Once upon a time, there was a girl named Vasilissa, called the Beautiful. Her departed mother left her a memento – a doll – which she could ask three questions of at the full moon and it would answer truthfully. One night, Vasilissa’s stepmother, who hated her, sent Vasilissa to the witch Baba Yaga to ask for light. Baba Yaga agreed to this request, if Vasilissa would perform three chores and face death if she failed. Through the advice of her doll, Vasilissa succeeds at the tasks and takes home a flaming skull that burns her stepmother to cinders. Vasilissa returns to Baba Yaga, begs to learn magic, and eventually Vasilissa becomes a witch herself.
Lissa Nevsky, named after Vasilissa, also inherits a doll after the sudden passing of her grandmother. Like Vasilissa, Lissa is a witch, as was her grandmother, and she can summon her grandmother’s spirit to inhabit the doll at each full moon and ask three questions. The first time Lissa uses the doll she is still processing her grandmother’s death, searching for connection and for closure. She asks about any unfinished business, and learns of Maksim Volkov, who soon comes knocking on Lissa’s door. Maksim carries violence in his soul like a disease. It gives him power and long life, but also madness. Only the magic of Lissa’s grandmother allowed him to keep his nature leashed and upon her death the spell broke.
Now, Lissa must decide how much she is willing to sacrifice to help Maksim, even as she grieves and tries to find stability in this new life. Maksim, meanwhile, searches for a young man he accidentally infected with his curse when the grandmother’s spell first failed while desperately trying to keep himself from creating a new tragedy.
Spells of Blood and Kin by Claire Humphrey is a charming book. Charming might be an odd word to apply to dark fantasy, but it is charming. There is a lot of warmth, love, personal connection, and happiness within the pages. There is also violence – a lot of violence. However, it is not gory or even described in intimate detail. Usually the violence is seen in the aftermath, in the bloody lip or black eye. It becomes more relatable for this reason: the violence, for all of its connection to the supernatural and magic, speaks more to the brutality that exists at the center of some people – the need to break and the need to hurt. The humanity of the characters makes Spells of Blood and Kin a beautiful exploration of pain, anger, and addiction. It is a tale steeped in the cruelty of old fairytales, but connected to all of the emotion of the present.
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