Books inspired by Eastern European folkore and fairy tales

Inspired by my efforts to learn Polish, I have begun to seek out more fiction inspired by Eastern European culture, particularly its folklore and fairy tales. These mythologies are less often explored in fantasy or magical realism, but many of the books that do draw on Eastern European folklore are very fresh and fascinating.

by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life. Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood. The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia:  her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her. But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.

mermaidThe Mermaid in Chelsea Creek
by Michelle Tea

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is about Sophie, a 13 year old who, whose vision of a mermaid inexplicably residing in her hometown’s polluted creek leads to her discovery of the hidden magic in the world and her role as a long-awaited girl of magical power, predicted in a myth that persists in the immigrant communities of Chelsea. Since most of the main characters are Polish-American, the magical elements come from Polish folklore and legend.

by Catherynne M. Valente

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

greatglassseaThe Great Glass Sea
by Josh Weil

Set in a near future Russia, this is the story of Dima and Yarik, twin brothers grappling with the changes brought to their hometown of Petroplavilsk by the projects of billionaire entrepreneur Bazarov. A mysterious, greedy, and often capricious man, Bazarov has built a series of satellite mirrors (the zerkala) that have plunged Petroplavilsk into perpetual daylight and round the clock productivity. He followed that up with the Oranzheria, a giant greenhouse in which to grow crops, which clearly capitalizes on the zerkala. Yarik and Dima react very differently to these developments, and the diverging choices they make have some very wide-ranging consequences. Throughout this story, Weil weaves a subtle thread of Russian folklore through his exploration of the nature and meaning of the connectedness forged through close familial relationships and shared upbringing, the tension between the needs for work/productivity and leisure, the pros and cons of the old soviet way of life and the new rampant capitalism, communal activity and experience and complete individuality.

The Golem and the Djinni
by Helene Wecker

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a strange man who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian Desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop.  Struggling to make their way in 1899 New York, the Golem and the Jinni try to fit in with their immigrant neighbors while masking their true selves. Meeting by chance, they become unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures, until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful menace will soon bring the Golem and the Jinni together again, threatening their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht

In a Balkan country mending from years of conflict, Natalia, a young doctor, arrives on a mission of mercy at an orphanage by the sea. By the time she and her lifelong friend Zóra begin to inoculate the children there, she feels age-old superstitions and secrets gathering everywhere around her. But Natalia is also confronting a private, hurtful mystery of her own: the inexplicable circumstances surrounding her beloved grandfather’s recent death. Grief struck and searching for clues to her grandfather’s final state of mind, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child.  But the most extraordinary story of all is the one her grandfather never told her, the one Natalia must discover for herself.

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