Hello bookworms!! Welcome to a post that I have been wanting to write for a very long time: Books inspired by Slavic lore. I know this may seem like a super random topic, but hear me out.
A few weeks ago we did a Top 5 Tuesday topic called top 5 retellings. As you may know, retellings are one of my favourite types of stories. It’s the familiarity of them that appeals to me. Almost like rereading a favourite, but it might have new twists and new characters. Or maybe it has something extra tweaked from the original, like a ‘what if?’ scenario. Regardless, I love them.
As part of that retellings post, I tried to limit myself (even though I ended up with a top 13 instead of a top 5). I even put three of my favourite books inspired by Slavic lore, consisting of mythology and folklore. However, three is just a drop in the ocean of all the ones that I love.
So, this is more of a long list of books inspired by Slavic lore, because I have to scream about it eventually!! And also a mini Slavic mythology and folklore 101 for those who don’t know much about it! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…)
What is Slavic mythology?
Slavic mythology is, just like Greek and Roman mythology, the myths and lore of the Slavs. Depending on how far back you want to go, the areas that the Slavs inhabited were across Eastern Europe (starting around Germany) and stretching across to Russia, and then south into Central Asia. Modern countries that form part of this include: Czech Republic, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Solenia, Bosnia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Which, covers quite a lot of ground.
Most of this region converted to Christianity between the 8th and 13th centuries, but before that, practiced a form of paganism. Slavic paganism to be exact. And even when the more resistant areas were converted, they practiced what they called the “double faith”. This was both, Christianity and Slavic paganism. (Much to the Church’s horror…)
The pagan Slavs worshipped many gods and goddesses, and it depends on where you were located in the Slavic region as to who you worshipped. Unfortunately, a lot of this knowledge is lost as the Christians who were busy christianising the world back then, also tried to eradicate information about the old gods. But, we do know that there were two supreme gods above others — the Zeus and Hades equivalents if you will. Perun (or Grom) was the god of thunder, lightning and war. And Veles (or Volos) who was the god of magic and the Underworld, and the patron saint of domestic animals. Veles is sometimes depicted as a bear, which will come up later.
Figures in Slavic mythology
In addition to the many gods, the Slavs also worshipped spirits. Not like ghosts, but more like the folklore tales of woodsprites, fairies and pixies. Depending on what you were doing, or where you were working, depended on who you might leave offerings to.
- Domovoy were spirits that looked after your home, and you left them crusts of bread and saucers of milk to keep them in your house to look over you and your family.
- Rusalka (fem) and Vodianoi (male) were the Slavic interpretations of sirens, but they were often depicted as violent and drowned people.
- Vila were shapeshifters, but generally good to people. They were celebrated and left tributes of flowers, fruit, cake, and ribbons in trees.
- Polyovy (field spirits) and Leshy (forest spirits) led lost travelers away to their doom, and encouraged children to wander off from their parents.
- Dvorovoi looked after the larger homestead, but the animals and fields. They weren’t as nice to people as the Domovoy, and sometimes posed a threat to livestock, but could be left offerings to keep it benevolent.
Figures in Slavic folklore
There are also a number of Slavic folktales that tell of heroes and villains, much like other mythologies. I could wax lyrical about these for some time, but I’ll just touch on the a few main protagonists / antagonists:
- Baba Yaga is a witch, or supernatural being, who is sometimes represented as three women (mother, maiden and crone, and/or the Fates), and is often depicted as an old crone. Depending on the story, she could be so evil and eats children (likely basis for the witch from Hansel and Gretel), or benevolent and helps Ivan find his lost bride. Whichever version of Baba Yaga you find, it can be certain that she lives alone in the forest, and that her house can move, as it’s set on chicken legs.
- Ivan is in a lot of Russian folklore stories. He’s essentially the generic Prince Charming. Mostly he’s a prince, but occasionally he’s a commoner, and once he’s even half-boy, half-bear.
- Vasilisa is a character in a few tales. Sometimes she is a princess and sometimes she is wise, but she is always beautiful. In her most popular story she is very similar to Cinderella. Evil stepmother, stepsisters and what. But, she’s sent on a quest to see Baba Yaga and takes a doll that helps.
- Morozko is possibly one of my favourite tales. He is also known as Father Frost, and can be both, benevolent and cruel, but it depends less on his own whims, and more on the behaviours of those he comes across. His tale says that if you meet Morozko in the night in winter and you are polite and kind to him, he will reward you with riches and keep you safe and warm. But if you are unkind or rude, he will freeze you to death.
Books inspired by Slavic mythology
Based on the above, you can probably already identify a number of books that I’m going to mention below. It’s possible you’ve read some and weren’t aware they had deep roots in Slavic folklore. But I’m going to list a whole bunch of them anyway, because I just really love them.
The Winternight trilogy — Katherine Arden
Of course the Winternight trilogy is at the top of this list. Not only is it set in Russia during the time of christianisation, but Arden perfectly shows the quiet war of the “double faith” in houses at the time. On one hand you have the local priest, on the other you have the spirits and characters from folklore, including Morozko, and the Bear. The main character is even a version of Vasilisa.
Blurb for The Bear and the Nightingale:
At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind — she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.
The House with Chicken Legs — Sophie Anderson
Anderson’s The House with Chicken Legs is a middle grade fantasy story that depicts one version of Baba Yaga. It’s not a version of Baba Yaga that I have seen before, but I’m not across all of her tales. In this story, Baba Yaga is an escort of souls to the afterlife. Baba Yaga and her granddaughter, Marinka, travel the world in their house, sending souls off to their next stop.
All 12-year-old Marinka wants is a friend. A real friend. Not like her house with chicken legs. Sure, the house can play games like tag and hide-and-seek, but Marinka longs for a human companion. Someone she can talk to and share secrets with.
But that’s tough when your grandmother is a Yaga, a guardian who guides the dead into the afterlife. It’s even harder when you live in a house that wanders all over the world… carrying you with it. Even worse, Marinka is being trained to be a Yaga. That means no school, no parties — and no playmates that stick around for more than a day.
So when Marinka stumbles across the chance to make a real friend, she breaks all the rules… with devastating consequences. Her beloved grandmother mysteriously disappears, and it’s up to Marinka to find her — even if it means making a dangerous journey to the afterlife.
The Girl Who Speaks Bear — Sophie Anderson
So, I’m fully aware that we just covered an Anderson book… but she has THREE separate MG fantasy stories that are all based on Slavic lore. The Girl Who Speaks Bear is a genderbent retelling of Ivan — the half boy, half bear version.
Discovered in a bear cave as a baby, 12-year-old Yanka dreams of knowing who she really is. Although Yanka is happy at home with her loving foster mother, she feels out of place in the village where the other children mock her for her unusual size and strength.
So when Yanka wakes up one morning to find her legs have become bear legs, she knows she has no choice but to leave her village. She has to find somewhere she truly belongs, so she ventures into the Snow Forest with her pet weasel, Mousetrap, in search of the truth about her past.
But deep in the forest there are many dangers and Yanka discovers that even the most fantastic stories she grew up hearing are true. And just as she draws close to discovering who she really is, something terrifying happens that could trap her in the forest… forever.
Vampire Academy — Richelle Mead
Yeah, I bet you didn’t think you’d see the Vampire Academy series on here. But here we are. While myths and lore about vampires are common across most of the world, the thing that ties Mead’s series to Slavic lore is the terms she uses. Moroi, Strigoi and Dhampir are all terms from Slavic countries to describe different types of vampires. Plus, the one of the main characters, again, is Vasilisa.
Blurb for Vampire Academy:
Lissa Dragomir is a Moroi princess: a mortal vampire with a rare gift for harnessing the earth’s magic. She must be protected at all times from Strigoi; the fiercest vampires—the ones who never die. The powerful blend of human and vampire blood that flows through Rose Hathaway, Lissa’s best friend, makes her a dhampir. Rose is dedicated to a dangerous life of protecting Lissa from the Strigoi, who are hell-bent on making Lissa one of them.
After two years of freedom, Rose and Lissa are caught and dragged back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, a school for vampire royalty and their guardians-to-be, hidden in the deep forests of Montana. But inside the iron gates, life is even more fraught with danger… and the Strigoi are always close by.
Rose and Lissa must navigate their dangerous world, confront the temptations of forbidden love, and never once let their guard down, lest the evil undead make Lissa one of them forever…
Uprooted — Naomi Novik
Uprooted is one of those amazing, twisty tales where you expect one thing because you’ve been led down the path to that choice, but then it delivers something else. Kasia would be our Vasilisa in any other context — the chosen princess because she is good and pretty and graceful — but I really like that Novik spun this.
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows — everyone knows — that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose.
Spinning Silver — Naomi Novik
Yes, we’re doing two Novik’s as well, because they are separate books. Spinning Silver is a genderbent retelling of Rumpelstiltskin — another fairytale that has Germanic roots, although there are Slavic variations of this (Rampelník and Rumplcimprcampr). However this version also has Chernobog, who in Slavic lore is a god of bad luck.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty — until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk — grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh — Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Through the White Wood — Jessica Leake
I’m 48% sure this is technically a companion novel to Beyond a Darkened Shore, which really isn’t that sure at all. But I do know that you can read Through the White Wood without having read the other. In this book, Leake almost creates a Morozko origin-story. Or at least, it definitely could have been that way. But we also meet fave characters like Baba Yaga and a rusulka, so there are other tick boxes as well.
Katya’s power to freeze anything she touches has made her an outcast in her isolated village. And when she loses control of her ability, accidentally killing several villagers, she is banished to the palace of the terrifying Prince Sasha in Kiev.
At the castle, though, she is surprised to find that Sasha is just like her—with his own strange talent, the ability to summon fire. Instead of punishment, Sasha offers Katya friendship, and the chance to embrace her power rather than fear it.
But outside the walls of Kiev, Sasha’s enemies have organized their own army of people who can control the very earth. Bent on taking over the entire world, they won’t stop until they’ve destroyed everything.
Katya and Sasha are desperate to stop the encroaching army, and together their powers are a fearsome weapon. But as their enemies draw nearer, leaving destruction in their wake, will fire and frost be enough to save the world? Or will they lose everything they hold dear?
The Grishaverse — Leigh Bardugo
Honestly, I ummed and ahhed about putting this series in here, but I’m adding it for one specific reason. It’s possibly a bit far-fetched, and likely only in my head, but I always got Morozko vibes from the Darkling. This will be a spoiler, so please look away if you haven’t read the Shadow and Bone trilogy. So, we know the Grishaverse is highly inspired by Russian culture. The Darkling’s name is Aleksander Morozova, which is a modern version of Moroz. Moroz means frost, and Morozko is the spirit of frost. The Darkling’s power is shadow, but it’s considered the opposite of Alina’s light. Light is an analogy for warmth and life, and the opposite of this is cold and death — which can both be used to describe frost. He also uses ‘the cut’ on those who have displeased or angered him, which is similar to the tale of Morozko.
Blurb for Shadow and Bone:
The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka.
Alina, a pale, lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the world of the kingdom’s magical elite — the Grisha. Could she be the key setting Ravka free?
The Darkling, a man of seductive charm and terrifying power. If Alina is to fulfill her destiny, she must unlock her gift and face up to her dangerous attraction to him.
But what of Mal, Alina’s childhood best friend? As Alina contemplates her dazzling new future, why can’t she ever quite forget him?
Vassa in the Night — Sarah Porter
Yes!! Vassa in the Night basically screams “hello — do you like Slavic folklore retellings?” To which we should all respond “yes thanks, I’ll take 3”, and then you purchase 3 books from this list to add to your towering TBRs. (You’re welcome.) But first, shall we count the ways this book ticks all my boxes? FIRST, it’s a modern day retelling, set in a magical kingdom (Brooklyn). Our MC, Vassa, sounds strangely like a shortened version of Vasilisa. And then we have Babs Yagg… which also sounds familiar. Plus the hole synopsis of the story is very similar to a tale involving a Cinderella-esque Vasilisa!!
In the enchanted kingdom of Brooklyn, the fashionable people put on cute shoes, go to parties in warehouses, drink on rooftops at sunset, and tell themselves they’ve arrived. A whole lot of Brooklyn is like that now — but not Vassa’s working-class neighborhood.
In Vassa’s neighborhood, where she lives with her stepmother and bickering stepsisters, one might stumble onto magic, but stumbling away again could become an issue. Babs Yagg, the owner of the local convenience store, has a policy of beheading shoplifters—and sometimes innocent shoppers as well. So when Vassa’s stepsister sends her out for light bulbs in the middle of night, she knows it could easily become a suicide mission.
But Vassa has a bit of luck hidden in her pocket, a gift from her dead mother. Erg is a tough-talking wooden doll with sticky fingers, a bottomless stomach, and a ferocious cunning. With Erg’s help, Vassa just might be able to break the witch’s curse and free her Brooklyn neighborhood. But Babs won’t be playing fair…
The Witcher — Andrzej Sapkowski
In case you weren’t aware, before The Witcher was an awesome video game, and a show on Netflix where I pray Henry Cavill doesn’t wear a shirt, it was a book series. And it’s a book series that draws a lot of inspiration from monsters and creatures in Slavic mythology. Like, A LOT of creatures and monsters. There are leshy, rusulka and stryga (fem vampire) abound. Even the term “Witcher” refers to a Slavic sorcerer.
Blurb for Blood of Elves:
For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.
Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world — for good, or for evil.
As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt’s responsibility to protect them all — and the Witcher never accepts defeat.
Enchantment — Orson Scott Card
Yup, I am ending this post with one of my all-time favourite Slavic-inspired retellings. And it’s the book that introduced me to this path, and led me right here. To you. Ranting about this very specific subsection of fantasy retellings!! I’m a very niche person…
Anyway, Enchantment by Card almost hits every marker that I have. The main character, Ivan, is pitted against Baba Yaga in a fight for the princess (if only her name was Vasilisa). There’s also an adaptation of the Bear. But because this is a modern retelling, Ivan is in Russia to study Russian myths and tales — so it kind of has this surreal magical feeling to it.
The moment Ivan stumbled upon a clearing in the dense Carpathian forest, his life was forever changed. Atop a pedestal encircled by fallen leaves, the beautiful princess Katerina lay still as death. But beneath the foliage a malevolent presence stirred and sent the ten-year-old Ivan scrambling for the safety of Cousin Marek’s farm.
Now, years later, Ivan is an American graduate student, engaged to be married. Yet he cannot forget that long-ago day in the forest — or convince himself it was merely a frightened boy’s fantasy. Compelled to return to his native land, Ivan finds the clearing just as he left it.
This time he does not run. This time he awakens the beauty with a kiss… and steps into a world that vanished a thousand years ago.
Do you have any favourite books inspired by Slavic folklore that I missed? Or is there one from this list that you want to read now?