Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Fairytale retellings are increasing in popularity are retellings of non-Western tales are even more desired by readers and agents than those of European origin. Though Vassa in the Night fits these categories, it, unfortunately, doesn't live up to the standards one might place upon a book like it.
From what I can tell about Vassa in the Night, it is not a commonly read or popular book for the most part. On amazon, it looks like the price (for the hardcover no less) has dropped in price dramatically, seemingly in order to sell more copies. The book is, at best, #178 in Teen & Young Adult Magical Realism Fiction and at worst, #551,858 in Books overall. So it is far from being #1.
Why did I read this book then? It obviously wasn't floating around on Instagram or being suggested to me by a ton of people. I didn't see hoards of people reading it or see so much about it on social media that I thought I just had to read it. And of course, there is no movie or TV show made on it (I would hate to see that).
Instead, this book was suggested to me (and lent to me) by one of my best friends who knew I enjoyed fairytales. She, unfortunately, hadn't read the book in a while, and had forgotten about some of the more unpleasant details in it but remembered one thing about it that is a great redeeming factor for the book: it is a twist on a fairytale.
This book is not only a twist on a fairytale but is a twist on a little-known fairytale: "Vassilissa the Beautiful." The fairytale is Russian and tells the story of Vasilissa, a witch, an endless night, and tasks that the girl has to complete. It was great to see a book doing a twist on a new fairytale, particularly one from another culture. I would love to see more books doing twists on fairytales like this or on other classic tales (Shakesperean tales, or other classic books). Even as someone who is writing on the Western European tales, I know that there are plenty of books that twist those so anything that is something different is interesting.
Unfortunately, for me, the book didn't twist the fairytale well. I felt that the author was a good writer in general. She seemed to have good description and great writing skills and her character was well developed (I was invested in Vassa). However, the plot was a little weird and the way the fairytale was twisted into the world was even weirder. Also, there was misplaced gore. Not that I mind gore so much but it felt out of place in the story and in the writer's style. You didn't expect anyone to die and then SPOILER: someone died and disembodied hands were dancing around in the person's blood. It was weird and gross.
The hardest part for me though was the strange way that the author twisted in the fairytale. Personally, I feel that there are two general ways to do a fairytale twist:
high fantasy: Fairytale twists set in an entirely different world created by the author. This could be a world of fairytales like in the Land of Stories (or my own fairytale twists). Or it could be an entirely different world where the characters (who happen to be fairytale characters in some cases) happen to exist. These are usually more outlandish, magical, fantasy books that tend to follow the fairytales more closely.
low fantasy: These books are set in the real world. Sometimes it is entirely without magic, sometimes it is with a dash of magic that is well explained (think the Once Upon a Time show). Sometimes it is in the future or the past like The Lunar Chronicles set in the future where the moon is colonized. The books being set on Earth doesn't limit them to being totally without magic but it does mean they need more explanation if they will involve magic and usually, it means they stray from the original tale more or one needs to look more closely to see how they follow it (ex. Cinder from The Lunar Chronicles losing a cyborg foot instead of a shoe).
My issue with Vassa in the Night is that the book appears to be awkwardly between these two options. The author sets the book in the real world but uses an excess of magic that seems unexplained. The characters seem to find it weird that there is endless night and a witch with heads on spikes outside her shop but they don't really explain how the things occur in the real world or why no one does anything about them. Everyone in the story seems to both notice it and think it is weird but also do nothing about it so the question remains, why do they not do something? In Once Upon a Time, and other books, movies, and shows set in the real world where magic is present, most commonly the magic is explained away by common folk not noticing it or not finding it strange so to me, I found the book annoying. It felt like the author was trying to do something really out of the box by not only twisting a Russian tale but by doing it in the modern world. However, she ruined it by sticking too close to the original story and including too much magic without explanation. I would have loved to see more replacements like the cyborg foot for a shoe.
I do not know if I would recommend reading this book. It is not absolutely terrible but it wasn't a great book. However, it may be an excellent read if you, yourself are writing a fairytale twist and are looking for more books to teach you what to do and what not to do.