It’s been over a hundred years since one of my maternal great-great grandfathers left Russia to avoid serving in the Tzar’s army. I’m still fascinated with Russian, and indeed all of Eastern European folklore. Anna Kashina puts Russian folklore to excellent use in her romantic fantasy/epic novel Ivan and Marya (Drollerie Press, 2010).
It’s not an epic on the scale of Lord of the Rings, though like Tolkien did with Anglo-Saxon folklore in his novels, Kashina weaves the kind of tale my Russian ancestors would have told around their hearths. It’s more on the scale of The Hobbit, but while it may not be as sweeping as War and Peace, the fast-paced storytelling keeps the pages turning. I read it in one sitting.
Ivan and Marya is the classic hero’s journey. Ivan (nicknamed “The Fool”) is on a quest to fulfill a prophecy. He and his sponsor, Wolf, seek to bring an end to the human sacrifice perpetrated by the Tzar, Kashchey and his daughter Marya in the name of the god Kupalo.
Young Ivan (a stock character in Russian folk literature, though he never feels like it in Kashina’s telling) is the sort of everyman hero the reader can easily identify with. What makes this story so compelling is rooting for Ivan to complete his perilous, virtually impossible tasks.
Marya, though she is beautiful with her long black hair and pale skin, is compelled by being the priestess of Kupalo to be cold-hearted, incapable of love. Ivan isn’t sure if he wants her love. He wants to complete his task; the wildflower the peasants call Ivan and Marya is an omen to him, a symbol of hope.
The theme of the yearly human sacrifice is a common one in ancient Pagan storytelling. In the Celtic world (as in Mists of Avalon), the sacrifice is a young man who may father as many children as he likes before going to his noble death. In this version, the sacrifice must be a female and a virgin, recalling the Greco-Roman myth of Persephone/Proserpina. The virgin sacrifice is a close folkloric cousin of the straw effigy (sometimes named Marzana) that is, even today, “drowned” in Slavic countries as a rite of spring. The name of the death god in this novel, Kupalo, recalls the modern Slavic summer solstice holiday of Ivan Kupala…John the Baptist. The virgin sacrifice’s drowning in a sacrificial pool was replaced and Christianized with the rite of baptism.
Even if the ancient origins of the myths bore you, though, you’ll enjoy Anna Kashina’s storytelling. She makes it both fresh and exciting. There’s some adult content (this is a romance, after all), so this enchanting fairy tale is not for very young readers.
If you enjoy this book, you might also like Keith Miller’s The Book of Flying, Whispers in the Dark by Marisa Quinn, and The Raspberry Girl by VictoriaSelene Skye Deme.