“I’m only a boy born a dragon’s tooth
In the nick of time, sad but true.
No father or mother, just two hundred brothers
All telling me what to do.
I want to belong to the two hundred strong,
Yet here is the dismal truth:
I’ll never get older
Or grow up a soldier,
I’m a boy born a dragon’s tooth”.
“When you’re young, I think, being vulnerable to desolation comes from your not being able to imagine the world beyond you.<…> Being vulnerable to desolation also arises from being unable to picture a set of choices with which to change your lot in life”.
“It seems there is no shortage of regret among the young – but then, they are young, they make mistakes. They have time to correct them and the courage to admit their failings aloud. Adults should try it. But frankly, I think it’s a miracle that adults can manage to speak to one another at all, and that the entire species doesn’t take a universal vow of silence. Some days I wish it would”.
“Anything that can happen will happen, sooner or later. The question is whether or not the world can be made ready”.
My long-term readers would remember how much “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire destroyed my soul. Naturally, I got another Maguire’s book – this time it’s a YA fantasy based on Russian mythology, a.k.a the characters my family and I grew up with.
“Egg & Spoon” is set in an alternative pre-revolution Russia where magic is real. It is a story of two girls from completely different worlds. One is Elena, a peasant girl who fights for her survival and her mother’s every day. The village of Miersk is desolate, miserable and the land doesn’t produce any food. Elena’s survival depends solely on her own wits and resourcefulness. She doesn’t have her brothers to help her anymore – one, Luka, has been conscripted and another was taken away by the landowner. She needs to get one of them back. But to do that, she needs to go to Saint Petersburg to beg the Tsar to release Luka from his service.
Another is Ekaterina (Cat), a spoiled kid neglected by her parents who insisted on her meeting the Tsar’s godson and pulled her out of a boarding school in London for that very purpose. She is stuck on a train with her aunt, the butler and the governess, and the train couldn’t be passing through Russia slowly enough. By a twist of fate, it stops at Miersk – the very village where Elena struggles to survive on a daily basis. We see through our yet unknown narrator’s eye that two girls form an unlikely friendship and by another twist of fate and by virtue of several accidents, switch places with one another. Elena is headed to St Petersburg, whilst Cat is stuck in frozen Miersk with not a single friendly face around. Luckily – or perhaps not so luckily – she meets Baba Yaga. For those unfamiliar with the Russian folklore, she is a witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and is rumoured to lure children in only to eat them later. She is incredibly wise and can appreciate a smart girl, however. Cat, while a sheltered kid, quickly finds her wits about and gives Yaga a gift – a Faberge Egg.
What neither Elena nor Cat know, but Baba Yaga strongly suspects, is that the Firebird is missing and there is no egg from which a new one can hatch. A Firebird is like a phoenix and without it, magic – which is the essence of the Russias – cannot exist either. Our narrator knows that too, and he is scared. Can Elena, Cat, Baba Yaga and the Tsar’s godfather Anton successfully defy the Tsar and find the Firebird? Or will the magic of Russia disappear forever and the lands swallowed by the Ice Dragon?
Gregory Maguire is not the sort of author whose books you can just “flick” through. His novels require focus and complete immersion into the worlds that he weaves or adapts. Doing that with “Wicked” has destroyed me in the best way possible, and doing it with “Egg & Spoon” was an amazing ride, too, from start to finish. We are introduced to the narrator early on, but we don’t know who he is until the end of the novel, which adds an element of mystery to an already well-crafted, well-written story that twists Russian mythology in a way I’ve never seen before, and, as someone with Russian ancestors, can appreciate. “Egg & Spoon” to young Russian aficionados is what “Deathless” is to those who are a bit older. Yes, in essence it is a children’s story, with protagonists in their early teens. We have two very different young girls, a boy who is thirsty for adventure, a reluctant mentor figure whose sass can easily match that of “Deathless”‘ Baba Yaga, an equally sassy cat, and a quest. In other words, this has all the elements of an amazing YA novel, and it takes a writer like Maguire to twist them into a story that would appeal to adults and children alike.
I’ve been to St Petersburg a few times by now, and I’ll never get tired of that city taking my breath away, making my soul soar and playing with my emotions to her heart’s content. Needless to say, reading books that take place in St Petersburg is something I love doing, and I am a glutton for punishment when it comes to the city’s atmosphere being reflected in literature and having the power to break my heart over and over again. “The Bronze Horseman” has done that to me earlier this year. “Egg & Spoon” might not have broken my heart like “Wicked” has, but it certainly did leave its impact. It’s been about a week since I finished it, and I’m still feeling it. Not just because of a setting that’s close to my heart, but also because of how real the characters felt to me, of how easy it was to recognise my much, much younger self in all of them, and also because of the overall tone of the book. The narrator tells the story of Cat and Elena in a way that tugs at your heartstrings, but there are also moments when you can’t do anything but laugh out loud at Baba Yaga’s antics.
I should point out that the poem that begins this review is one of the saddest bits of “Egg & Spoon”, and is uttered by a character who NEEDS his own spin-off.
Maguire, you’ve done it again. You’ve managed to hold my attention for the entirely of a novel, and I want more. 8.5/10 is my rating of “Egg & Spoon”.
You might like “Egg & Spoon” if you liked:
“Deathless by Catherynne Valente”
“Briar Rose” by Jane Yolen
“Tsarina” by J. Nelle Patrick
Have you read “Egg & Spoon”? What are your favourite Russian fairytale retellings? Let me know! And Happy NaNoWriMo 2016!