[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley.]
I was invited to read this book by the publisher, and gladly accepted, since it looked like something I would like.
And liked it I did, at least for most of its parts. It took me a little while to get used to the writing style, however once I did I found it worked fairly well, telling the story in the manner of a fairy tale. The descriptions made it easy to picture the house Vasya lives in, the horses, the nearby forest, and the deep cold in winter.
I liked Vasya in general, and how her "opponents" were not only out of tales and folklore, but also what society expects of her (either marrying or going to a convent). This was easy to see with the way she was described, often likened to a "filly" when the point of view was a man's, like an animal just waiting to be tamed. I felt that at times, this description extended to other POVs, which weakened it, but in general, it worked (yes, it created a feeling of unease and frustration... which was exactly the point, I suppose!). Fortunately, Vasya had no intention of being "tamed", and revealed herself as a brave soul who wanted nothing more than to protect her family, even knowing that people would call her a witch. And it didn't matter to her: she still wanted to do the right thing, without wasting time on justifying her actions.
The magic here is more on the subtle side: no spells, but folklore, people leaving food for the spirits of their home, Vasya being able to talk with horses, horses teaching her how to ride them, and "witches" being generally characterised by their ability to see the spirits. The latter were on the side of nature rather than morality's, which was a pleasant thing: contrary to the priest's and Anna's beliefs, this was never about "demons", about Good vs. Bad, but about two different sides of nature, the cold/death/order pitched against the scorching heat and violence of an unbound summer. Even if the Bear was touted as the enemy, he was nevertheless part of the cycle: not to be destroyed, simply to be forced to rest in order not to burn too bright and destroy what he touched instead of warming it.
To be honest, I regret a little that the story didn't truly turn to magic/tale before later. There was much of "Vasya growing up, politics in Moscow", etc., which in a bona fide fairy tale would've been an introduction, soon to leave room to the actual tale. Granted, it did help in setting the mood and the family relationships, but I suppose I was expecting more of the magical/enchanted side, in larger doses? In spite of the presence of chyerty, some chapters felt a tad bit too down to earth, in a way. I think this also contributes to making it a slow story: I admit I wondered, towards the end, if there'd be room for the announced battle against the Bear, because I was reaching the 85% mark and I still wasn't seeing it.
Conclusion: 3.5 stars.