May 19, 2008

Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh

In the small town of Vojvoda, in old Russia, Pyetr Kochevikov is unfairly accused of using sorcery to kill a man. He is saved from a sure hanging by young Sasha Misurov, a stable boy at a local inn, who helps him hide. Most of the townsfolk regard Sasha with suspicion. Rumour has it that he was "born on a bad day", and that the fire that killed his parents when he was a young child was somehow his doing. They say that Sasha brings bad luck, and his uncle, the owner of the inn, constantly reminds him that if so much as a mug is broken in his presence, he will be swiftly and unceremoniously expelled from their household.

Pyetr and Sasha leave Vojvoda together, travelling through a forest with the intention of reaching Kiev, where they mean to start new lives. But old Slavic forests are tricky places. Unlike Sasha, Pyetr doesn’t believe in grandmother tales about supernatural creatures. But when they reach the cottage of the wizard Uulamets and discover what dwells in the forest and in the river, he is given several good reasons to change his mind.

In Slavic folklore, a rusalka is a particular type of ghost that can be found in rivers and other waterways. In some versions, rusalki are the ghosts of young women who died by drowning, and the more gruesome their death, the more powerful they will be. Rusalki who were murdered will want their deaths avenged, and will suck the life out of whatever creature they come across to find the energy to fulfil their goal.

Rusalki always had a very strong grip on my imagination, and that was the original reason why I picked up this novel. And I an in awe of how perfectly Cherryh brought these and other creatures of Slavic folklore (like the leshy or domovoi) to life. Having read The Secret History of Moscow recently, a novel that also makes extensive use of Slavic folklore, I couldn’t help but compare the two. I have the feeling that The Secret History of Moscow works at least partially based on assumed previous knowledge – when I read the book, I brought what I knew of Russian folk and fairy tales into it. Ekaterina Sedia names several beings from these tales, but she doesn’t evoke them as fully as Cherryh does. I wonder if the fact that Sedia is Russian has something to do with this – perhaps that sort of knowledge comes so naturally to her that she doesn’t feel the need to spend as long building up the mood that these beings evoke. And so things are unintentionally made a little harder for readers. But I digress.

My point is that Cherryh recreates these beings perfectly and evokes an old haunted Slavic forest with equal perfection. She builds the exact right sort of mood – mysterious and sinister and dark in vague, unsettling ways. And speaking of sinister, I am not easy to frighten, but this book made my heart pound several times. More than concrete scary scenes, it was the mood that did it, the unbelievably creepy and oppressive mood.

But there is, of course, a lot more to this book than mood. The characterization was perfect, and I loved how complex the relationships between the characters were. I loved watching Pyetr and Sasha’s friendship develop. The human side of the story was intense – almost too intense at times. By the end of the story I was feeling emotionally exhausted.

There isn’t much more I can say about the story without spoilers, so I’ll end with this: it’s a story in which there is much more at stake than you initially realize. There are more players in the game than you’d think. There are secrets which are slowly and grudgingly revealed. There are sides to the characters that you couldn’t have imagined, yet when you see them they fit perfectly. It’s an excellent book.

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  1. I've got to choose a book from my 1st in a Series list to read for June and am thinking I should choose this one. I'll let you know when I'm done!

  2. Oh my, this does sound like a wonderful story! And it sounds like one that I could enjoy even with very little previous knowledge of Slavic folklore...true?

  3. I have to admit, this isn't one of Cherryh's best works. I felt it was a little slow moving - couldn't quite continue with it.

    Just need more forward momentum to finish the book.

  4. Eva: I thought of you when I was reading it :)

    Terri B: Do let me know! It'll be interesting to compare notes :)

    Eva: True. It's not that you HAVE to know those things to enjoy The Secret History of Moscow, but the book does drop you into a foreign world a little abruptly, while in this one there's more contextualization. And it's done subtly, too, which is always a good thing.

    Dark Orpheus: The story does move slowly, but I found it suspenseful in its slowness. Does that make sense? Anyway, what you said makes me want to read more of Cherryh's work all the more.

  5. I prefer Cherryh's science fiction. She is best when she work with big ideas on human psychology and civilisation - and world building. She admits that her books are often "architectural" in scope.

    This usually means many, many books in a series as she develops the world she creates.

    Have you tried her "Foreigner" series? Or "Cyteen"?

  6. This sounds good! I think I'd have given this book a miss on normal circumstances but you've written such a great review about it that I've to look this up! Thank you, Nymeth. :)

  7. This is one (of many) authors who I have heard of forever, want to read, but still haven't gotten around to reading. Perhaps if I quit my job... ;)

  8. I've never heard of this author or title. It sounds very good. I'm going to keep my eyes out for it now. More on the TBR!

  9. Thanks for this review, I hadn't heard of this before and it definitely sounds like something I would enjoy. If I end up doing Darla's Irresitible challenge this could be a contender.

  10. Another one of my TBR. There is Texas/Tejano lore about a woman who drowns in a river and haunts, but for the life of me I can't think of what the name is--I'll have to think about that one.

    Thanks for the review!

  11. I read this one in 1990 (thank goodness for book lists) - and even though it's been a long time, your review brought everything back fresh in my mind. I love Cherryh's books, and it might just be time to go back and reread some of my favorites.

  12. " was the mood that did it, the unbelievably creepy and oppressive mood."
    Dark Orpheus is right when she says that Cherryh has a gift for world building, but she is a master mood-builder as well. If you want a little more Eastern European folklore filtered through Cherryh, try The Goblin Mirror - it's great fun.

  13. Dark Orpheus: I remember you mentioning Cyteen before. I'd like to try that one someday. I am naturally more drawn to fantasy that sci-fi, but I won't let that stop me. Thanks for the recommendations!

    Melody: You're welcome :) I think this book is sadly now out of print, but maybe you'll come across a library or used copy.

    Carl: lol :P the good old too many books, too little time dilemma

    Jeane: The TBR never stops growing, does it? :P

    Rhinoa: I hope you enjoy it if you get to it!

    Trish: That sounds fascinating! I always find it so neat how you find similar stories across different cultures.

    Darla: Which ones are your favourites?

    Ken: Yes, she is certainly a master mood-builder! I hadn't heard of The Goblin Mirror before, but I took a look at the plot summary and it sounds great. Magyar folklore! Thanks for the recommendation :)

  14. I really enjoyed Cyteen (even though I am, like you, more drawn to fantasy usually) and the Foreigner books, and the Sword of Knowledge, Downbelow Station (which I've been meaning to reread some time soon) also come to mind. Plus Rusalka - I really liked that one!

  15. I have a copy of Yvengie, which I think is part of the Rusalka series. It's been up on my swap site for months and isn't moving ... if you want it, I'm happy to send it to you.

  16. La Llorona:

    It's actually a little darker than I remembered (had forgot about her children...), but maybe of interest to you. :)

  17. Ken is so right ... Cherryh is a mood builder. That is a lot of what I mean when I think something has "atmosphere." I like the way he put that! When I read her Nighthorse books (I believe there are only 2 as of now) she built the mood so well I was actually fairly disturbed for a couple of days. In this book the horses and humans are symbiotic and telepathic with each other. Cherryh didn't just describe this ... she made it permeate the story. Anyway, I could obviously go on and on about Cherryh. Glad to see there are other fans.

  18. Darla: Thanks for all the suggestions! Cherryh seems to be an author people are very passionate about, which is always a good sign :)

    Heather Johnson: Would that be BookMooch? There's a copy there, and I have it on my wishlist, but I haven't requested it because it's a hardcover and the person's status says "ask if not my country"...I feel bad asking them to send a hardcover book overseas. That's the same reason why I didn't ask an Angel for help - I didn't want to burden them with the cost of sending a hardcover. All this to say that it's very generous of you to offer, and yes, I've been after a copy for some time. If you don't mind sending a book all the way to Portugal, let me know and I'll drop you an e-mail. And thank you! (Oh, and if it is you who has it on BookMooch and you don't mind let me know and I'll request it through there)

    Trish: Oh! I'd actually heard of La Llorona, but I didn't make the connection when you mentioned it. It is a very interesting tale - and like you said, a dark one.

    Terri B: Permeates the whole story...that's exactly right, and it's true of many things in Rusalka and Chernevog too. Like I was telling Darla, it does seem that Cherryh fans are very enthusiastic about her, which is a great thing :)

  19. Wow. You make me want to run out RIGHT NOW and buy this book, even though it's almost midnight here!!! and it's out of print!!! Since I love, love, love creepy, atmospheric settings - and in a forest - and slavic, and I'm part Polish - how on earth have I not heard of this book before?? Great review, Nymeth! and I really want this book now!! lol

  20. Susan: I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!

  21. I hadn't heard of this series, and am off to look for them on Amazon immediately. I love books based on Russian folktales. Have you read Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams? I don't think the book quite works, but I liked what she was trying to do, nonetheless.

  22. I haven't read it, no, but I've just looked it up and it sounds very interesting. It's too bad it didn't quite work or you.

  23. I did it! I finally got that Rusalka review written! It took me awhile since I had to get over my annoyance at her character dialogue and be able to look at the whole more clearly. Not sure what happened, but I wanted to yell at her characters to just "shut up and stop bickering." Anyway, you might appreciate my creative rating method on this one since I couldn't bear to give her an overall crummy rating just because I got annoyed. Rusalka


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