Sometimes you begin to hear about books in the weeks leading up to their release. Others creep up on you and appear last minute. Then there are those which have been making noises for months and months. It was back in October that I first heard murmurs about Sophie Anderson’s debut The House With Chicken Legs. By Christmas, people lucky enough to receive advance copies were raving about it. Now, as the book is released, it seems like everyone is talking about this book. So is the hype worth it?
“an innovative retelling of the Baba Yaga tradition”
The book is an innovative retelling of the Baba Yaga tradition from Slavic folklore. It follows the story who Marinka. Every night she watches each night as her grandmother Baba guides the dead through the gate and onto the next stage of their journey. Every few days, their house will rise on its chicken legs before moving so that the living don’t find Baba. The problem is that Marinka just wants a normal life. She wants to meet the living, wants a friend and wants to escape her inevitable destiny.
I’m a big fan of folklore. They are tales which have stood the test of time, yet I’m always a little apprehensive when new versions come along. I must admit I had the same feelings when The House With Chicken Legs arrived on the doorstep. I worried that the this rich story of life and death would be diminished in favour of something modern.
“no holding back from Sophie Anderson as she skillfully crafts her world”
After a few chapters, my apprehensions eased. The first thing that struck me is the way you are pulled into Marinka’s world. There’s no holding back from Sophie Anderson as she skillfully crafts her world. Before long, I had vivid pictures in my mind of a faraway, almost Gothic landscape. It captures the mood of the book exquisitely, even down to the point of reflecting Marinka’s inner turmoil in the landscape. It takes a special book to blur those lines between setting and character so starkly.
Little time is wasted paying heed to the original tale of Baba Yaga. Within pages, Baba is guiding the dead. I’m glad to see the discussion about the importance of the Yaga is continued throughout the book. We hear that without the Yaga to guide them, the dead will fade away forever. This constant undertone brings spiritual contemplation for those mature readers. Is there someone or something that ensures we won’t fade away? I’ve always believe a great book should force the reader to contemplate the big questions. The House With Chicken Legs does this in bucketfuls.
And of course, the characters are brimming with personality. As mentioned, Baba Yaga herself stays true to her traditional character. The whole array of supporting cast, both living and dead, each bring their own little flourishes to the story. However, two characters jump out and vie for the reader’s attention. Firstly, the house itself becomes a living character. Not only does it move, but it feels and reacts to those around it. As the book progresses, the house’s relationship with Marinka becomes central to the whole narrative. Rarely have I seen a normally inanimate object transform into such a wonderful character.
This leaves Marinka herself. As the book is told from her perspective. This is becoming a very popular technique in children’s literature at the moment. In fact, most books I’ve read this year are written in the first person. The advantages are that it is easier for the reader to empathise with the character as their thoughts becomes more accessible. What impressed me about Marinka was her development as a character. She has all the passion and flaws of 12-year-old. Her emotions are raw, erratic almost and full of angst, but with a soft underbelly and a desire to be listened to. Her journey as a character and development in highly impressive.
“The House With Chicken Legs is a special book”
As you can tell, I adored this book. Everything I heard in the build up to release was right: this is a special book. It does the original folk tale justice and re-energizes it for a new generation. At the same time, we are drawn into a superbly crafted world filled with unique characters. I absolutely loved it and I hope that Baba Yaga herself would agree with me.
Don’t forget to check out Sophie Anderson’s guest blog.