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Ivan Smetski is a Russian Jew who isn't going to be Russian anymore: as soon as possible, his parents are emigrating to America, specifically a suburb in New York State, where Ivan will eventually grow up. Before they leave, though, his family sojourns at Cousin Marek's house, where Ivan, exploring in the woods, comes across an incredible tableau: a beautiful woman, sleeping on a bier, amidst a lake of leaves in which lives a giant bear. He doesn't get a chance to explore this until 1991, more than a decade later, when he returns to what was once the USSR but is now Ukraine to do a dissertation on Russian Mythology and Tales and whether they conform to Propps Functions of Folktales. While there, he visits Cousin Marek's farm and re-discovers the beautiful woman, who—after the bear has been subdued—needs to be awoken with a kiss...
First off: Our maiden? Princess Katerina of Taina, a 9th-century Slavic kingdom growing in the shadow of proto-Kievan Rus and unremembered by history, which tells you what its long-term fate will be. Ivan has promised to marry Katerina, and that marriage promise is all that is keeping the evil witch Baba Yaga from using Loophole Abuse to claim rulership of Taina. She's already enslaved Bear—The Bear, the god of winter—to be her Dragon and do her bidding, so keeping her at bay is not an idle concern for the citizens of Taina. Especially since their most-loved deity, Mikola Mozhaiski (a version of Saint Nikolaus), hasn't been seen in years. Second: Ivan? Not a Knight in Shining Armor. A man of good heart, yes, and a decathlete, fit by the standards of The Nineties... But this is The Low Middle Ages, Russia in 890 AD, and manhood involves being able to sling around five pounds of sword for hours at a stretch. Oh, and he's engaged to a girl named Ruth, back home in 20th-century America—and he's a Jew. And Taina? An outpost of Christianity, many years before (20th-century) scholars believed it had gotten that far east. Even better, the local priest was an apprentice to Kirill—Saint Cyril, after whom the Cyrillic Alphabet is named—and has some of Kirill's manuscripts. Ivan, a linguist, came to (modern-day) Russia in part to answer how the Russian tongue evolved from Old Church Slavonic. In 9th-century Taina, he literally holds the answers in his hand.
So now Ivan is stuck in Taina, and has has to figure out what to do with Katerina (as opposed to Ruth), figure out how to win the respect of the townsfolk, avoid Baba Yaga as much as possible... and, preferably, get back to his own time and his own life and his actual fiancée so that he can go on with all that, instead of being trapped in a 9th-century backwater where magic, rather obviously, exists. And, uncomfortably, he is in fact attracted to Katerina, and she to him. Oh, and, Baba Yaga's out to get both of them. And so we have our adventure: a fun fairy tale, a workable Romance Novel, and speculations on just how Baba Yaga got her reputation for having a house on chicken legs.
Not to be confused with the Disney film Enchanted, though both are affectionate Deconstructions in which fairy tales collide head-first with modern-day New York citizens. OSC's novel, however, lacks Crowd Songs.
- Affably Evil: The book is interspersed with short(er) chapters from Baba Yaga's point of view. She does horrific things, but she's very friendly (and funny) about it.
- Arranged Marriage: While the two were put together by fate instead of parents, and consented from their own lips, there is still a lot of the traditional (Western) angst associated with this trope.
- Baba Yaga: The Big Bad.
- Babies Ever After
- Belligerent Sexual Tension
- Big Bad: Baba Yaga
- Break the Haughty
- Chekhov's Skill: Ivan's ability to speak Old Church Slavonic is the reason the "Summon Everyman Hero" spell targets him.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: To the point that good ol' Values Dissonance is a Discussed Trope.
- The Dung Ages
- Everything's Worse with Bears: Depending on how you look at it, this is either played straight or averted. Ensorcled by Baba Yaga's magic, Bear can now talk, and serves as her Dragon, but his dialogue and attitude make it clear that he's not the malicious sort.
- Expy: Father Lukas, the Christian priest of Taina, is basically a reskinned Bishop Peregrino from Lusitania.
- Eye Scream: Ivan subdues Bear by throwing a rock at his eye.
- Fish Out of Temporal Water
- First Girl Wins
- Functional Magic: Very much so. Some of the witches protecting Katerina cast protective spells on her. Yaga cursed her to eternal sleep and specified that only someone from a time extremely removed from hers, who could not speak her language and thus could not break the curse by asking her to marry him, could possibly stumble upon her. These clashing spells create the sleeping-beauty scenario Ivan stumbles upon.
- Giving Radio to the Romans: Part of Ivan's (eventual) plot to defeat Baba Yaga.
- Gods Need Prayer Badly
- Load-Bearing Boss
- Love Triangle: Both Ivan and Katerina had people they had been matched with already. Katerina's is Dmitri, her father's head knight.
- A Man Is Not a Virgin: Averted. Ivan wants to wait until marriage. (Ruth thought it was cute.)
- Mass Teleportation: Baba Yaga takes an entire 747 back with her.
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Ivan is the frequent target of these attempts, since he is the linchpin of Taina's defense against Yaga.
- No Periods, Period: Averted
- Nothing Personal: Bear wants to kill Ivan because "it's not right for a mortal to put out the eye of a god and live," but for no other reason. And indeed, when Ivan is later able to do him a favor, all is forgiven.
- Ordinary Grad Student
- Please Put Some Clothes On: One of the rules of the magic "bridge" linking Ivan's and Katerina's times is that you emerge wearing only what you had the last time you were then. First-time visitors, in other words... (Gains extra momentum when you learn that Taina doesn't have a nudity taboo, but does obey the Biblical stricture against wearing clothes belonging to members the other gender. Which is all you're going to have available, the first time you cross.)
- Physical God
- Psycho Ex-Girlfriend
- Royals Who Actually Do Something: Katerina, and her father Matfei as well. (Primogeniture is a new idea in Taina; previously, they elected their kings to serve as war leaders whenever one was needed. Matfei adheres to it largely because it's the rule that keeps Baba Yaga out.)
- Shown Their Work: Part of the fun of the story is just how neatly OSC fits it into Real Life and extant scholarship.
- Straw Feminist
- They Do
- Training the Peaceful Villagers: Deconstructed when Ivan tries to learn European swordwork. Played straight later when he brings back the secret of Molotov Cocktails.
- Villains Blend in Better
- What Year Is This?
- Will They or Won't They?: Dragged out a fair deal. First there's the question of whether Ivan will duck out of the betrothal. Then there's the question of whether he and Katerina have consummated. And, of course, one can always wonder whether they actually love each other...
- You Can't Fight Fate
- Your Normal Is Our Taboo
Ivan: "[H]ere, it's no sin for a woman to wear men's clothing. In fact, it's done all the time, and it means nothing. ... A woman puts on her husband's shirt and we think it's charming. That it shows love and intimacy between them."
Katerina: "And does the husband put on his wife's dress?"
Ivan: "Well, actually, no. I mean, some do, but we think of that as... strange."