Will van Wyck is an ordinary advertising man, working in France around 1960. On the side, he provides reports on various companies to a man who works for the CIA. This is about as much excitement as he can safely handle. When he gets involved with the mysterious Zoya, a woman who will hex you as soon as look at you, and with the chatty, Oliver, who drags Will much farther into the world of espionage than he really wanted. Toby Barlow’s imaginative Babayaga begins with separate plot threads narrated by Will, Zoya, and several other characters, slowly pulling them all together in a climactic and heart-wrenching ending.
The first chapters of Babayaga clue readers into the fact that this is no ordinary tale of the Cold War. Within pages, we learn that Zoya is much older than she appears to be and that she is planning to kill her lover in a particularly gruesome way. He’s not a bad man; it’s just that this is the end of one story and time for Zoya to move on. In comparison, Will’s narrative is dull and takes much longer to kick into gear. Will’s trouble with the law begins when Oliver and his associates blackmail him into sharing his company’s research with them. They never say who they’re working for, but Will almost drops dead of shock when one of his reports turns up at the Soviet Embassy.
Some readers may be frustrated with how long it takes for Zoya and Will’s plots to come together. We have to trust that what Barlow wrote into the book will eventually reveal its purpose. So, it’s a bit of a wait while the detective trying to track Zoya is turned into a flea by the witch’s nemesis, an even older sorceress, various affairs are revealed, and Will trails around after Oliver on one unexplained errand after another. Weirdly, this book felt longer than its almost 400 pages.
Perhaps this is because nostalgia is a prominent theme in this book. Many of the characters—except for Will, who is a youngster compared to everyone else in this book—reflect on life during World War II, between the wars, the Russian Revolution, and earlier. Apart from Will, they’ve lost their innocence and their ability to trust others. There is a lot of history packed into this book, wrapped up in a lot of world-weariness.
All that said, I’m glad I stuck with Babayaga. My quick summary doesn’t do justice to how interesting all the characters in this book are. In each chapter, there are flashbacks or clues that explain backstories and motivations. And, given, Zoya and her nemesis’s powers and all the spies running around, this version of Paris felt deliciously dangerous. Plus, there’s the ending where everything comes together. It’s beautiful how all the loose ends get tied up.
I was also fascinated to see what Barlow was up to with gender in this novel. Power flips constantly between the men and women in Babayaga, so that the upper hand keeps changing from one to the other. For most of the book, I had no idea who would win. There are occasional zings in the text as a character of a different gender will have a thought similar to another but with an important reversal. For example, one male character believes that women have cold hands because their biology routes blood to their ovaries and uteruses. Later, a female character thinks that women have cold hands because the blood is need for their brains. Ultimately, the women in this book kick some serious ass and I whole-heartedly approve of books in which women kick patriarchal ass. Even if they are witches who kill people.