Vassa in the Night – Baba Yaga and Cinderella in Brooklyn

  • TitleVassa in the Night
  • AuthorSarah Porter
  • Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Retellings
  • Publication Date:  September 2016
  • Publisher: Tor Teen
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A fantastical retelling of the Russian Baba Yaga mixed in with a Cinderella-esque wicked stepmother/sisters. Vassa in the Night gives a modern spin on the tale. Babs Yagg (Baba Yaga) owns a franchise in Brooklyn called BY’s, a convenience store that has severed heads on stakes outside its parking lot. The store also dances and lights up and changes position, and it’s known that any shoplifters will be killed.

Vassa – or – Vassa Lisa is the equivalent of Vasilisa the beautiful, the Russian fairytale where a beautiful little girl’s mother gives her a living wooden doll before she dies. And in Vassa in the Night, that’s what happens – her mother dies, but not before giving little Vassa a wooden doll named Ergs who keeps her company and gives her advice.

One day Vassa’s one-week-older-than-her halfsister sends Vassa off to BYs for some lightbulbs. it’s a suicide mission, because stepping into BYs is never a good idea. Vassa goes anyway.

What happens is nothing short of fantastical and morbid, but in all the right ways. The book is odd, meshing together severed, but living, hands, creature from another dimension, Night as its own character. It felt like there were so many worlds meshed together, each vying for its own survival. I’d day the book was magical realism, but with more fantasy and snippets of folklore.

Overall, the book drags on in some ways, and I thought there was too much happening – not in the plot, but in the meshing of those dimensions I mentioned. There was a weirdness, too, that seemed like afterthoughts thrown in, like when Vassa’s father decides he wants to be a dog, and leaves his family. Through magic, he is sewn up into a dog’s form and now lives life as a German Shepherd. I know that was the fantastical explanation for why her father walked out on the family, but I also felt like it didn’t mesh well with the other facets of the book.

The book started off superbly and had me turning the pages, the middle was decent, too, though it dragged on and I thought Ergs was a bit of a deus ex machina. The ending – I just don’t get. It was all I could expect, but it ended abruptly and without satisfaction. Even Babs’ motivations were unclear – she’s the villain, yes, but I never learned what drove her. And there was another witch in the story, Bea, who I never got to know or understand, though she was a primary side character throughout. I still don’t understand her connection with Babs, Vassa, and Vassa’s mother. And I never fully understood why Babs kept calling Vassa “half-name.” Like, what’s her full name, then? Even Vassa’s step and halfsister were half-fleshed out – they didn’t seem to have much personality beyond, this one’s mean, this one’s less mean.

There’s a lot of weirdness, there’s no other word, in the story, and I think that helped make it more interesting to read, and certainly added a horror or dark component to the plot. But overall, too busy, with too many loose ends. Too many things didn’t make sense, even for fairytales and folklore.

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