This was probably the most hyped kids’ book of the first part of 2018, and with good reason. It’s a lush, thoughtful, magical tale that deserves comparisons to Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman.
Book: The House With Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson
Read before: No
Ownership: Paperback copy from Blackwells
I’ve always been a little bit scared of Baba Yaga. While I love fairytales, Russian ones have never been my favourite – they seem that little bit too threatening, a little bit too creepy, and a little too based in the real world for me to shake them off. So, I was a little wary of picking up The House With Chicken Legs at first – but I am so glad I did, because this book is warm where I thought it would be creepy, and inspiring where I thought it would be dark.
The story follows Marinka, who is Baba Yaga’s granddaughter, as she trains to become a Yaga herself. The Yaga are responsible for guiding the dead into the afterlife, but this is a purely practical thing. Each night, Marinka and her Baba light the lanterns, wait for the dead to show up, party with them, and then perform the rituals that send them safely onwards. Marinka is born to this life, but understandably, she’s really not sure that the path that is laid out for her is what she wants for herself. A Yaga’s life is a lonely one, separate from the rest of society, and all Marinka wants is a friend.
I really loved Marinka as a main character. I thought her voice was spot-on – while she’s dissatisfied with her destiny, she never came across as whiny. Instead, she is determined, and though she makes some terrible decisions, you can always see her reasoning. She felt very real to me, and I was completely hooked on watching her journey. A really good flawed protagonist is lovely to see in MG writing, as I think it emphasises where they are strong despite and because of their flaws, which is much more important than a hero who is always right.
Also brilliant is the depiction of the house itself! It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Howl’s Moving Castle (not the film, it got too much wrong), so sentient houses really, really appeal to me. I loved that the house had so much personality, without ever saying a word – its playfulness and sulkiness made it seem really human, and I felt bad every time Marinka rejected it. I want a house that will grow me a window seat to read in!
There is a lot of sadness in this book, and several bittersweet scenes have stuck with me, but sadness and death are shown as part of life and joy. Marinka’s life is not as straightforward as it seems, but I loved that she managed to work through her sorrows and disappointments to learn that it is her future that is important, as well as her past. The House With Chicken Legs has a beautiful way of looking at the confrontation and compromise between tradition and self. I thought that Sophie Anderson did a fantastic job with the ending of the book, which (without spoilers) I thought was perfect. It struck such a hopeful, human note, that I put the book down with a genuine smile, and I’m still thinking about it weeks later.
The writing is stellar, and the story is just wonderful. It’s quite simply magical. You have to read it, and it will carry you away. Five of five cats.