Toby Barlow’s wonderful Babayaga is the story of two dueling femme fatale witches named Zoya and Elga, and the hapless men that get drawn into their epic struggle for dominance. The story takes place in Paris in the 1950s, as Detroit expat Will van Wyck is starting to become aware that his advertising agency might actually be a front for The Agency, the CIA. His new acquaintance Oliver, a small-time publishing magnate who might also be a spook introduces him to the startling beautiful Zoya, who’s involved in a murder case being investigated by Detective Vidot, who’s then turned into a flea by the aged Elga for his troubles. Mind you, this does not stop him from working the case in the slightest, as he is incredibly determined, and probably the most endearing character in the story. As Zoya and Elga’s century-long partnership begins to fall out, the Parisian demimonde is set ablaze with hidden weapons, a secret psychic super-soldier drug program, and even more human transmutations,
This book is very reminiscent of one I read a few months ago, another tale of Parisian magic and intrigue, Christopher Moore’s Sacre Bleu, but it also calls to mind the fantastic novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from a few years back. Like Moore’s book, it has a slightly satirical look at the City of Lights figured through the lens of urban fantasy, but what sets Barlow’s novel apart is its much steadier grasp on tone and voice. Like Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange, Babayaga gives us the entire history of two incredibly powerful magic-users, from their initial meeting to the events that drew them apart. I really liked the feel Barlow has developed for his magic system, and I also liked the alternative view of history the book presents, that witches have had an invisible hand in most of the lives (and especially the deaths) of the so-called “great men” of history.
Going in to this one, I recalled really enjoying Barlow’s first book, Sharp Teeth, and I feel now that Babayaga is a very worthy followup. If you haven’t read it, Sharp Teeth was a very interesting book indeed, as it was a book-length blank verse poem about a group of werewolves living in modern-day L.A. and the dogcatcher that falls in love with one of them. Babayaga also has poetic inserts, as ghosts of other witches compare and contrast the events going on in the modern day with those that befell them, acting as an invisible chorus. These were very evocative and lovely, even though the events they describe are often quite grisly. Barlow’s evocation of the atmosphere of Paris at this time is indelible upon the story, and very memorable. I particularly enjoyed the period film references, as the book takes place right around the time that the French New Wave was about to burst onto the scene.
As a story primarily focused on a female rivalry, Babayaga is fairly unique in the world of literary fantasy. It’s worth checking out not only for that, but for the hilariously convoluted plot, the vision of Paris that it manages to bring to fruition and also the beautiful poetic language. Highly recommended.