Review: Vassa in the Night

“What did I borrow from myself, and how will I ever get it back?”–Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night

I found this book at McKay’s Used Books, read it in two days, and foisted it onto my roommate the moment I got to school. She read it in one day–something I really should have done, because it does take fairly constant immersion/attention to hold on to all the strands of this story at once.

Vassa in the Night, by Sarah Porter, is an bizarre, whimsical, and [some other word that won’t do it justice] retelling of the Russian folktale Vassilissa the Beautiful. Only it takes place in Brooklyn, and Baba Yaga owns a murderous 24-hour chain store, and it’s one of the weirdest and most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Any retelling of myths/folktales/fairy tales that haven’t been done a million times in the last few years immediately catch my eye, as does the striking cover. But more attention-grabbing that is the the surreal magical realism that Porter wields as if painting a watercolor.

Contained within this book is an eccentric cast of characters, even more eccentric events that will make you pause to ask if that really just happened, and a protagonist who must discover her ferocity, her history, and her missing piece, or be lost.

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Family Trees: Get to the Root of Your Characters

I’m in my dream class on mythology right now, and our professor had us make a family tree for the Mesopotamian creation story. The tree is a vertical line of boxes for several generations, not exactly what you’d call healthy by our standards. But there’s only so much you can do when you start with one or two creator deities emerging from primordial chaos. It was interesting to hear the reactions of everyone who’d never exactly been exposed to the type of godly incest that occurs in most creation myths.

I can’t say I’ve written any families as strange as the Mesopotamian gods, but I certainly have written families. It’s kind of a requirement, really–a character must come from somewhere. When I plan out a character’s family, I can’t usually get very far without drawing some sort of visual aid. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter who your protag’s great-great-great grandmother was, but in the Book of the Dead (my current project), it does, because that character is in the book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to . tick the generations of grandmothers off on my fingers.

Family Echo is a cool online family tree maker that can probably help some people out with that, if you want to see everything very neat and orderly. It’s very customizable, and has an option for a nonbinary gender as well as adding character details/info. So go crazy! I might make some mythological trees on it, now that I think about it. I’ll post the chaos on my tumblr blog if I do.

Myth-staken

Greek mythology is dead.

Right?

Of course not.

But Greek mythology has been wrung out like an old wash cloth since 900 BCE, and while there is still plenty (plenty) of room for interpretation, there’s a whole world of myth out there just as rich.

In the early stages of The Book of the Dead I knew that, though I was dealing with a pantheon of pantheons, it would not do to lean too heavily on Greek mythology. I use Greek figures as an introduction to the turbulent scene of the Underworld–like the main character, the reader is also brought to Hades (the place, not the god) by Hermes–and from there the narrative diverges into Egyptian, Sumerian, Hopi, and a basketful of other mythscapes. But the character of Hermes serves as a grounding point, a bridge into different mythos. And I’ve never heard of someone who doesn’t like Hermes, whatever piece of literature he’s in. He’s a likeable bridge.

Okay, here’s Hermes. He’s been rehashed one million times, and here’s the next iteration. Now let’s go a little deeper…have you heard of Ereshkigal? 

Hermes_e_Sarpedon edit

✴This has been a queued post, as I am currently in the Amazon with no Wifi.

Psychopomps?

What’s a psychopomp? It’s a question most people ask themselves at least once in their lives. The answer is that a psychopomp is a being who transports souls to the afterlife.

Why do you care? Another questions most people ask themselves at least once in their lives, regarding psychopomps. The answer is that you care because psychopomps are seriously cool. The very nature of a psychopomp imbues them with a sense of liminality: they are at once deities of death and not, they are of the living world and the underworld, benign guides and malicious reapers. Animal psychopomps–foxes, owls, etc–easily evoke the sense that they can slip between worlds on a whim.

Psychopomps can be: angels, ancestors, spirits, monsters, gods, goddesses, butterflies, birds, dogs, and multitudinous others.

Hermes, more oft known for his role as a messenger, is a psychopomp as well, with one foot in Hades. Of course, Charon is more well known for his role as Greek ferryman of the dead. Aken serves a similar role in ancient Egyptian mythology, and Urshanabi in ancient Mesopotamian. There is Xolotl, Ch’eng Huang, Valkryies, Agni, and many more.

In The Book of the Dead, half the cast is made up of psychopomps. Nebtu, one of the protagonists, is a psychopomp herself. They are more familiar with life than the rest of the gods of the underworld, because they are in constant interaction with it.

 

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

 

In my novel The Book of the Dead, most of the characters are dead. All the action happens in the underworld.

Nebtu, a boatwoman, was murdered in the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egypt and had to fight her way through the Duat-the Egyptian underworld-to reach her afterlife.

The above video is from a TED talk describing, very accurately and prettily, the journey of a dead person’s soul through the Duat. They face monsters and gods with their own copy of the Book of the Dead, full of spells to help them out. (If I had this clip while I was first piecing together Nebtu’s journey, I could have saved myself a LOT of time.)

Nebtu’s tale follows this account fairly well, but there are a few deviations. First of all, she was not buried with her own book-in the Middle Kingdom only the wealthy and important were privileged enough to own a copy. But through her occupation as a scribe copying out the Book for others, Nebtu memorized the necessary spells. (She’s pretty crafty.)

Secondly, for narrative purposes, the main opponents she faces in the Duat are underworld-dwelling gods, not just monsters. Wepawet (wolfy god of war), Nehebkau (double-headed snake god), and Nephthys (goddess of the dead) all make appearances on a sliding scale of malevolence.

The judging and heart-weighing ceremony was one of my favorites to write, as that’s where one of my favorite characters/gods-Thoth-makes his debut. And the visceral experience of Nebtu’s heart being removed and weighed against the feather of Ma’at was weirdly satisfying to write.

And of course, if Nebtu had stayed to tend her plot of land for all eternity, there would be no further story for her. Instead of staying in Aaru, the reed fields ruled by Osiris, she sets off to make herself useful to the gods and understand the greater nature of the underworld.

Three thousand years later, our story begins.