Amazon Digital Services, 2014 (originally published in Russian in 1997), 330 pages
Is it easy to be a witch? Who can, and more importantly, who would want to understand her: this evil otherworldly creature, the symbol of promiscuity and whimsy? The symbol of the Woman?
Is it easy to be the Great Inquisitor? Who can, and more importantly, who would want to understand him, a heartless executioner, carrying out the will of the Inquisition? What would happen if the souls of these two, as incompatible as ice and fire, come into contact?
The novel THE AGE OF WITCHES contains several winningly rare combinations: that of a thriller, detective and melodrama, Western traditions and Eastern European textures. The epic scope of events and tension go hand in hand with the intense psychological twister representing the characters’ inner lives. An element of mystery allows for a new approach to the ancient questions.
What makes the novel unique? The dense atmosphere of a modern city is invaded by the poetry of folk demonology. The characters abide by the cruel laws of nuclear society, and by those of a mythical world. This is a book about love, but also about the price of freedom, and the meaning of life. It is about what can save our world from being suffocated by contradictions and hate.
The Dyachenkos, a writing pair from Ukraine, have an extensive back catalog of Russian SF and fantasy that is slowly being translated for an American audience. When I read The Scar and then Vita Nostra, I felt like perhaps the early English-language fans of Haruki Murakami did, having discovered a little-known foreign author whose translated works are still largely undiscovered gems.
Age of Witches is their latest work to be translated into English, and their publishing deal must be peculiar, because as far as I can tell, it is only available in English as an ebook from Amazon. Still, it is being promoted with book trailers and the like, and more of their books are supposedly on the way to English readers.
First published in Russian in 1997, Age of Witches falls into the category of "urban fantasy," though like most of the Dyachenkos' novels, it is very decidedly Russian and thus unlike other books in its genre from Western writers.
It takes place in the modern world in an unnamed country, one with clearly Russian/Ukrainian names, but an intact aristocracy. It is a world where witches exist, and are much like Marvel mutants — girls don't know they're witches until they mature, and then can manifest fearsome powers. Unlike Marvel mutants, witches do seem predisposed towards evil, though apparently they do have some free will. A witch has the choice of being "Initiated" by other witches, which causes her powers to reach their full potential, but also commits her irrevocably to the witches' side. Or she can register with the Inquisition.
"Witch, remember that society does not reject you. By renouncing all things foul and registering, you will become a fully legitimate citizen, with all the rights of a citizen ... By persevering in evil, you condemn yourself to misery and isolation ... Under the terms of Article ... of the Codex of Laws ... who are not registered are punished by the compulsory performance of community service ... those involved in evil-doing ... are subject to trial by the Inquisition ..."
The Inquisition is a government agency dedicated to hunting down and registering witches, or torturing and executing Initiated witches. There is an extensive cosmology here of "shield-witches," "flag-witches," "warrior-witches," and most dangerous of all, the "queen-witch." The differences between them are never really explained, but Claudius Guard, the Chief Inquisitor who is one of the main characters, can sense the power and type of a witch, and cause them psychic pain with his own powers.
There are also creatures called Navkas, from Ukrainian folklore, who are a sort of undead watery seductress, hunted by a separate paramilitary organization called the Chugaisters.
Claudius, the Chief Inquisitor, is still haunted by his childhood sweetheart, who became a navka after drowning. His past causes him to feel sympathy for an unregistered witch named Ivga after he discovers that she is engaged to the son of a family friend. Once Ivga goes on the run, Claudius tries to protect her, but soon both of them are drawn into what seems to be a coming apocalyptic showdown between the Inquisition and an uber-powerful mother-witch and her minions.
Age of Witches is strange, weird, and frankly confusing in places. Things happen and the plot moves without the reader quite being sure how it got there. The climax involves a countdown to nuclear armageddon, and then an epilogue that hardly explained anything. The translation was rough, not much better than the fan-translated Vita Nostra.
I will still read anything that comes out in English from the Dyachenkos, but Age of Witches was a bit of a slog to get through, and perhaps because it's older, I didn't like it nearly as much as Vita Nostra. I'll still recommend it for anyone who wants something really different in fantasy.
Verdict: Weird, a little bit wondrous, with interesting and complex but also confusing characters, Age of Witches also suffers from a sub-par translation. It's not my favorite novel by the Dyachenkos, but I still recommend this Ukrainian pair's work for all Western speculative fiction fans. 7/10.
Also by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko: My reviews of The Scar and Vita Nostra.
My complete list of book reviews.