Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter – book review



Rating: 3.5/5

Goodreads summary:

“In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now—but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.

In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.

But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…”

My Review

Vassa lives in Brooklyn with her stepmother Iliana, stepsister Chelsea, and half sister Stephanie. Vassa’s father disappeared some time ago.   Iliana works at night so the girls are home alone in the evening, although it is nighttime more than usual in Vassa’s part of Brooklyn.  Daylight seems to make a rare occurrence these days.  Chelsea and Vassa get along but Stephanie is always angry with Vassa because she thinks Vassa is stealing her things and holds a grudge  One night when all the lights go out in their apartment Vassa leaves to get new light bulbs at Stephanie’s urging.  Chelsea is worried because the only store open is BY’s, a local store whose owner beheads shoplifters.  Stephanie doesn’t care and is somewhat eager for Vassa to shop there.  Vassa leaves for the store, taking this task as a dare.  This is where the book takes a very strange and bizarre turn.

Around this time I was having some very serious concerns about this book and thought there was a good chance of me not finishing it.  Then I remembered that the story is based on a Russian fairy tale called Vassilissa the Beautiful.  I googled it and read a brief version of the story and that helped change my enjoyment of the story.  I really did a 180 with it.  Suddenly a story of a 16 year old girl who goes to a store in urban Brooklyn that stands on dancing chicken legs and owned by a blood thirsty witch who is hell bent on beheading her customers with the help of a set of walking hands that used to belong to a beheaded customer didn’t seem like I was reading a book that made me feel like I had just eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms.  When it is approached as a fairy tale with a heroine who is captured by a wicked witch and needs to break a spell in order to escape, it becomes much more fun and enjoyable to read.  And, oh yes, throw in a living wooden doll and a mysterious cursed motorcycle rider who has part of the night trapped in his visor and is tasked with making sure Vassa doesn’t escape.

I truly liked Vassa.  She is spunky, tough, funny, loyal and still grieving the loss of her mother.  Her wooden doll Erg, who is small enough to fit in Vassa’s pocket, is a deathbed gift from her mother.  Erg is enchanted and alludes to the fact that Vassas’ mother, Zinaida, was a witch.  Erg loves to eat, steal things, and is loyal to Vassa.  I found this story line of Vassa’s and Erg’s relationship to be very quirky and interesting.  The way it concludes is emotional.

Babs Yagg, the witchy store owner is truly scary and the perfect villain for this story.  Instead of the witch in the woods of traditional fairytales, we get Babs.  What I would have liked to read more of is her backstory and connection to Vassa’s mother.  There are several chapters called Interludes that tell the back story of events that help the reader to understand why things are happening  in the present day.  I would have liked to see more of the mother’s story fleshed out and explained.  I think this would have added more to the likability of the book and make it seem less weird.

Overall, I liked the story once I approached it as a traditional fairy tale and not the Disneyfied kind.  I love the Disney versions of fairy tales but it is easy to forget that the original versions of those stories had moments that were quite violent and scary.  This is the kind of fairy tale you get with Vassa in the Night.


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