Vassa in the Night
By Sarah Porter
Published by Tor Teen
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…
I am coming in strong by stating this is probably the book of 2016 for me. Despite the countless negative reviews and less than ideal feedback that originally had me anticipating great disappointment, Vassa in the Night has persevered with shining colors. Uncanny and full or otherworldly, eccentric symbolism, it is easy to accept that this will not sit properly with all. For myself, it was a reading experience that cannot be compared to any previous retelling and has provided a new level of expectation to the genre. This is exactly the sort of storytelling that I live for. From beginning to end, I wanted more, and it continued to give. Describing what I received will be challenging. The complexity that makes this story so gratifying is not easy to articulate without divulging spoilers.
Before attempting to read and understand this story, I cannot stress just how valuable I feel it is to familiarize yourself with the original tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga by Alexander Afanasyev. This is a retelling based on Slavic folklore, and it is different from what one might expect from fairy tales. Useful information for those looking for a quick breakdown of the original fairy tale can actually be found here on Wikipedia. I am not normally a fan of recommending wiki, but this information is pretty solid and there are several illustrations worth looking over. You may also be interested in reading Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer
This retelling takes the folklore that originally took place within a hut in a forest and transports it to current day Brooklyn. Only this is not the Brooklyn you may think you know. It is littered with areas of magic. However, magic is not something that the denizens actually welcome, exactly.
“See, to whatever degree we have magic around here, it is strictly the kind that’s a pain in the ass.”
-Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night
We soon learn that many, including are heroine, go to great lengths to avoid contact with anything pertaining to magic. One particular area that is avoided at all costs, would be the local convenient store BY’s. However, in a fit of anger and hurt, Vassa finds herself venturing out one night to this very store to pick up lights bulbs (significant symbolism). This is where the story unfolds, and she soon uncovers the many fantastical and deadly secrets of the shop owner Babs, realizing she may never leave alive.
It is truly difficult to discuss or dissect the plot in great length without the risk of ruinging the reader’s first encounter. I will mention that there is some super heavy symbolism occurring. The over all reading experience may become somewhat frustrating or confusing to those who are not familiar with the folklore. You will need to be prepared and ready to slowly digest this book at times. While it was thoroughly entertaining, it was not the light read the blurb originally had me believe. There was a lot happening. This one was what I call a “tabber”. I marked various sections and had to let certain events sink in over time.
The characters completed Vassa in the Night for me. Their eccentric manners and incredibility provided a real air of magic and life to this fantastical and peculiar story. Nothing and everything about them made sense. There was such an alluring mystery promoted with each individual, that they continued to draw me forward. I had to know them, I needed to.
“You don’t have to be human to be a person. I mean you don’t have to be human to be somebody. I don’t know you that well, but you seem like way more of a somebody than lots of humans I know! Really.”
― Sarah Porter,
Vassa, our protagonist, is full of wit and charm with her style and flare. She proves to be resilient and compassionate, while also maintaining a bit of fear and fluent sarcasm that played well into the environment and craziness. She reacted very appropriately to inappropriate situations. I loved her! Is she completely credible? Maybe not to the full extent, but nothing in the story is. That is what makes it so attractive.
Erg is Vassa’s one true companion. She happens to be a wooden doll that has been given life and left with Vassa as her mother’s last gift before passing. She is a bit of jerk, but not without her own endearing qualities. She also happens to be a clepto. Her contribution to the story is not to be undervalued, as she seems to be the perfect sidekick. She and Vassa belong together like freis and ketchup. But make no mistakes, she will anger you at times.
We are also presented with Babs, the shop owner. She is deformed, cruel and ruthless. She is a terrific villain that I was able to appreciate on several fronts. She is an enigma and cleverly adds to the flare of Vassa, as they work against one another so greatly.
Perhaps one of the most mystifying characters would be the store’s night security, a motorcyclist dressed in black. He is ever-present and of great significance, as you will discover most things within this tale are. Nothing and no one are to be taken for granted.
The majority of our tale resides within BY’s, an odd convenient store that happens to be perched upon two dancing chicken legs, and also happens to be the only chain open at night (the story takes place throughout the extent of several nights that happen to be much longer than an average, normal night). If you have taken the suggested moment to do your homework, you have established the connection between the store name and Baba Yaga. BY’s is run by none other than “Babs”. It also happens to be enclosed by a gate containing the severed heads of shoplifters. Intrigued or repulsed? It’s okay, I understand either reaction. I was personally intrigued, as I live for the weird. But there is a bit gore that occurs. While I did not find it to be heavily disturbing, consider yourself warned.
“The light projecting from BY’s waves like a flag across the parking lot, sometimes catching one of those skewered heads and making it shine: dead women and men becoming moons in my personal night.”
-Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night
The majority of world building within Vassa in the Night is attributed to the strong elements of fantasy and magic and unconventional characters. The author has managed to create an atmosphere that is completely distinct offering an encounter unlike anything I can easily compare it to. It is rich, complex and at times confusing.
Sarah Porter’s writing is somewhat bizarre. She has taken a very individualized approach to story telling that can only be loved or hated. While I found it to be fluid, the symbolism is rich and almost poetic at times. So it is easy to see how it might feel flowery to some. I personally found myself completely submersed within this different and welcomed style. The pace was not always as steady as I would have liked, but my interest never waned.
I really wanted to delve into this so much more, it is impossible without revealing too much, and the revelations are part of what make this tale so fantastic. Vassa in the Night is a truly rewarding and individualized experience that not all will be able to find appreciation for. It is a very distinct twist on a fairy tale that many are not going to recognize. I think that taking the time to make that familiarization will greatly affect the over all impact. While there is something truly magical happening within the pages of this beautiful retelling, it required a slower pace to digest and fully grasp. The symbolism is heavy and it can easily become confusing at times. The end result was a complex tale that will surely delight and enthrall some while leaving others confused or frustrated. For myself, it continues to resonates so strongly with me that I am sad it has ended.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐