Gamayun Tales II – an Anthology of Modern Russian Folk Tales by Alexander Utkin
I had the pleasure of reviewing the first volume of Gamayun Tales, Alexander Utkin’s retelling of great tales from Russian folklore. That book whisked me back to a childhood visit to the library where I read a horrifying ‘children’s book’ that told the tale of Baba Yaga, the witch who lived in a house with chicken legs. I have never quite got the image of children locked in bird cages suspended from the roof out of my head to this day.
So it was with trepidation that I delved into this second volume where we meet the aforementioned witch, the great Baba-Yaga herself. She is a tough character, tough but fair? Maybe. But definitely tough. Like the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, these are no-nonsense morality tales. Make the wrong call and something unpleasant is going to happen to you.
Quite often, even if you make the right call something unpleasant is going to happen to you. If you are lucky it will all turn out right in the end, but expect an unpleasant ride in the meantime. There is a thread of horror that runs through the book and even if you are reduced to a skull on a stick, your story might not be completely over.
As with the first volume there are tales which are both strange, but familiar. Our host the siren-like Gamayun bird, introduces us to a young girl and her step-mother, along with her unpleasant sisters. There is no prince looking to take her to the ball however and seeking aid from Baba Yaga is a different prospect to a fairy godmother.
We learn more too about the golden apples and they play just as pivotal a role in this volume as they did in the first. Temptation, sin, power, healing, immortality…whatever you want the apples seem to offer it but peril lies within your own soul. The apples are a kind of cosmic character test and our sins will find us out.
Alexander Utkin’s illustration style is warm and enchanting. Feisty heroines, mysterious crones and otherworldly goddesses come to life with individuality. The softly penciled characters and bold colours conjure up classic children’s literature (which this certainly is) but the often dark themes are reflected in the blank faces of the wooden warriors and the uncanny colour palette. Eldritch flames are conjured up in yellow and glowing green. Dark rooms are illuminated by firelight.
Like its predecessor, this volume is beautifully produced by NoBrow. I sincerely hope that it finds its way into libraries the world over to haunt the imaginations of new generations of readers.