I remember, when I was in junior high school, that my favorite book to check out from the school library was a thick tome titled Russian Fairy Tales. Seeing that it still exists, I have ordered it at once. I don't remember what attracted me to it in the first place, but I checked it out over and over, because the stories were extraordinary and deliriously phantasmagorical. From Vasilisa the Beautiful and her encounter with Baba Yaga, to the gorgeous deconstruction of traditional roles in the Frog Princess (though I certainly didn't interpret it as such at that age), these tales opened up a new world of exotic wonder to my young mind, already enraptured by fantasy and science fiction.
I can see something of that storytelling tradition in The Scar, a novel by the prolific Muscovite couple Sergey and Marina Dyachenko. With literally dozens of books under their belts, the popular storytellers are receiving their first American publication in 2012 with the release of this early novel. A graceful translation by Elinor Huntington reveals such sublime beauty in the authors' prose that I was immediately, deeply captivated.
Egert Soll has been born into a life of privilege in the city of Kavarren. The dashing young rake lives the life lesser men can only dream of: a promising military future, wealth, and no end of lovely, attentive ladies (married or otherwise) willing to part with their virtue. One day, a carriage rides into town, delivering the beautiful Toria and her bookish fianceé Dinar, both of whom have come to town to pursue research into the history of an archmage. Egert immediate puts Toria into his macking crosshairs, blithely ignoring Dinar as of no consequence and no threat to his irresistible player charms. But while Toria intrigues Egert with her casual indifference to his seductions (which is in no way coy; she literally doesn't care), his attentions eventually get the better of Dinar's patience. A duel ensues, tragically.
Time passes, a devastated Toria has left for home, and Egert finds himself troubled by hints of self-recrimination for the first time in his life. It isn't that he feels guilt over the duel, but the effect on Toria is a blow to his ego. But Egert has no idea what punishment he has in store. A mysterious man known only as the Wanderer, whom Egert remembered calmly witnessing the duel, saunters into Egert's favorite tavern, openly berating him as a murderer. Incensed, Egert promptly issues a challenge. But the duel doesn't prove as easy as all those Egert has fought in his past. The Wanderer is a terrifyingly accomplished swordsman, and once he gets the better of Egert by disarming him, rather than kill him, the stranger cuts a deep gash into Egert's handsome face and calmly departs.
It soon becomes apparent Egert's opponent was no mere mortal man, and the scar on Egert's face is more than just a scar. Egert finds himself crushed under the weight of a ruthless and unforgiving curse that leaves him crippled by the most pathetic state of terror and cowardice. The once arrogant, aristocratic ruffian becomes a paler and paler shadow of his former self, cringing from even the slightest and most innocuous confrontation. More and more, he lives in fear of practically everything. Abandoning his family, friends, military career, and eventually Kavarren itself, the hopelessly broken Egert miserably makes his way abroad in the vague hopes of finding the enigmatic Wanderer and begging some way to remove the curse. He will eventually cross paths once again with Toria and her father, the archmage in charge of the university Dinar attended, and his own fate may well be tied up with that of the very world itself.
Many fairy tales are morality plays, and while The Scar does seem to owe something to that tradition, its own approach is to present a world plagued by injustice. Suffering begets more suffering, and the degree to which Egert deserves the severity of his curse is always left a little ambiguous. On the one hand, he was a complete cad. On the other, his duel was legally fought, and the intensity of his subsequent misery undeniably makes him sympathetic to the reader. For the first time, he is forced to reconsider his privilege and understand the consequences of his actions. But should redemption and amends be impossible, or as near to impossible as makes no difference? Is that just? There is a scene portraying a festival in a town, that begins with a public execution. Two condemned men are brought before the headsman, and one is freed depending on which of two colored balls they draw from a bag. Whatever they were guilty of, could it be any more savage than turning their "justice" into a public amusement?
When the story focuses on its moral dimension, centered on the developing interplay between Egert, Toria, and her father Luayan (a man who goes to great lengths to conceal his own insecurities and personal failings), it's strong all the way. It gets a little weaker when introducing its more traditional fantasy narrative, involving conflict between Luayan's university and an apocalyptic mystery cult called the Order of Lash, who are desperate to retrieve what they believe to be powerful secrets kept hidden by Luayan and are trying to recruit spies (including Egert) within the college to locate them. There's also stuff about something called the Doors of Creation, which are keeping some evil force from invading the world, and of which the Wanderer was once guardian. If any of this backstory feels incomplete in its development, Wikipedia tells me that The Scar has a prequel, The Gate-Keeper, which for some reason wasn't slated for American release. The Scar can be read and admired on its own. But you will feel as if you're missing something now and again.
An engrossing and almost poetically beautiful novel in its best and most contemplative moments, The Scar is proof that there's a big wide world of wondrous fantastic fiction out there, and we can only hope more of the Dyachenkos' fine work makes it to our shores soon.