2005. Tor. Hardcover. 495 pages.
From: the public library
For the challenge: The Colorful Reading Challenge
In a nutshell:
When development sub-contractors accidentally tear down a wall in an old Russian bathhouse, they discover a small statue of a golden bear. The niece of the developer, Rosa Kovalenka, can immediately tell – through her second sight – that there is some strange magic surrounding the bear. To assist in identifying the bear’s origins and value, she contacts an old lover, Daniel St. Clare, who happens to be elsewhere in Russia as a history consultant on a documentary shoot. Daniel catches a ride with a co-worker, Em Hayward, to get to St. Petersburg. All three will become connected by the bear, as they decide that Daniel and Em will take the bear to a university for an appraisal.
While driving to the university, Daniel and Em get lost on a rural road and their car dies. They are transported by the bear’s strong magic into Skazki, a world where the creatures, demons and spirits of Russian folklore live and have dominion.
Meanwhile, when Rosa realizes what has happened, she connects with a volkhv – a magician – and his family, so that she may learn to harness her own power and cross over into Skazki. However, the family’s own troubles are soon to entangle Rosa as well.
Interspersed throughout the book, a mysterious narrator tells the story of the golden bear, and how its story is intertwined with Russian history, and Russian nobility.
Eventually all three story strands will come together in Skazki.
There are other unreviewed books that I read before this one, but I found that I did not want to wait any longer to share my thoughts on The Veil of Gold. This dark fantasy novel was a splendid treat to devour!
I was fascinated by the frightening and desolate world of Skazki, which Wilkins populated with malevolent inhabitants: ghostly revenants bent on possession, wizards who skin humans alive, a headless demon covered in spines, and the terrifying Baba Yaga. Daniel and Em suffer from hunger, cold, and fatigue as they journey to see the Snow Queen, who they hope will send them back to their own world in exchange for the golden bear. Their only allies are mercenaries who they bribe with Em’s gold jewelry. It’s a journey of misery for them, to be sure, and I was glued to the pages, wondering how and if they would survive.
Rosa’s part of the story was also intriguing – more of a domestic fairytale in contrast to the epic nature of Daniel and Em’s story. She must use her cleverness to figure out who to trust as dysfunctional (and magical) family dynamics rage about her. I loved her solution for crossing over into Skazki – I totally did not expect it.
Not everyone will like the main trio of characters, I suspect, but their flaws made me like them as characters all the more. In particular Daniel is often paralyzed with fear and Em is strangely incapable of feeling strong emotions, like terror or love. At one point, Daniel says, “We’re like two rejects from Oz, Em. You don’t have a heart, and I have no courage.”
I loved Em’s story arc. The book jacket made it seem like The Veil of Gold would be all about Rosa and Daniel, so it was with surprise that I realized that Em would be my favorite character. I was fascinated by how she is completely aware of her inability to feel emotions as others do. She has become accustomed to being different in this way. I admired Em’s indomitable will to survive, although she tells Daniel early on that she fully expects to die in Skazki. Most of all, though, I was – am still – haunted by aspects of her story arc. I think of Em’s portentous encounter with Morozko, the father of frost, and also of the first time Em screams in pure terror (I’ll leave the reader to discover what causes that response.)
This is a book that has sticking power. It is not perfectly written: I thought Wilkins was too explanatory and obvious when she wrote things like “And so [he] learned one of the most painful lessons in parenthood: to let her go.” That said, the story and characters have left an indelible impression on me. I don’t think this book is for everyone – I’ve seen a few mixed reviews on goodreads.com – but I hope my review will connect this book to someone who will find it a good fit.
Fluidity of Time – “What I liked most about this book was the writing. There were times when I would just savor a sentence, or re-read a paragraph, just because the writing and language were so beautiful.”
Olduvai Reads – “It takes a while to get into The Veil of Gold, but as the characters explore the world of story, it becomes a rather engaging read.”
Stefan (an LJ post) – “The characters are interesting (except Daniel, who I wanted to bop in the head most of the time) and the plot moves along at a crisp pace. The novel has a charming, fairy tale-like quality to it, complete with the darkness that lurks around the edges of most fairy tales.”
VanderWorld (guest reviewer) – “It features strong female characters in Em and Rosa, who are confident and self-assured, yet all too human.”