissa the Beautiful” and many others, she is an evil witch who acts as the villain. However, in some she acts as a magical helper somewhat akin to Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Bea represents this aspect of Baba Yaga, and we learn she was a friend of Vassa’s mother.

Perhaps one of the oddest parts of the original tale is the three riders. When walking through the woods to Baba Yaga’s hut, Vasilissa encounters three men on horseback: one in white, one in red, and one in black. These are the Day, the Sun, and the Night, who are under Baba Yaga’s control. And that’s all. We don’t hear anything else about them, and they don’t do anything. They’re just there. While that may work in a fairy tale, it wouldn’t in a novel. Porter cuts out the first two horsemen and works Night into the narrative. Instead of a horseman, he is a motorcyclist who circles BY’s at night. He is also where the “in the Night” part of the title comes from. In this alternate reality Brooklyn, nights have started getting longer and longer, sometimes even lasting what would usually be days. This happens because Babs has managed to capture a piece of Night and keep it under her control; since BY’s is the only store open 24 hours, shoppers are forced to go there, giving her more people to decapitate. Freeing Night and restoring daytime to Brooklyn become a large part of the plot, and Vassa develops a bit of a crush on him. He also helps protect her from Babs several times.

The ending is probably Porter’s biggest deviation from the original tale. Until this point, the major plot points of the tale appear in the novel in one way or another. She does keep aspects of it, particularly Vassa asking Babs three questions. In the fairy tale, after she completes the tasks, Vasilissa asks Baba Yaga about each of the three horsemen. Baba Yaga answers her, becoming angrier with each question, and dares her to ask a fourth, which Vasilissa refuses. Before Vasilissa asks the questions, Baba Yaga warns her that not all questions lead to good and knowing too much will cause her to grow old. According to some tales, Baba Yaga becomes older with each question she answers, hence why she becomes so angry. Porter uses this concept and applies it to Erg as well as Babs. Throughout her time working at BY’s, Vassa constantly asks Erg questions that she can’t answer without destroying herself. After a fight, Vassa asks Babs three questions: who the motorcyclist is, what Babs is really doing running BY’s, and how to return the motorcyclist to Night. She answers the first two but not the third due to interference by one of the hands, who kills her. This is quite different from the fairy tale; upon learning that Vasilissa completed the tasks with the help of her dead mother’s blessing, Baba Yaga sends her out of the hut immediately, tossing a skull with burning eyes behind her as the promised light. When Vasilissa reaches home, she finds that her stepmother and stepsisters have been unable to get a fire going in the meantime. When they try to use the skull, the house catches on fire and kills everyone but Vaslissa. She lives with an old woman in her village and makes shirts for the tsar. He is so impressed by them that he marries her. Porter entirely changes this. After returning the motorcyclist to Night, her stepsister Chelsea comes to bring her home. It’s a happy ending with a focus on love and family.

My Thoughts:

My thoughts on this one are essentially the same as the first time I read it, so this section isn’t going to be quite as long as usual. I don’t want to just repeat everything I said in my original review.

But I think this bears repeating: this book is really, really weird. But I enjoyed the weirdness for the most part. There were a few things that made me say, “Wait, what? Was that necessary?” A particularly notable one is the father choosing to turn into a dog. That’s just…truly bizarre. And some of this weirdness did make it hard for me to grasp what was happening despite this being the second time I read it. I mainly was just confused about things with Bea and Zinaida, Vassa’s mother. There is so much going on in the book that this part just got lost for me. I didn’t understand their motivations or even quite what they were doing.

The relationship between Vassa and Erg remained my favorite part of the book. I loved both of them as individual characters and adored the way they interact with each other. Vassa and Erg are the heart of the story, and Porter has created a relationship that feels realistic even though one of them is a talking wooden doll. It is reminiscent of a relationship someone might have with their sibling, perhaps even a twin. They annoy each other, threaten each other, and fight, but they are also always there for each other. I found that this time around, I was even more touched by the revelation of Erg’s creation due to this relationship. But again, I’m not going to say anymore about that.

Other Reading Recommendations:

This section is slightly different today. I couldn’t find much for retellings of “Vasilissa the Beautiful,” so I’ve chosen to list books that draw from Russian fairy tales in general instead. The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.

Other Retellings of Russian Fairy Tales:

More Books by Sarah Porter:

About the Fairy Tale:

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