Folklore is ingrained in cultures around the world and is one of the most common inspirations for fantasy fiction around. For as long humans have been curious and looking for explanations, folklore has been there to fill in the gaps. Human minds created thousands of fantastical creatures and unique worlds, separate from our own in an effort to explain the workings of the world. A family with an unruly child might be nurturing a changeling, while the striking of lightning might signal the fury of a grand spirit. When items went missing in a house, there were stolen by gremlins or other creatures. These beliefs used to be common knowledge, known to be true around the world. But there comes a certain point in every culture when people stop believing, when the explanations for phenomena are found to be mundane. The belief may be gone, but the influence of these stories lingers.
Fantasy is a versatile genre. There is classic fantasy, high fantasy, grimdark fantasy, science fantasy, urban fantasy, industrial fantasy, and more. Any other genre can be combined with fantasy in ways that improve both genres. The Lord of the Rings is thought of the epitome of classic fantasy, but even that combined a gritty war drama, politics, environmentalism, and linguistics into its story. The Dresden Files is the quintessential urban fantasy, taking elements of modern-day noir and crime drama alongside its elements of high fantasy. Then there is industrial fantasy, the combination that often seems the most contradictory. When we think of elves and gnomes, it is not the natural inclination to imagine their industrial age. Yet imagining an industrialized fairy tale is exactly what Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother accomplishes.
Vasilia Petrovna has been branded a witch. Since she was a child, she could see and speak with the chyerti, spirits from Eastern European, whom the people around Vasya seems to have forgotten. Vasilia is forced to leave home after defending her village from Medved, the bear, the spirit of chaos and life, in Katherine Arden’s first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. In her second novel, The Girl in the Tower, Vasilia travels to Moscow in the guise of a boy and a hero to the Russian people after assisting the Grand Prince destroy a group of bandits. Vasilia helped save the city, but not before her arrogance and lack of caution exposed her disguise to disguise. While the city is safe, the danger Vasilia is greater than ever at the start of The Winter of the Witch.
Vasilia Petrovna is a witch. She sees spirits where others see only shadows. She talks to her horse, and understands his responses. She has met Morozko, the Winter king and spirit of death, and Medved, the Bear and the Eater. She remembers the old ways, the chyerti, even as the Russia around her steadily embraces Christianity. She is wild and free while other women are trapped in marriage or convents. Vasya is the heroine of Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy and one of several girls in towers in The Girl in the Tower, part two of Arden’s fairy tale inspired trilogy. At the end of the first novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya saved her village and helped seal away Medved, the Bear. Because of both her abilities and personality, Vasya has been forced from home and branded a witch.
European folklore has always been a major inspiration for modern fantasy, but there is something special about the folklore from Eastern Europe and Russia. Cold winters and dark forests have proved to be a fertile breeding ground for all manner of fireside tales. Baba Yaga roams the woods, flying on her pestle or controlling her house walking on chicken legs. Chernobog haunts both nightmares and Disney movies, making an unforgettable appearance in Fantasia. The land can be cold and inhospitable, but this same land brought us the domovoi, guardian of the hearth, and the vazilda, guardian of horses. The land can be cold, but the one who inhabit it can be very warm.
The fairy tale is one of those story types which never goes out of fashion, with authors always reinventing the tales for the newer generations. In Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik takes on the classic tale of Rumpelstiltskin. Everyone knows the name, if not the spelling or the story beats. A father boasts about his daughter’s ability to spin straw into gold. A local king who takes the daughter and tasks her with the impossible feat of transforming three storerooms into gold. The imp who arrives with magical powers in exchange for gifts and favors. In most versions, the imp forces the girl to promise her first-born child for the final task. The girl, however, is clever, and arranges a new deal. If she can guess his name in three days, he will relinquish all claim to her and her blood. The girl, through stealth and wit, discovers his name, Rumpelstiltskin, and frees herself from his grasp. While Rumpelstiltskin and straw never appear in Spinning Silver, the beats are familiar enough to echo the original tale.