Sarah Porter. Vassa in the Night. New York: Tor Books, 2016.
Rating: 4 out of 5 lilac-nailed disembodied hands who would love to chop your head off.
This was a good choice for Halloween, what with much of the story taking place at night and the constant danger of decapitation by a maniacal witch and her pet disembodied hands. And of course I was going to read anything new by Sarah Porter, who previously ruined me for other mermaid tales with her Lost Voices trilogy.
The story takes place in a Brooklyn where witches own dancing convenience stores and lizard men practice law, where human men can pay to transform themselves into dogs via magical skins, and where the nights last much longer than they should. Vassa Lisa Lowenstein lives with her step-family in a washed-out neighborhood terrorized by the local convenience store whose proprietor says she only beheads shoplifters. Except some are beginning to suspect she targets innocent people too.
As the Lost Voices trilogy was a modern twist on mermaid lore, Vassa is a modern twist on Russian Baba Yaga tales. It’s particularly tied to the story “Vasilissa the Beautiful,” in which a girl is sent to the house of a witch to ask for fire, and must perform several impossible tasks before she can leave alive.
The most important element from the original Russian tale, which carries over into Vassa, is the magic doll given to the protagonist by her dying mother. In Porter’s version, she’s a wise-cracking wooden humanoid named Erg, who is truly one of the most memorable characters in the story.
“They ran off with their feeble delusions, more like,” Erg chirps. “With a big pile of coupons for stupid, they ran off. I hope they try to buy a shiny new car with that! And designer snailskin handbags! And a diamond-crusted pony!”
Other things I liked:
- The five Interludes that interrupt the main plot to offer backstory for several of the side characters like Vassa’s father and the BY’s parking lot swans.
- Vassa has some of the same beautiful language and imagery as Lost Voices did, with moments like this:
…my territory is an island of blood and snow shimmered by the sunset-colored light misting out of BY’s. My country is the stump where I unwrap the candy bar for Erg and set it on my thigh. She eats in a living, shifting cathedral of arched white necks.
Maybe it’s small, my territory, but inside it I can still love what’s in front of me with all the heart I have left.
- As the movie Ever After did with one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, Vassa deviates from the original story by making one of Vassa’s step-sisters kinder and more sympathetic. Chelsea cares for Vassa and at one point even tries to save her from BY’s.
What I didn’t like:
- The problem with Chelsea is that she gives up too easily, and it feels more like sloppy writing than an actual character flaw. She barely tries to stop Vassa from going to BY’s in the first place, and when she does try to get her out, she gives up too easily. We’re told she’s probably a little scared to approach BY’s, but it still seems out of character for her to give up on Vassa so quickly.
- Vassa is supposed to keep Erg a secret from everyone, and this is especially important at BY’s, but there’s a moment when the two of them are talking out in the open, in easy view of Babs’ pet hands, and yet somehow neither of the hands notices Erg.
It wasn’t as amazing as Lost Voices, but it’s a good addition to the list of fairy tale retellings, and like I said, it was a fun read for Halloween. Have you read anything particularly Halloween-flavored this month?