The Midnight Land: Part One: The Flight
When I was a child, I had several books of fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, and so on. But there was one book that was a bit odd, with stories that weren’t anywhere else, and elaborate watercolor paintings. Years later, I realized I had gotten a book of Russian fairy tales.
Though not quite like them, and not making any direct references, The Midnight Land manages to conjure a bit of the feel of those strange stories of my childhood. Set in an alternate-world Russian empire, it is the story of Kranoslava Tsarinovna, the second daughter of the Tsarina. Unlikely to inherit the throne, and considered to be too delicate to be a good ruler, Slava instead finds a role as adviser to her sister… tempering her sister’s judgment with mercy and compassion. Despite her role, she finds the politics and pettiness of the court stifling. So when the court is visited by an expedition to map the unknown lands to the north, she volunteers to join.
This book has a strange feel to it. On one hand, it echoes the expedition journals of the last century. With plenty of talk about dog sleds and dwindling food supplies and the men singing to keep their spirits up. On the other hand, it has bits of mystical happenings. Slava’s family rose to power because of their gifts of foresight and mind reading. Slava herself feels the emotions of others around her (part of the reason why she feels such compassion). The party is constantly followed by Leshaya, or tree-spirits, who while not hostile, defiantly have an agenda of their own. Imagine reading Shakleton or Cook’s journals, only with spirits and gods and psychic powers.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect is the fact that the Russia (or Zem) of this world is a matriarchy. Yet, for having such a fundamental change, the world itself doesn’t feel very different. The men, with no power, are free to be hunters and farmers (except for the royals, who “act brooding”). In some ways, this was harder to accept then a world with walking trees and royal sorceresses, a world where women rule, yet it is pretty much the same, including rivalries with other countries and borders.
Midnight Land is a book of exploration, of a young woman coming to accept herself and her own abilities in life, and a fun frolic in the snow. A perfect read for a long winter’s night, especially if you have too much or not enough snow.