I listen to a lot of audiobooks, read a lot of library books and e-books, still somehow never have enough room on my bookshelves.
This book had a singular genius in regards to managing to hint at something I found really interesting, and then make the story about something else. Incredibly time and place specific court politics? Oh yeah, that's happening in Moscow, and we're stuck in the woods. Subverting fairy tales? The author will cordially nod at subversion across the room and then go full steam ahead with unsubverted fairy tales. Clash between pagan and Christian beliefs, exploring the world views of both? Nope, it's pure sweet pagans v. evil leach priests.
This is basically the story of a pure pagan witch who is persecuted by her evil step mother and by the town's corrupt priest who has the hots for her and punishes her for his own lust. If you think that sounds like a plot that blew in from the 1980s, oh boy you're right! The only characters who got the least hints of personality moved to Moscow about five chapters in, and were never seen again. Everyone else were more or less types swept along in story logic. Why did the towns people abandon their very helpful gods to switch to a new fake religion? Because the hot priest told them to! Why did no one give the magical talisman to the heroine until the eleventh hour, despite five hundred warnings of the dire consequences of not doing so? Because the plot demanded a draggy middle section, and the storytelling wanted her to be as poorly informed as possible. Why were almost all threats to the heroine sexually charged? Because realism or something. Probably.
The writing itself could be very beautiful, but reading it in a long stretch made me realise how hard the author was leaning on a few tricks and a basket of repeated phrases. Everything was "as sure footed as a stag" or "soft as a cat." The word "suddenly" was used once a paragraph in all action scenes. (I may have been at the "I'm so annoyed at this I'm going to pick nits phase" by the end there.) The pacing was also all over the place, but I blame first novel.
Mostly though I'm too old and too tired for stories about wicked stepmothers (unless it's from their point of view for the whole story, and then by all means proceed!) And trying to make this one simultaneously sympathetic and still evil in a very specific gendered way only made the character's lack of salvation seem really petty on the part of the author. It reminded me of this analysis of disproportionate death in Jurassic World. And then making the last quarter or so about the heroine feeling trapped by her lack of choice, while never actually giving her any choices didn't feel that well thought through either (nor the deus ex machina in the final battle). It felt very much like, "I'm not like those other girls who just love being married off to strangers or joining convents!" I'm guessing the main difference there is that those other girls don't have magic powers, and therefore have fewer choices, but the story never quite sees that either.
I was reading this for a book club, and I can't tell if I weren't reading it for that if I'd have bailed about 30% in or not. I might have kept going on grounds that a) I'd bought the book, b) I wanted to see if it really did manage to do anything more complicated or interesting than a straight up fairy tale. It kept hinting that it might. Then it didn't.