A Problem with the Brew: Babayaga Fails to Meet Expectations

Harsh right? But I’m serious. I first heard of this story from a link which claimed (as so many links claim these days) to have the 12 best fantasy books of the year. Click. Read, read, read. Babayaga? Here’s the pitch:

Why it made the list: A quarter part existentialist drama, a quarter part humor novel, another quarter of cold war politics and finish with a final quarter part witches. Mix until well blended and have your mind completely blown.

Read if you like: Kafka, sad Russian novels, Hercule Poirot.

And then this shot of the cover which gets the cauldron boiling:

Awesome right?

Awesome right?

Want! Need now! Or in 12 days for it to come to my library! I gotta have it. So I order it. It finally arrives and I begin tearing through it. Ok, podding is really a better word for how I got through. I just couldn’t get any momentum. There is a character (Vidot) who is turned into a flee. He has to progress through the streets of Paris by catching rides on the bellies of dogs, rats, whatever else, and because of this he rarely gets to where he is going and must simply let things happen and see where he is at the end of it.

I felt much like Vidot. The many (well written) scenes would play out and at the end of each I would think “Well where am I now? And how do I get home?” although to be more accurate I suppose it felt more like “What did I just read and how does it have anything to do with what I read before it?” Ok, if I really want to hit this on the head, I suppose it felt like “What the hell is going on?”.

I think I felt this way for two reasons. The first is admittedly my own fault, while the second should probably be blamed upon the author.

Reason 1)

I had some time to stew about aforementioned pitch and in those 12 days I boiled it down into (what I believed) where it’s most basic elements. I had read ‘Witches’ and thought: “I love witches. I watch American Horror Story almost every week. It’s been a long time since I read a really cool witch story though.” And I read ‘cold war politics’ and immediately though “Russians! Spies? Spies! Witches & Spies! This will be great!” Totally ignored the ‘kafka’ part (I’ve never read kafka) and the ‘sad Russian novel’ part (although usually I’m down for a sad Russian doorstop as no Russian novels are short). So with dances of Russian Spy Witches in my head, I humbly waited for my adventure to arrive (still kicking myself for not seeing the flee thing coming. After all, they said Kafka)

Reason 2)

This one is all on Toby (Toby Barlow the author). I felt like the author tried to do too much. There were a lot of elements here. If we wanted to name genre we could go with detective fiction, espionage thriller, romance, and witches (paranormal? That word has a bad connotation these days so I don’t want to commit to it). It takes place in the 50’s and the protagonist, which I’d argue is Will Van Wck, works for an Ad agency. There’s a good deal of sex and smoking cigarettes so it feels like there is a hint of Mad Men here as well.



Our detective, Vidot, was clearly supposed to register on some level with other great detectives such as the aforementioned Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes (I believe Holmes was even mentioned a few times in the writing) and there were plenty of ‘Dupin St.’ type references to keep that fresh in your mind. However, if Vidot imagined himself to be a Holmes he read much more like a Watson. Passive, impotent, and really just a telescope through which the reader is able to see the events of the story (although he does O.D. on blood once so I guess he’s got the addiction thing going. Seems like a Holmes move to me. Also he’s a flee so . . .) If any of the characters are to receive the nomination for the position of Sherlock Holmes, Oliver is your man. He’s foreign (American in Paris), well connected, sophisticated, and in my opinion is the only one who actually does any investigating. However, his Watson (Will Van Wck) notes how despite all his investigations, he seems to be led further and further from any answers.

Then there’s the Witches, which (didn’t even mean to make that pun) I wasn’t particularly impressed with either. They’re vindictive and catty. I know witches have their roots in being social outcasts. Scapegoats for anything (and everything) that couldn’t be explained by religious doctrine or folk wisdom. But, I had figured we were beyond that. I guess not.

Anyway, Baba Yaga didn’t meet my expectation, but I suppose I can’t be head-over-heals in love with everything I read. I will admit that Toby Barlow writes well and in a style that I can only describe as . . . ‘Literary’. I think I just wasn’t buying what he was selling. If you have comments please leave them below.

One thought on “A Problem with the Brew: Babayaga Fails to Meet Expectations

  1. Pingback: Witches Aint Sh@*t - Amazing Stories

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