When I heard that another one of the Dyachenkos’ novels was being translated into English, I couldn’t wait to read it. I love their weird, magical, spectacular book Vita Nostra, which was translated in 2018. But even though Daughter from the Dark is designed similarly to Vita Nostra (presumably establishing a uniform style for the authors’ works), it is a very different book – honestly, one that I probably would not have picked up if it was by an author I wasn’t familiar with.
The novel begins late one night when Alexey (better known as DJ Aspirin) is heading home from the club where he works. He is surprised to come across a ten-year-old girl alone in the street with nothing to protect her except her teddy bear, Mishutka. Though not usually inclined to be a Good Samaritan, he is drawn to the girl, Alyona, and doesn’t feel like he can just leave her there – especially not after a group of teenagers tries to attack her with their dog.
But almost as soon as he brings her into his apartment, he regrets his momentary lapse of kindness (a regret that is not totally unconnected to the fact that Mishutka may have come to life and ripped that vicious dog in half). The information Alexey can get out of Alyona is equally strange: She says she comes from another world to find her brother and, à la Pied Piper, must play a complex violin piece to draw him to her.
Despite his skepticism, Alexey finds himself protecting her from a strange man who comes to take her away, a choice that somehow leaves him with a birth certificate claiming Alyona is his daughter. Their relationship over the next few months is never easy: He alternatively resents her, loathes himself, and feels protective of her, and he switches between believing Alyona’s story and wondering if she is some kind of con artist (less supernatural, perhaps, but equally ominous).
And despite my skepticism, I found Daughter from the Dark compulsively readable and unlike anything else I’ve read. I enjoyed the descriptions of Alexey’s work on the radio and found Alyona just as fascinating, enigmatic, and (sometimes) frustrating as Alexey himself. It was a fun read, and I recommend it to those interested in Russian fantasy or broadening their knowledge of the Dyachenkos’ work.
I do think there is some mismatch between the kind of readers this book is being marketed to (those who usually read sci-fi and fantasy) and some of the elements of this novel. For one, Alexey takes a lot more convincing about Alyona’s origins than the reader does; at some point, his skepticism is no longer that interesting. For another, many of the novel’s fantastical elements are left vague – there is very little revealed about Alyona’s past, her brother, or her task. Even more mundane aspects, like some very suspicious, very human organizations who apparently take an interest in Alyona’s abilities, are left unexplained… We never really learn what their motivations are. The ending, too, is a little more sentimental than I was expecting.
None of this makes Daughter from the Dark a bad book (I enjoyed reading it!), but I think it maybe should have been marketed a little differently. Don’t come to this novel looking for an engrossing fantasy; come to find a taste of contemporary Russian fiction and a portrait of a man who doesn’t know where his life is going – one who is completely bewildered and transformed by an unexpected touch of magic.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Harper Voyager, for review.