by Gregory Maguire
First sentence: “The heels of military boots, striking marble floors, made a sound like thrown stones.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable, but it’s a bit long and slow for all but the most advanced middle grade readers. It’s not a Teen book, either, so it’s ended up in the no-man’s land of YA books (grades 6-8) at the bookstore. I’m wondering how it would go as a read-aloud, though.
Elena Rudina is a peasant in pre-Revolution Russia. Her father died in a freak accident, and her mother never quite recovered from that. Her oldest brother is a servant in the baryn’s household and is away in Russia. So when her other brother gets conscripted into the Tsar’s army, Elena decides she needs to do something about that.
Ekaterina is the daughter of semi-noble parents who have dropped her in a London boarding school and gone off gallivanting around the world. The only person who cares about her is her Great-Aunt Sophie, and she’s determined that Ekaterina is going to show up at the Tsar’s party for his godson and be presented as a possible match, which is something Ekaterina does not want.
So, it was quite fortuitous when Elena and Ekaterina meet by accident — the train stops in Elena’s village when the bridge is out — and then (again by accident) switch places. Each get exposure to a different world and are led on the adventure of a lifetime.
I really wanted to like this one. And I did, sometimes. I loved Baba Yaga in all her snarkiness. (In fact, I bookmarked a bunch of her lines. Like: “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” and “Dumb Doma remodels itself. A nasty habit, like binge shopping.” and “No wonder they call these fairy tales. Tolstoi woudl know better, and a fast train comign into a station would be involved. Blood, tears, regrets. All the fun stuff.”) I sometimes liked the adventure that Elena and Ekaterina were having. (Madame Sophia ended up being a favorite of mine as well.) But, something seemed… off… about this one. Usually I don’t mind intrusive narrators, but this time, he (though I wonder why Maguire chose that particular narrator) was annoying enough that I just wanted him to go away. And that (along with Baba Yaga) got me wondering if this is really a kids’ book, or rather a book for adults who like kids’ books. I found myself hard-pressed to come up with a kid who would enjoy this.
It reminded me most of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in tone and style (though it’s much, much longer), And K really liked having that one read aloud to her. So, maybe there is some hope for this one. I just wish I liked it better.