Anya Miroslavovna, the heroine of Sofiya Pasternack’s debut novel, Anya and the Dragon, is back — and so is her dragon. This time, Anya undertakes a quest to bring back her father, the victim of unjust conscription into the tsar’s army. Along with Ivan Ivanov — the wise fool — Anya and her shape-shifting dragon ally, and set out on a dangerous mission enhanced by both magic and history. In this captivating fantasy novel about a brave girl undeterred by danger, the issues of friendship, cultural fusion, and Jewish identity are as central to the story as is the physical adventure.
Pasternack builds her story around the early Russian kingdom of Kievan Rus’, where Jewish communities existed from the tenth century on. Anya’s small town of Zmeyreka has only “a grand total of four Jews in it — three, with Papa gone…,” but she and her family have managed to create a rich if circumscribed Jewish life, while maintaining close ties to the village’s Christian residents. As the novel opens, Anya is building a somewhat primitive sukkah, but one which will conform to the minimal requirements of Jewish law. This commitment to expressing her Judaism is both a constant in the plot and a metaphor for the challenges of living as a minority under the tsar’s rule. Fortunately, Anya has a loving mother, indomitable grandparents, and non-Jewish companions who respect her family’s difference and enjoy her mother’s expertise in preparing effective potions for treating everything from teething to anxiety.
The magic in Anya and the Nightingale is rooted in Jewish and Russian folklore. Readers will learn how an ibbur takes possession of a person’s spirit in a beneficial way, and how unpredictably the actions of a home’s domovoi, or house spirit, may alter events. Pasternack integrates her characters’ superpowers seamlessly into their personalities and the culture of their historical era. Anya’s perceptive understanding of others’ motives allows her to analyze people with great empathy. Even the tsar’s daughter is relatively powerless, a victim of patriarchal prejudice, and the nightingale of the book’s title turns out to be a complex character, able to show both ferocity and compassion.
One of the most memorable parts of the novel is Anya’s encounter, for the first time, with a Jewish community in Kiev. She is invited by Misha — a young Jewish man who lives in two worlds as the son of a rabbi and an as archer at the tsar’s court — to a Shabbat dinner at his home where she participates in a spiritual experience unlike any she has known. Pasternack’s description of Anya’s thoughts and emotions is a high point of the narrative. The author defamiliarizes the ritual so that readers encounter it through Anya’s perceptions. The candle lighting is a point of contact which Anya recognizes from her own home but her limited knowledge of other blessings and prayers leaves her feeling confused and insecure.
The blessing of the wine is “…so much longer than the Kiddush she said at home. The warmth that the candles had kindled in her was fading.” She observes the ritual hand washing with detachment, noting the details as if trying to commit them to memory. This scene captures the peculiar status of a Jew without a community in the early Middle Ages, but it also evokes the response of Jews through the ages confronting their alienation from tradition. Even culinary differences from different subcultures can make one feel estranged, such as when Anya sees an import from Byzantium.
Pasternack’s accomplishment is considerable. She has created a fictional world steeped in both history and fantasy, one which also confronts core issues of Jewish identity and female strength in the face of societal obstacles. Readers will find significant enchantment in Anya’s latest tale.
Anya and the Nightingale is highly recommended and includes an extremely helpful glossary of both Russian and Hebrew terms.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.