Vassa in the Night is a retelling of the Russian folktale Vasilisa the Beautiful, which I feel like is a pretty obscure story in the USA. I only know about it because Baba Yaga was a character featured in some picture books when I was young, and I used to read this Indian comic book collection called Tinkle, which had (I think) several stories whose primary antagonist was Baba Yaga. I also remember reading a variant of Vasilisa, where a young man performed the customary three tasks to save her. I like the original better. Anyways, the story goes: a young girl named Vasilisa is given a small wooden doll, a gift from her dying mother. Her instructions are to give the doll a little bit of food and a something to drink when she needs help with something. She and the doll grow to be friends. One day, Vasilisa’s cruel stepmother sends her to the Baba Yaga, the evil witch, I think to fetch a candle. With no other choice, Vasilisa sets off with the doll. When Vasilisa finds Baba Yaga’s cottage, she discovers three riders: black, white and red; she then meets Baba Yaga, who tells her that she must complete three tasks in order to earn the fire, and if she fails, she will be killed.
I think that’s everything that’s pertinent to the story. If you’d like to read the whole synopsis, which I’m too lazy to write, here’s the link to the wikipedia page. So our story is a re-imagined version of Vasilisa, one that takes place in the enchanted city of Brooklyn, where Baba Yaga’s cottage is a BY convenience store and Vasilisa is a young woman named Vasa Lisa, the orphaned daughter of a man-turned-dog and an insane artist. Vasa now lives with her stepsisters, Stephanie and Chelsea, and her stepmother, Iliana, who isn’t as cruel as her Russian counterpart, but still retains some neglectful tendencies. The real antagonist in Vasa’s life (at this point, anyways,) is Stephanie– her only remaining blood relative as the daughter of her father and Iliana, and who hates her with a burning passion. Stephanie isn’t the biggest problem Vasa faces, however; that would be too easy. No, enchanted Brooklyn is nothing like Once Upon a Time, where fairies float around and princesses live next door. Enchanted Brooklyn means that night stretches on for days; the local convenience store, BY, dances on enormous chicken legs while surrounded by a tall fence of staked heads. BY is the only convenience store that is open all night, and shoplifters are beheaded. Vasa and other Brooklyn residents consent to this reluctantly, unable to do much because it casts some sort of haze-inducing spell over anyone in its vicinity. Luckily, the magic brings one good thing to Vasa’s life: Erg, her wooden doll, a gift from her late mother and one of her few friends. Erg is tiny and personable, a true force to be reckoned with, and with a stomach like a black hole. She causes some grief for Vasa, though, due to her kleptomaniac tendencies. Her insistence on stealing Chelsea and Steph’s things is the main reason that Vasa is cast out by the latter, and ultimately ends up in BY.
As you can see, this book starts out totally bizarre, but it only gets more confusing as you delve deeper. Babs, the manager of BY, is a sadistic old woman who employs two disembodied hands, remnants of her previously-beheaded victims, and these three run the dancing store. By the way, when I say that BY dances, I’m not being metaphorical– the store literally dances on two enormous chicken legs, in the middle of a parking lot. A parking lot that also features several tall stakes, tipped with the bloodless heads of “shoplifters”. As we learn, the two disembodied hand employees of Babs– their names are Sinister and Dexter– are responsible for framing innocent shoppers by sliding items into their pockets while they browse the store, unaware. Then Babs inevitably catches them, and Dex does the honor of chopping off their head with the store’s official head-chopping axe, which has seen many unsuspecting throats in its time.
The book is incredibly dark. Its atmosphere reminds me of The Night Circus— Ms. Porter, like Erin Morgenstern, is incredible at creating visual narratives– but its tone is much darker, much grittier. There are a few very graphic deaths and a lot of really bewildering scenes, like an entire sequence where Vassa explores Babs’s apartment within the store. Here, she discovers paintings by her mother, Zinaida, which hint at her inscrutable past; tiny neon-dressed people who are murdered by a glittery dust, and a room that is entirely black save for two glittering gold crescents in the distance, who are indubitably connected to the strange, motorcycle-riding night watchman that drives in circles around the store, forever blinded by an opaque visor.
The cast is wide and varied, featuring the old, terrifying Babs; Vassa, a cunning heroine with her own secrets; Erg, the tiny doll whose bark is just as bad as her bite; Night, the wide expanse that plunges Brooklyn into darkness, but who is also searching for something important; Dexter and Sinister, loyal to a fault; Tomin, the strange senior from Vassa’s high-school whose guilt forces him back to BY; Picnic and Pangolin, otherworldly attorneys with a bone to pick with BY; the motorcycle man, an enigmatic figure who can’t do much more than loop around the chicken-footed store, and the aforementioned store, whose personality is so vivid and comical and utterly blasé that it has to be counted as its own entity.
Nothing is quite as it seems in Porter’s Brooklyn. The world is more dangerous than Vassa could ever imagine, and she finds out the worst way possible; but she also discovers the truth about herself along the way, and the deepness of a friendship that she often takes for granted. To tell you the truth, reader, I’m not entirely sure myself what the story entailed. It’s so confusing to think back on– some of it, I’m like, did that really happen? Even though I started and finished it today. I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those roller-coaster stories that pulls you in, takes you for a ride, and spits you out with your hair askew and your face slick with sweat.
Man, that was a dramatic sentence. How embarrassing lmao.
Still– you’ll find yourself struggling to understand what’s going on, thinking that you’ve got it down, and then realizing that oh lord, I really don’t know what’s happening. But it’s fun. It’s shocking. It’s devastating. It’s exciting.
I hope that you decide to check this book out. I can’t really do it justice in a review, nor could I explain the story. It’s something that you have to discover for yourself. For people that have already read Vassa— I might suggest playing through Ib, a short game about exploring an art museum, which features a very similar atmosphere. If you haven’t, yet, The Night Circus is another story that has similar depth in its detail, though is a bit more straightforward. And if you’ve never checked out Ms. Porter’s other series, Lost Voices— I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best mermaid-centric books that I’ve ever read, and I really, really enjoyed it. Be warned, the story can get horribly tragic but overall, it’s one of my favorite series of books. I hadn’t even realized that Sarah Porter was the author of that incredible trilogy until I looked her up after reading Vassa, so it was a really cool little surprise. Anyways, have fun exploring the streets of enchanted Brooklyn, and make sure to stay far from BY– or you might just get caught by Babs Yageen and her axe-wielding hands.