A Delightful Tangle of a Tale – A Review of Babayaga by Toby Barlow

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I love reading about history, both in a fictional and non-fictional context. I learned to love the subject when I was in fifth grade, when I was hit with the epiphany that history is nothing more than a story – a long, complicated, and ongoing story, but a story nonetheless. And, as a child who loved to read stories, it made the subject not just bearable to study, but endlessly fascinating.

But, as often happens with those with a reading habit, I gradually developed a preference for a specific stretch of history. I learned that I’m happiest reading about almost anything right up until the end of World War I, but can be accepting of the material up to the end of World War II. After that point, I lose interest in anything that doesn’t have anything to do with my country, unless the period is used as a setting for an interesting fictional narrative, or is the biography for a person or persons I’m interested in. Anything outside of that, and a friend has to actually recommend it to me before I decide to pick the book up.

This is why, under any other, normal circumstance, I wouldn’t have thought to pick up Toby Barlow’s Babayaga, pretty cover aside. For one, the setting just didn’t seem very appealing. Cold War Paris? Really? I like Paris well enough as a setting, but 1959 is a bit (a lot) too late for my tastes. If I’d encountered Barlow’s writing before and actually liked it, I would have been amenable to picking this up in spite of the chosen setting, but I’d never read any of Barlow’s works before.

But it was Hope who passed the book on to me, saying that I should give it a shot. And since this is Hope, and I trust her implicitly on all things book-related (among other things), I decided that it was worth a shot.

And boy, am I glad I gave Babayaga a shot, because it has turned into one of those fine, fine stories that has enjoyable characters and a knotty plot that tangles together in all the best ways.

The first thing I noticed – and enjoyed – about this novel was the writing style. Midway through reading the novel I learned that Toby Barlow is actually a poet, and that his first novel, Sharp Teeth isn’t quite a novel at all, but a long free-verse poem about werewolves. This goes a long way towards explaining the musicality of Barlow’s language, and the way phrases and descriptions take twists and turns in this novel in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are pure, joyous beauty, as in this quote from early in the novel:

He awoke, twisted up in his suit, as the dawn’s first flush was tinting pink, yellow, and orange off the clouds and glinting gold and bronze off the Paris rooftops. He sat up on the bench, rubbing his eyes and glancing around. Only here, he realized, could one wake up like a vagrant and feel so lucky and blessed.

But that language can be turned to the poignant, too, as this quote shows:

In the far corner of the room, the hotel’s pianist was playing the final phrases of a Schubert sonata. Will didn’t know the piece all he knew was that its beauty hurt.

And then there are the moments when the language turns sharp and biting, and the reader can sense the anger simmering underneath as clearly as if the words were being directed right at them, like in this quote, taken from one of the sections titled “Witches Song”:

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.

These brief moments of poetry, by the way, are also one of the reasons why reading this book was so interesting and enjoyable, especially in a novel that essentially reads as historical urban fantasy. The last time I read a novel where the language of prose flirted with the musicality of poetry, it was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, where it served as an indicator for Kvothe’s thoughts and feelings. While there’s always something to be said about direct, straightforward prose, there’s also something lovely about prose with a more poetic bent, and I wish more writers could manage to incorporate it into their work, regardless of what genre they’re writing in.

Of course, pulling that sort of thing off in a novel means being able to balance the tone and pace of one’s writing in the first place, and that can be a little tricky to manage. Barlow, however, manages it very well indeed: he juggles six to seven characters in a complex web of plots without once making the story feel confusing. This is quite the mean feat, but to be able to tie them all together with the sort of language Barlow uses makes for an especially pleasant read. He also keeps the poetic language in its proper place: in quieter, more contemplative moments, and far away from the action scenes.

Tucked in amidst all that lovely writing are the characters. The standout of the lot definitely has to be Detective Vidot, who has such an indefatigable spirit and sense of good humor about himself and the world around him that it’s hard not to like him. Even when he encounters situations that would (and do) destroy a lesser person, he rises to the occasion and tries to make the best of the worst. There’s something very Pink Panther about him at the start, but that changes over the course of the novel – also in a good way, though not necessarily in a happy way.

Apart from Vidot, the only other characters who are truly interesting are the baba yagas in the title, Zoya and Elga. Zoya is the more sympathetic of the two, but she’s made from the same stuff as Elga – it’s just that Elga’s much, much angrier than Zoya. Of the two, I find myself liking Elga a touch more than Zoya, if only because Elga has a lot of fire and brimstone in her belly, and she has no qualms about putting it out there in the world. I like Zoya well enough, but I find Elga’s anger much more enjoyable to read about.

I’ve also read some reviews wherein the reviewers stated that they did not feel comfortable with all the anger and “man-hating” from Zoya and Elga. I roll my eyes at these reviewers, as both Zoya and Elga have reasons for being angry at men. I suppose it is possible to think that Barlow exaggerated that anger to a degree that may come off as unrealistic, but during such moments I think about the histories of not just Zoya and Elga, but of some of the other women in the novel, and I rather think that they are justified in their anger, and in showing that anger however which way they choose to show it. In so many books women are silenced, unable to show their anger, or, if they are portrayed as angry, the reasons behind it are brushed off as unimportant, as being less monstrous than their current deeds. But the reasons behind Zoya and Elga’s anger are just as monstrous as the deeds they commit upon their victims. They are monsters, yes, in their own way, but they were made into monsters by what was done to them in the past – what was done to them by men. And if that anger makes some readers uncomfortable, I think that can only be a good thing.

The other two characters are not nearly as interesting as the ones I’ve mentioned previously. Will van Wyck is interesting if only for the lovely introspective passages the reader gets to enjoy when Barlow writes from his perspective, but otherwise he’s a figure to be pitied, someone who got caught up in the whole mess of the plot because he mistook one thing to mean another. He gets his moment later on in the plot, but he’s not as fascinating as Vidot, or Zoya, or Elga.

Oliver is the least interesting of all, a buffoon who blows a whole lot of hot air and is mostly there to help move the plot along because if he didn’t exist, Will wouldn’t get anything done. There were times when I couldn’t wait for him to just shut up and get a move on – a sentiment shared by more than a few of the other characters in the book itself. I’ll admit that he has his uses, but outside of those uses he’s really not a very fun character at all. Fortunately, Barlow seems to be entirely aware of this, and doesn’t ever use Oliver as a narrator.

As for the story itself, it’s a pretty fun tangle to unknot. Barlow has a very good sense for pacing and revelation, using his characters to move the plot along, instead of the the other way around – though it might be argued that there is just a touch of deus ex machina hovering around at the edges of the plot thanks to the characters I’ve decided to collectively label the “Weird Sisters.” They’re not called that though, in the book, and they’re not given any kind of collective name at all. The plot essentially hinges on circumstance and chance bringing the characters together, and in the hands of some writers, such a plot devolves into an unreadable mess, but Barlow keeps his plots tightly reined and never lets any of them get out of hand for even a single moment. The result is a surprisingly tightly-plotted mystery that can get quite unexpected at times – and as someone who’s read a lot of mysteries, anything unexpected (but still makes sense) is always a pleasure.

Overall, Babayaga is a lovely tangle of a tale, with a nifty little mystery (or mysteries, rather) at the heart for the reader to figure out, helped along by exquisite language and a handful of fascinating characters. Never once does Barlow allow the text to devolve into a mess, and each character is handled relatively well, given their own voices and their own reasons. It’s not the most fast-paced of reads, but there is a great deal that’s pleasurable about the slow boil of the novel’s action. For the reader looking for a straightforward, action-packed mystery or urban fantasy read, then this is likely the wrong book. But for the reader who doesn’t mind something a little slower, a little more contemplative, but still quite sharp and entertaining, then they can hardly go wrong with this one.

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