It seems that I have accidentally read M.L. Farb’s Hearth and Bard Tales novels from back to front – and so we arrive at the third reviewed, and the first in the series, and what a glorious first it is. Intrinsically different from its sister-tales, but filled with the same wonder and beauty, Vasilisa follows (fittingly) a girl named Vasilisa in Ruska, or Russia of old. Born in the forest and raised as a serf, Vasilisa lives her life as an outcast because of her supernatural strength and the secret of her father’s heritage, a secret assiduously kept by her mother. Vasilisa’s only friend is Staver, the son of her master, and her only wish is to return to the serenity of the forest from whence she came.
As with all her other Hearth and Bard Tales, Farb weaves multiple threads from old fairytale and myth to create the fabric of this novel. Likewise, as with the others, there is care and craft shown on every page. Vasilisa was not Farb’s first novel, but it is her first in this series, and even here, her skill in turning old threads into new tapestries shows. Where less practiced novelists might still be working out the kinks in their new series, the style of the Hearth and Bard Tales is already set and strong in Vasilisa.
As different from Fourth Sister and Heartless Hette as they are from each other, Vasilisa’s Ruska is a landscape all its own, full of forest groves, brutal winters, and wide plains. The balalaikas sing sweetly, the otters play freely, and the Tsar is (refreshingly, given the reality of Russian history) not so bad a guy. It is a fairytale version of a world, but certainly not without risk – bears and ogres lurk in the forest, a cruel mistress waits in the manor house, and far worse threatens beyond Ruska’s borders. This is a story about courage, and tests, and acceptance, even when revelations from the past threaten long-held convictions. It takes more than brute strength to win these battles, and more than pure wit to outsmart these enemies. Lucky then that we have a courageous heroine, as determined and strong as she is tricksy, to walk us through this first, spectacular entry into Farb’s Hearth and Bard Tales.