Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Sibelan Forrester – This volume collects a number of stories involving the infamous Russian witch, as well as some analysis of her character. It’s a bit confusing, as a Baba Yaga can be either an individual or a type, and many of these tales involve three Baba Yagas who are sisters. Three is, after all, a natural number for witches. They’re sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful, with the general theme being that they respect anyone who can outsmart them. A Baba Yaga often has children, sometimes including notably attractive daughters, but there’s never any indication of a man being involved. As such, it could be seen as an example of parthenogenesis. Other frequent elements in the stories are the witch’s mortar and pestle for riding and her house on chicken feet, which somehow everyone seems to automatically know how to enter even though it’s capable of turning around. I don’t think any of the traditional tales have the hut actually walk around, although some more recent uses of the character do. Baba Yaga also seems to have a particular annoyance toward Russians, often noting upon her introduction that she smells the stink of the Russian spirit. She frequently keeps animals as well; and in the tale of Vasilisa the Fair, she’s attended by three horsemen representing different times of day. The stories are accompanied by many illustrations spanning the course of centuries. I kind of think of Ivan Bilibin’s version as the definitive one, but a lot of other artists have done excellent renditions of her as well.
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway – I learned about this book from a thread on the Tor website. While I didn’t find it as reminiscent of Douglas Adams as the person recommending it suggested, it was still an enjoyable read. It’s a novel about a post-apocalyptic world and the events leading up to it, with some fantasy, philosophy, and martial arts action mixed in. The narrator is the rather more cautious and thoughtful best friend of heroic man of action Gonzo Lubitsch, who is hired by a powerful company to fix a pipe that distributes chemicals to make living areas safe. Our protagonist describes his childhood with Gonzo and their experiences in the Go-Away War, often going off on tangents. This world is also home to people who were mutated based on their imaginations, due to the peculiar effects of the Go-Away Bombs used in the apocalyptic war. Partway through, there’s a revelation about the main character that’s somewhat reminiscent of Fight Club, only sort of in reverse. I don’t want to give too much away, but it makes the reader look back at much of what had come before in a different light.
The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells – I forget where I saw it, but I recently came across a comment on War of the Worlds asking how a book about an alien invasion could be so boring. I didn’t find it boring per se, but it was very matter-of-fact, more of a newspaper report than an adventure story. I think that’s just Wells’s general style, and it definitely persists in this tale about a mad scientist who performs genetic experiments to combine humans and animals. He actually does this through vivisection, and Wells indicates that there’s no reason to assume this wouldn’t work, although science has since moved on and informed us otherwise. The narrator, Edward Prendick, is shipwrecked on his island, witnesses the combined creatures turn against their creator, and eventually escapes. There’s a bit of a play on religion in that Moreau hands down rules to separate his creations from the animals combined with praise for him, although the creatures eventually revert to their bestial natures.