Chasing Ravens by Jessica E. Paige

Chasing RavensAnouk was sent to Stradat on a day so dark and gray it seemed the sun had fled. Summer had just turned to autumn and already the torrents of rain fell, forming millions of tiny rivers where the ground had once been. The carriage horse struggled up the steep mountain, his muscles struggling to pull the heavy load. From inside the carriage, Anouk could see the steam rising from the gelding’s back, and she winced each time the driver cracked his whip.

The red satin dress she was wearing absorbed the cold, damp air. But it was the one proper dress she owned, and the women in Pagor had insisted she wear it. After all, they told her, with fingers wagging, looking decent was the least she could do for an uncle who had agreed to take her in.

When Anouk’s father dies, she’s sent to live with an uncle in another town. There, she’s expected to work for her living, while her lazy cousin is resentful and cruel to her. From these Cinderella beginnings, however, things take a rather different turn. Anouk isn’t waiting for a prince to save her: when her uncle promises her hand in marriage to an abusive drunk, she takes matters into her own hands and runs away. On her way back to the village of her birth, however, she gets turned around in the forest and ends up somewhere quite different: the settlement of Devya.

Anouk settles in, better than she’d ever imagined. She apprentices herself to the healer Ausrine; she learns archery with the villagers; she builds perhaps her first grown-up friendship with Eva. She even gets a dog.

However, all is not as idyllic as it first appears. There’s a longstanding truce between the people of Devya and the woodsmen, trolls, and ogres who live in the Dark Forest across the river. But hunters have been breaking their word, straying into lands not theirs to hunt, and a violent plague starts to affect the townsfolk. As a healer, Anouk wants nothing more than to save her friends and neighbours, but it soon becomes apparent that typical remedies won’t work on this supernatural affliction.

Chasing Ravens draws heavily on elements of Russian folklore, and Baba Yaga lurks in the depths of the forest. I’m not familiar enough with this background to judge its fidelity to the original mythology, but it was an interesting and compelling setting.

The characters, though, are what really drew me in. I love stories which rely on teamwork and friendship, and that was a strength of this book. There was romantic sub-plot, but this was only a minor splash of colour in the fabric of Anouk’s life. It’s her other relationships which are placed front and centre: her friendship with Eva, her tutelage under Ausrine, and even her interactions with the animals that populate the forest. Although much of Anouk’s quest is her own personal journey, it’s her acquired loyalty to the citizens of Devya that drives her, and the ending in particular is a testament to trust and co-operation.

This is a gentle, thoughtful piece that drew me in and kept me engaged after I’d turned the final page.

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