Review of BABAYAGA by TOBY BARLOW
(review based on an advance reading copy)
This book is a little tricky for me to review. While I had a rather lukewarm reaction, I strongly felt that’s due to taste and not a reflection of the book’s quality.
In taking notes on my impressions as I read, I nearly wrote that the story moves slowly. Then I read that observation again and thought, “What am I saying?” Some kind of witch murders her lover, a different witch turns the police officer investigating the crime into a flea, and there’s Cold War espionage weaving through the fantasy plot threads…and that’s all in the beginning. No, this book isn’t slow in the least. So what made all those unusual twists and turns feel slow for me? I suspect the characters. It took me well over halfway into the novel to really start investing in the cast. Readers have different priorities in what they want in a book, but characters I care about rates highest for me. I can read an unoriginal sounding story if the main character feels vibrantly real. In BABAYAGA, the little girl who enters the story much later felt the most real for me. Zoya and Will grew on me as the story progressed and I invested here and there with the flea inspector, but everyone else never really caught my interest and I’m one of those readers who doesn’t care if the most interesting thing in the universe is happening unless it’s happening to someone I find interesting.
The writing’s strong, but another element that fell a little off center from my usual tastes. I recently reviewed A QUESTION OF MAGIC by E.D. Baker that also deals with Baba Yaga lore, but these two books couldn’t be more different. While the middle reader fantasy A QUESTION OF MAGIC spins a sweet, moralistic tale Toby Barlow’s BABAYAGA is gritty and gruesome. My violence tolerance can be difficult to measure as sometimes I can handle large quantities of gore in specific contexts (THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black and Anne Bishop’s entire BLACK JEWELS series, for example), but then balk at milder violence in another novel. I found BABAYAGA too blood spattered and frankly icky for my tastes but can see those same factors will appeal to other readers, especially those who resent sugar-coating their fairy tales.