Rosa and the Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins contains a sexually hungry heroine, is narrated by Rasputin, and features a host of creepy creatures out of Russian folklore, most of them bent on the ravishment or death of the three main characters. It covers a broad span of history: from 10th century Kiev to present day St. Petersburg, including an alternate version of history in which invading Napoleonic armies are driven out of Czar Aleksandr's Moscow by a horde of mythical demons. It borrows all the classic trappings of Russian fairy tale, from Baba Yaga to flying sleighs. It should be interesting. Yet, save for a few chapters in which Rasputin—here re-imagined as an immortal ambassador from the Russian fairyland of Skazki—relates his version of historical events, the novel is mostly dead weight.
The story opens promisingly enough with the titular heroine discovering a mysterious golden bear behind a bathhouse wall. Born to a mother with magical "sight," Rosa immediately senses that the bear belongs to Skazki, but as she is staying with her uncle Vasily, she is obligated to have her finding appraised. For reasons that remain irritatingly obscure until the closing pages of the novel, Rosa has recently broken up with her lover Daniel, a historian of ancient civilizations. Thinking Daniel may be able to identify the golden bear's place in the archeological time-table (and its material value) Rosa contacts him and sets off a chain of events that result in the two of them being drawn into the dangerous world of Skazki. But not together.
The classic set up of two warring lovers thrown together in extraordinary circumstances, there to battle a host of demons and one another, is a perfect vehicle for a romantic adventure tale (Wilkins's website describes Rosa as a "supernatural thriller," and in the UK it's published by the Gollancz Romancz "paranormal romance" imprint). It therefore seems more than a little odd when Daniel, taking the golden bear to be viewed by another expert in Moscow, is sucked into Skazki not with Rosa, but with his ice-queen co-worker, Em—a woman who is simply along for the ride. It is Daniel and Em's frantic trek through Skazki that occupies most of the novel. Meanwhile, Rosa tracks them to the point at which they disappeared into "the veil of gold" (that separates the two worlds) and becomes, not the avenging angel they need, but a domestic servant in the service of Anatoly, a changeling (or volkhv) who claims he can make Rosa powerful enough to break past the veil if only she'll tutor his young son and help his ailing elder daughter, Elizavetta. While Daniel and Em run for their lives from cannibal ghosts and headless crones, Rosa frets, chain smokes and seduces Elizavetta's new husband, spending endless pages, as Wilkins writes at one point, "stiff with indecision."
Forget the ensuing showdowns with river demons and leshii. The strangest thing about Rosa and the Veil of Gold is Wilkins's choice of characters. If character is the vehicle by which authors express the theme and movement of a story then Wilkins' is driving blind. No coherent theme ever emerges from Rosa and Daniel's storyline. If this is supposed to be a romance, having the central lovers unable to interact with one another for four-hundred pages is a serious hindrance. And after meeting our star couple, this reader was far from certain she wanted such distorted love to conquer all.
Wilkins's fiction has won several awards, including the Aurealis Award for works of speculative fiction by Australian authors (for her novel The Infernal in 1997). She has written several scholarly papers on literary topics and craft. There is no doubt she understands the conventions of the romance genre enough to play with them. But in Rosa and the Veil of Gold she seems determined to subvert generic expectations completely. If anything the book feels anti-romantic. And its chilly spirit is perfectly reflected by its cast of curiously unlikeable heroes.
Rosa is that most loathsome of Mary Sues: a smoldering temptress who fucks to conceal her mystical inner pain, grows admittedly bored with her conquests after a few tumbles and, after endless chapters of agonized worry standing in as a justification for her inactivity, is magically granted everything she needs to literally fly in and save the day. It is unfortunate that Wilkins doesn't reveal the source of Rosa's inner turmoil at the start because it might have elicited some much needed sympathy from her readers. However, once we realize that Rosa is going to spend a criminal amount of time pacing around Anatoly's picturesque cottage, making time with his son-in-law while the man she claims to love is dying of cold and starvation in the increasingly unfriendly fairy realm, we can hardly be blamed for our disgust.
Daniel, while at least consistent in his long distance infatuation with Rosa, fares little better as a character to rally around. As he is fond of admitting, he's a coward.
"We're like two rejects from Oz, Em," he says. "You don't have a heart, and I have no courage" (p. 248). In a passage that reveals both the pros and cons of Wilkins' writing style, Daniel succumbs to the idea that he'll never leave Skazki alive:
Another two days passed and the silence of the river seeped into his blood and organs and calmed him....Sometimes he quietly passed the oars to Em for an hour or two and lay back in the boat to watch the clouded sky move above him, as it had moved above the gaze of every traveler before him....Often, he gazed at the dark forest and thought about death and began to accept it....They ran out of food again and didn't speak of it. (p. 249)
While there is a certain elegiac beauty to Wilkins's prose, its languidness is typical not only of the pace of the novel, but of the passivity of its characters. As well as a romance, Wilkins has described the novel as a thriller. But a tale in which the primary leads alternately partake in extended bouts of vacillation and whining, making no attempt to violently alter their situation, cannot thrill. Even the Rasputin thread, by far the most interesting aspect of the novel, is hamstrung by that character's inability to truly affect anything around him.
To be fair, Wilkins's historical research shines as Rasputin relates his centuries-long quest to reunite Skazki with the mortal realm. As she describes a pagan princess in Byzantium or a riot at the Kremlin her details are alternately sensual and exciting. Rasputin's first person narration, which slowly begins to comment on and then integrate itself into Rosa and Daniel's plight, is a fitting mode for a story based so heavily on the fruits of the oral tradition. But because Wilkins sticks with the historical outcomes we already know, Rasputin's actions—even re-imagined through the lens of fairy—become an explanation of failure. The early pagan leaders still succumb to the rule of the Byzantine Empire. The Romanovs are still assassinated. According to the increasingly convoluted plot line, this destroys Rasputin's last chance to put an heir with Skazki blood on the throne and leaves his future in the hands of Rosa and Daniel. Bad move.
By rights, the novel should have been called Em and the Veil of Gold for, while subsequent plot developments will leave readers wondering why she was even included in the story at all, it is with Em that Wilkins finally gets a bonafide heroine. Rosa may have the "sight" and Daniel may have studied the folklore, but it's Em who Wilkins turns to when her heroes need to be saved from rampaging witches. And it is Em, a self confessed "ice queen," in whom we find the human core of the story so absent elsewhere. Long after you've forgotten Rosa and Daniel's toothless romance, Wilkins' portrait of a frozen woman slowly finding her humanity in an alien realm will stay with you. It's a shame Wilkins finds such a depressing resolution for Em's storyline, but then Rosa and the Veil of Gold is a largely depressing experience. It's a huge, ungainly mosaic of fabulous ideas and questionable execution that ultimately fails, a la Rasputin, to achieve its nebulous goals.
Hannah Strom-Martin's short story "Father Pena's Last Dance" appeared in the 2009 Halloween issue of Realms of Fantasy.
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