Little as I know about Russia, its mythology keeps finding its way into my reading. First, the two books of Katherine Arden’s Winter Witch trilogy blew me away, and now, another tale of snow, danger, and magic happened upon my reading pile—only this time of a more middle-grade sort.
Orphan girl Sophie Smith and her two best friends, beautiful Delphine and bookish Marianne, are three London schoolgirls anxious to go on a school trip to St. Petersburg. But on their journey, they find themselves abandoned in the Russian countryside, stranded in a deadly snowstorm…until they are rescued by a strange man who tells them a princess has been expecting them. After a trip on a beautiful, misty train, they come to a crumbling Winter Palace, which is home not just to a forgotten Russian princess, but to a tragic royal history and a strange white wolf that haunts the surrounding forest.
It goes without saying that this is a fluffy story about princesses and adventures and unknown destinies, with all the trappings of a fun children’s fantasy. That being said, don’t expect much in the way of twists and turns and development.
Any character whose goal is to find something more is easy to relate to, but it also makes them a little too standard. Let’s look at the checklist for Sophie: an orphan with a neglectful guardian, check; her dead father left her a treasure that she wears around her neck, check; her clothes are so old they’re full of holes, check. It’s kind of an over-the-top picture of the classic orphan-finds-great-destiny trope, and that’s really all there is to her. Marianne and Delphine stick to their simple personalities as well, as Delphine is always whining about etiquette and fashion, and Marianne always has some kind of snooty fact to contribute. They’re likable enough, but don’t add much besides being damsels in distress for Sophie to rescue.
This might be a nitpick, but it’s never made entirely clear how old the three girls are. They’re described as young girls, yet they’re old enough to have phones, which leads me to believe they’re between thirteen and fifteen, but exact numbers would have been nice to have.
It’s definitely a more plot-driven story. The characters don’t really make anything happen until the second half of the book, which actually moves very fast. Pacing-wise, that is great, but this presents a problem with the third act rescue mission required in every middle-grade fantasy. Sophie is very gung-ho about rescuing all that is threatened, but the threatened don’t get enough page time for us to really care about them. In fact, things wrap up so quickly and so neatly that I still wondered how some characters got to be where they are, and how some things just fell into place.
Of course, the writing is still compelling, and a vivid picture of the forgotten wilderness of Russia is painted nicely. To have Sophie and her friends be taken to a dilapidated old palace, as opposed to a perfect glittering wonderland was a good addition. It makes some references to the domovoi and other creatures of Russian myth, but that’s about where the connection to Russia, beyond the standard snow and monstrous cold, ends.
It’s a fluffy little diversion to be sure, with lovely moments of adventure and intrigue, but the plot is just too uneven and cliché. Odds are you’ll probably forget it in favor of other fairy tales, Russian or otherwise.