The Secret History of Moscow, by Ekaterina Sedia, is just the sort of book that I love. It’s got folklore. It’s got an original plot. And, it’s set in Russia. The story centers on two main characters: Galina, who is trying to find her disappeared sister, and Fyodor, a street artist with a terrible fear of gypsies. Galina’s story starts first when she suspects that her sister has turned into a jackdaw. (Stay with me. I told you about the folklore, didn’t I?) Fyodor’s begins when he discovers a way into underground Moscow and shows Galina and her cop ally in to try and locate the erstwhile sister.
That’s when the story gets really interesting.
It seems that for centuries, bits of Russia’s history have been hiding out underneath Moscow. Old gods, refugees from the NKVD and its incarnations, characters out of folklore, soldiers who fought against Napoleon’s troops in 1812, and even a former member of the Golden Horde. They’re all there, mingling and reminiscing and living. It’s a fascinating setting. Unlike a lot of books where I’m left wanting more detail, Sedia gives the minor characters a chance to tell their stories. So you get to learn how a Tatar gains refuge among Russians and a Decembrist’s wife makes friends with rusalki. Fortunately, the plot lives up to the premise.
Galina & Co. travel across the underground seeking answers. It turns out that two malevolent mischief makers (One-Eyed Likho and Zlyden*) have been giving magic to thugs on the surface to cause trouble. The ending is a little chaotic, because the surface world and the underground start to overlap each other in a forest called Kolomenskoye. It gets hard to keep track of where people are and who is rescuing who.
The ending of the book is nothing short of magical. Even though most of the book is a remixing of Russian folklore, the end gets back to those roots. It comes down to magic and poetic sacrifice and it was a perfect ending to this fractured fairytale.
*Zlyden is not listed in Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Mythica. I Googled him, but I didn’t want to wade through links to people’s MySpace pages to get to actual stories about the little gnome.