Recently it seems like books inspired by Russian folk lore and fairy tales are getting a ton of attention. Spinning Silver, Winter of the Witch, and Vita Nostra are all fairly recent releases that delve into Russian tales. After reading each of them, I can confidently say that Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko is my current favorite.
A lot of these books have a similar plot structure. They all focus on a woman who experiences some preternatural experiences and fall into a world of weird and wonderful magic. Some characters carry over because these books take inspiration from the same folk tales, and I love seeing how each author plays on those motifs in different ways. In Vita Nostra, those elements are present but less blatant. It’s only when I thought back on the book that I realized all the similarities to other books by non-russian authors.
Now you may be thinking, woah Sam, are you saying that own voices russian stories are the only good ones? Of course not! Naomi Novik’s family has Eastern European roots, which brings a ton of authenticity and heart to the world she creates. I do think that Vita Nostra being an Own Voices & translated story brings a lot of subtlety to the plot structure and character development. I find myself mentally comparing all subsequent slavic inspired books to it, and the main result is that I just want to reread it immediately. Let’s dig more into the similarities between these stories.
Girl Encounters Magic
Whether it’s through a strange bird man, a mysterious winter road, or a man who inspires unease with just a look all of the main characters in these stories face strange circumstances. After coming to terms with their new reality, these women are transported to a new world or city and gain some powers of their own.
In Vita Nostra this motif is explored through Sasha attending a school far from home. She is separated from her family after completing a set of tasks for a reason she doesn’t fully understand. Spinning Silver begins in a very similar fashion, and reading it keyed me into the folk lore elements I didn’t originally notice in Vita Nostra. After this point there are some big departures between each of the novels I’ve mentioned so far, but there is one other big thing they have in common.
Girl Builds Relationship with Mentor/Male Authority Figure
This male often takes the form of a magician, or a king of some kind. In Vita Nostra several different men have a heavy influence on Sasha and her education. She is forced to trust teachers with her mental stability in ways that no one should normally have to. I loved watching her struggle to find ways to trust her mentors and herself in order to accomplish her goals. There are similar struggles in Novik’s work as well. In those instances, I personally find myself distracted by the romantic component of the story. Vita Nostra steers well away from romance in a way that I adore.
These relationships always come with a number of pros and cons. They can take the protagonist to dark places, but almost always lead to greater power as well. I love this emphasis on dealing with difficult men, and I especially love that Vita Nostra doesn’t choose to conflate it with romance. These books tend to have similar end goals a well.
Girl Takes Over
In one way or another, the leading ladies get some measure of power of their own. This typically comes along with them leading a group of people, or even a kingdom of their own. Again the leadership role that Sasha takes on in Vita Nostra is a bit more subtle. She becomes an advanced student and is gradually given more and more responsibilities. Her story isn’t over after book 1, and I do hope we get more English translations in the series so I can find out where she ends up!
There’s something about Russian Folk Lore that really draws me in. I think it’s because this common character arc is so empowering for me. You never see a girl being gifted power, she has to earn it. You see women given equal opportunities to the men in the book. Vita Nostra especially does an amazing job of blurring that line between genders. If you haven’t added it to your TBR yet, please do give it a try!
Do you have a favorite Russian Folk Lore inspired novel? I would love more recommendations!