Rusalka is a fantasy set in pre-Christian Russia. Cherryh creates plenty of atmosphere as her characters Pyetr and Sasha flee trouble in Vojvoda during the darkness of winter and find themselves at the mercy of a powerful wizard in a dead forest. Pyetr, who was mortally wounded as he fled, has ironically been healed and returned to life by a magic he denies exists ... a skeptic. Sasha believes in magic and lives at its mercy until he discovers that he is a wizard and must learn how to direct the powerful forces that flow through him.
Despite their differences, Pyetr and Sasha are devoted to each other. Street-wise Pyetr is determined to protect the younger and naive Sasha from those who would take advantage of his innocence, and Sasha refuses to leave Pyetr alone and unprotected from the powerful magic that he vehemently denies. Pyetr relies on his wits to shield him from misfortune. Sasha is determined to avoid trouble by learning to carefully control his powerful thoughts. Together they learn that neither wits nor careful manipulation will protect them from the uncertainties of life and that there is nothing more powerful than a good and loyal friend.
Pyetr and Sasha will need to rely on each other if they are to survive the ordeal that awaits them. They encounter various magical spirits that inhabit this dark forest while constrained by the will of Uulamets, the wizard. These spirits are quite fickle and most times very dangerous. Along with these not-so-benevolent spirits, the forest is haunted by the ghost of a young murdered woman. She is a rusalka and she is the daughter of Uulamets. The rusalka doesn't want to be dead and so must drain the life from anything or anyone in order to maintain existence until her father can bring her back to life.
Cherryh uses Slavic folklore, with its heavy emphasis on magical power, to tell the story of a different kind of power ... the power of friendship. This is the strength of Rusalka. Cherryh's ability to create an atmospheric novel is one of her strong points as a writer. She can also generate an intensity that leaves you gasping and dreaming strange dreams at night. That said, I was disappointed with this novel. The struggle of wills revealed through the dialogue between characters was meant to build and create that intensity I just mentioned, but instead I found the conversations repetitive and tedious. I couldn't wait for the characters to stop their constant bickering and for Cherryh to just get on with some action instead. I generally like Cherryh's books a lot, so I'm a bit baffled by my ambivalence toward this novel. Perhaps I wasn't in the right mood for this one, so I'm glad that this was not my first experience with Cherryh.
4 out of 5 for story and atmosphere
2 out of 5 for the dialogue
3 out of 5 overall
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Things Mean a Lot (nymeth): Rusalka, Chernevog