Thumbs up for Babayaga: A Novel of Witches in Paris by Toby Barlow. Fantasy.
I loved, loved, loved this book. It is possible, to be fair, that you will hate it. It is hateable, for many of the reasons that made me love it, as well as for some flaws that are just, well, flaws, which I was able to overlook because the rest of it was making me so happy. There is no way I can describe what it is about, except that it is definitely not about Baba Yaga; there are witches here—my favorite kind of witches: the kind who survive—and they are indeed Russian, but if you expect Baba Yaga you are going to be disappointed. So ignore the main title and focus on the subtitle instead. We are in Paris in the 1970’s, vividly, on the side (mostly kinda) of the younger of the two agelesss witches, and a good-hearted if rather bland (sorry, there’s the main flaw) American ad-man who has inadvertently stumbled into a spy ring, and a detective who has been turned into a flea by the other, even less-nice witch. It’s not the story, it’s how it’s told: it’s juicy and melodic and even the poems (poems!) are mesmerizing. Man’s got a way with words, that’s what I’m saying.
For the rest of their journey, Zoya could sense the three lost women following their trail, one bloodied and blind, one soaked, spitting fishscales, and one invisible, a ghost in a ghost. She could feel them at her heels, haunting and hovering over as she and Elga pressed on, bearing down side roads, hiding from passing armies, and digging out forgotten root crops and semispoiled cabbages from the hard soil. Finally, in the warrens and maze of old Krakow, she and the old woman slipped free from the noose of their past, finding a rich bounty in the classical warming comfort of wealthy men’s laps and thick bankbooks. Pianos gaily played while she laughed and giggled, bouncing down into the deep plush divans and soft velvet lounge chairs, eating goose pate, mushroom pierogi, and hot naleśniki topped with Finnish cloudberries while sipping bottomless crystal glasses of sparkling Perlwein and foamy steins of cold winter ale. The world was new once more. She remembered Elga laughing too, peering out from behind curtains and fogging service windows, staying back in the shadows of the kitchens and coatrooms while chuckling and clapping with relief as Zoya’s snares caught their prey, watching her kiss, swoon, and giggle for the magistrates’ fathers, the costermongers’ sons, and every furrier’s drunk uncle. Drowned out by the musical, mirthful tambourine jingle and bass drum din, Zoya’s three ghosts finally receded; like water seeping away into the soil, though she sensed they were merely settling below the sediment, always close, constant in their waiting.
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