Firebirds and talking wolves

DSCN0095 DSCN0093When Trinity’s heroine, Helen Clement, first arrives in Russia, she’s put in mind of a book she once owned as a child, sent to her by her mother’s Russian-American friend, Professor Bayeva. It’s a beautiful illustrated version of the most famous of all Russian fairy tales, The Tale of Tsarevitch(Prince) Ivan, the Firebird, and Grey Wolf. The story’s an amazing, thrilling blend of adventure, magic, quest and romance, with a good dose of danger and betrayal thrown in, and features vivid characters: not only Ivan, his beautiful beloved Yelena, and his wicked older brothers, but especially the mysterious Firebird and the shape-shifting Grey Wolf who is Ivan’s helper, protector and saviour. Teamed with beautiful illustrations by the great classic Russian artist Ivan Bilibin, it’s a story to stick in the memory of any child.

As it certainly stuck in mine. That classic fairy tale was an important part of my own childhood reading, in its incarnation as a Soviet-era picture book that preserved the great beauty of the illustrations and the straightforward nature of the original 19th century retelling. That edition was one of a series of English-language books of fairy tales, published in Moscow, that introduced to Western children not only wonderful stories like that one, and others such as Fenist the Falcon, Vassilissa the Beautiful, and The Frog Princess, but also the gorgeous illustrations of Ivan Bilibin. And those books have stuck in my imagination ever since, with their rich strands working their way into my writing as an adult, in books such as The Firebird, Scarlet in the Snow, and now the Trinity series.

 

 

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Trinity inspirations: Old magic and new psychics

Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin(1876-1942)

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Street fortune-teller, Moscow

One of the strongest inspirations for me in the creation of the world of Trinity is a fact I mentioned in my previous post:  that not only does Russia have a long history of traditional magic, but that history continues to this day, with new strands added to it in more recent times. In the long centuries before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, pretty much every village had its resident koldun, sorcerer or wizard, and/or zhanarka, which literally means ‘one who knows’ but could be thought of as a witch. Magic in Russia has always been practised by both sexes, often in different ways–for instance, kolduns were thought to have the power of shapeshifting, while zhanarkas were more skilled in healing. These are not hard and fast rules–and female sorcerers and male healers certainly existed: but in an interesting contrast to the West, the female practitioners generally had a better reputation than the male–kolduns were often accused of unholy practices, and were thought to be damned. This feeling against kolduns and their malefic power was behind some of the popular revulsion against Rasputin, for instance. In contrast, even when they were feared, female witches were often thought to have a good aspect, with even Baba Yaga, the fearsome legendary witch of Russian folklore being seen as a protective figure in some instances–when she took a liking to you, that is! Her opposite number, the legendary wizard Koschei the Deathless, by way of contrast, had no redeeming features!

Some traditional practitioners of magic, male and female,  also specialized in such things as divination, fortune-telling and the like, while in Siberia traditional shamans had a strong following. All classes of society frequented these various kinds of traditional occult practitioners, and from the late 19th century onwards, as well, there began to be interest in ‘Eastern’ philosophies and systems of magic coming from places such as India and China.

However, unlike in the West, for many centuries there was little really organized persecution of witches, whether male or female, though that did not mean individuals didn’t sometimes suffer. Part of the reason for the absence of witch-hunts is that belief in magic was so widespread that ordinary people knew and used a few spells themselves. And the Orthodox Church has always had an uneasy relationship to magic, with some clergy dead against it and many others much more ambiguous, with respect for ‘white’ or sympathetic magic still very common amongst believers, and ‘black’ or malefic magic much feared still. On occasion however the country’s rulers have tried to limit or punish the practice of magic. Continue reading

Trinity’s Russian setting 1: Uglich and the Volga

the beautiful domes of St Dimitri

I’m excitedly awaiting the release on November 13 of my new adult novel, and first book in the Trinity series. Trinity: Book 1, Koldun Code, (published by Momentum) is a gripping, distinctive novel that’s part pulse-pounding conspiracy thriller, part erotically-charged romance, and part supernatural mystery, set in modern Russia. And in this brand-new blog, I want to explore some of the background and inspirations for the book.

Trinity grew out of a very long fascination of mine with Russia and its extraordinary culture. I’ve loved it since I was eleven years old and read and re-read Jules Verne’s thrilling, atmospheric Russian-set adventure story, Michel Strogoff. Progressing rapidly as a teenager from that to the Russian greats—Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, Bulgakov, amongst others—with side excursions into the richness of Russian fairytale and folklore, and influenced moreover by my French father’s longtime interest in both Russian icons and Russian music( a good deal of my childhood is set to the soundtrack of the Red Army Choir) I had conceived an idea of an extraordinary country and a culture that went far beyond the alternately dull and scary Cold War headlines we saw in the newspapers every day. Brought up in an anti-Communist family (despite Dad’s love of the Red Army Choir!), I was nevertheless deeply attracted by Russia and her extraordinary cultural and historical paradoxes: grandeur and intimacy, magic and brutal realism, wild romance and complex intellectualism, beauty and terror, warmth and ruthlessness, tenderness and black humour. I loved it both because it was headily unfamiliar, and yet deeply familiar in ways I could hardly articulate, but that struck echoes deep within my being.
But though I dreamed of going to Russia, the Iron Curtain made it seem just that, a dream. As a young person, the idea of going on strictly-supervised tours extolling Soviet ‘achievements’ did not appeal to me in the slightest, and even when the Soviet regime began first to relax its grip, and then in short order to fall to pieces and disappear, the hurly-burly of personal and professional life made the dreamed-of trip seem even less of a reality. The ‘horror stories’ of the 90’s, with the threat of gangs and casual violence as well as discomfort and incompetence, didn’t help either. So for a long time, I just kept thinking about it, watching Russian films, and films about Russia.I wrote a fantasy novel, The Firebird, based on the classic Russian fairytale, and introduced Russian characters into other novels. And I kept reading,(and still do!) discovering in the process wildly diverse modern Russian writers such as Andrei Makine(beautiful meditative novels about the Soviet past), Alexandra Marinina(ex-cop turned writer’s tough crime novels)Sergei Lukyanenko(gripping urban fantasy sagas) Zakhar Prilepin(gritty political fiction) and others. And then, in 2010, finally, I made my first visit to Russia. Continue reading