Buy Vassa in the Night
Special price $14.12 Regular price: $15.58 ($20.49 CDN)
Publisher: Tor Teen / Raincoast Books
Reviewer: Melissa on Sept 22, 2016
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In the enchanted world of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes and clothes and go to parties in warehouses and rooftops and tell themselves that they’ve arrived. But that’s not what it’s like in Vassa’s working-class neighborhood. Vassa lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters in a part of Brooklyn where stumbling into magic is easy, but getting yourself out takes everything you have. Babs Yagg, a local convenience store owner, beheads shoplifters…and occasionally some innocent shoppers as well, so when one of Vassa’s stepsisters asks her to go there late one night for some lightbulbs, she knows it may be a suicide mission. However, unbeknownst to her stepsisters, Vassa has a little bit of magic on her side – a wooden doll named Erg that isn’t quite so wooden. With Erg’s help, can Vassa break the witches curse and set her Brooklyn neighborhood free? Maybe…but Babs won’t be playing fair….
Inspired by the Russian folktale “Vassilissa the Beautiful” and Sarah Porter‘s years of experience teaching creative writing to NYC students, when I first heard about Vassa in the Night during Raincoast Books’ Fall Preview, I knew that I had to read it. I’m a long time lover of fairytales, folktales, and retellings of them, so it was high on my must-read list, especially since it’s not based on a story with which I’m already familiar. Since reading it, I can definitely say that Vassa in the Night is one of the darkest and most bizarre stories that I’ve ever read though I can’t confirm how closely it adheres or how far it veers from the classic Russian story, and I highly recommend it for anyone who loves magic realism with a little bit of blood and gore. In other words, it’s a perfect just before Halloween read.
To describe this book, would be to give too much away. I think it’s a story that you really have to experience for yourself or risk missing out on the extremely unusual happenings in Vassa’s neighborhood. What I can say is that beyond all of the strange and wonderful happenings in the neighborhood that Vassa and the few other inhabitants she meets live and the gruesome spectacle that is the BY’s convenience store, this is a story with more going on than at first meets the eye. Sarah Porter takes some language from the typical story of NYC in the 20s, like Vassa’s decision to refer to Erg as “dollface” regularly, includes a lot of fairytale conventions, like the idea that magic and the unexpected can and does happen, and layers in things of real, emotional resonance at every turn…if only you look at little closer.
Where Vassa in the Night stands out from so many of the fairytales and retellings that I’m familiar with, however, is the characters who are able to make a difference in Vassa’s and the people of her neighborhood’s lives. Not only are these not the princesses and princes of the world she inhabits, but also time and time again it is female characters who make the sacrifices necessary to change things and save others. There are some important male characters as well, but they never suddenly arrive and solve all of Vassa’s problems for her. Because sometimes girls and young women can – and do – make a difference in the world around them, so why shouldn’t teens be able to see that happening before their eyes in fiction as well as real life?
If you’re looking for a new YA retelling with magic, mystery, and maybe even a little blood and gore, then definitely check out Vassa in the Night. I’m pretty sure that you haven’t read anything like it before.
And now…why not check out a short excerpt from the book to get a little feel for Vassa’s relationship with Erg:
So it’s the middle of the night—unprecedented, I know—and the kid upstairs is practicing skateboarding on some kind of janky homemade half pipe and wiping out at ten-second intervals and I’m watching a random black-and-white movie with the girls people call my sisters, though they’re sisters step and fractional. I forget, but I think Chelsea is step-half and Stephanie is third-step once removed, or something like that, or possibly it’s the other way around. Whatever they are exactly, they’ve been assigned to me by the twitching of fate, and they’re usually at least plausibly sisteresque. We even share a bedroom. The woman who it’s fair to assume must have given birth to at least one of us, but by no means to me, is off at the night shift at the pharmacy where she works in Manhattan. Seems awful to be stuck with the night shift now, but she says it’s not as bad there. She says people barely notice the difference yet in Manhattan. She says they can afford all the day they want. Maybe they’ve found some slot where you can stick a credit card and order up a new morning.
Steph whirls in with a bowl of microwave popcorn and sets it on the bed between her and Chels. She scowls a bit when I come crawling across their pink-fleeced legs to snag some, piling it on the back of my chemistry textbook and then carrying it to my own bed. However carefully I balance, there’s a fair amount of drift over the book’s sides. Popcorn is hardly ideal, too noisy, but it’ll have to do.
It’s a rotten movie for my purposes. Ingrid Bergman is kissing somebody. Personally I prefer guys who are less gray, though I guess she’s in no position to be picky. “Let’s watch something else.”
“Shut up, Vass. It’s almost the end!”
“Then you won’t be missing much, right?” But there’s no hurry. They’ll put on something nice and loud eventually. There’s a lot of squirming in the pocket of my sweatshirt and I cover it with my hand. Tiny teeth nip at my thumb, though the thick fabric keeps it from hurting much. So impatient.
Static abruptly drowns out Ingrid, forcing the issue. That happens a lot these days and then there’s nothing to do but change the channel, which Stephanie does after casting a scowl my way. Just because it’s convenient for me doesn’t make it my fault.
The next movie is tenderly devoted to chasing and shooting and blasting. When the first car goes up in a fireball I slip a puff of corn into my pocket and then start crunching loudly myself for good measure. Chels and Steph don’t seem to notice. They’re mesmerized by the flashing lights. I can hear it, though, the shrill styrofoamy nibble-squeak from my pocket. I can feel the slight vibrations against my waist as she chews. A tiny fist prodding my guts. Erg wants more. Such a little thing, but she never stops eating, and why should she? When you’re carved out of wood you never gain weight. I’ve seen her gnaw through a candy bar bigger than she is in two hours flat. I’ve seen her actually burrow under the crispy batter on a chicken leg and then pop out near the bone, leaving the skin sagging into the tunnel left by her mauling.
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