Book Review

Thistlefoot

Thistlefoot

  • Author: GennaRose Nethercott
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Publication Date: September 13, 2022
  • Publisher: Anchor Books
  • Thank you to NetGalley and Anchor Books for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: murder, blood, antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, violence, gore, death

In the tradition of modern fairytales like American Gods and Spinning Silver comes a sweeping epic rich in Eastern European folklore–a debut novel about the ancestral hauntings that stalk us, and the uncanny power of story.

The Yaga siblings–Bellatine, a young woodworker, and Isaac, a wayfaring street performer and con artist–have been estranged since childhood, separated both by resentment and by wide miles of American highway. But when they learn that they are to receive a mysterious inheritance, the siblings are reunited–only to discover that their bequest isn’t land or money, but something far stranger: a sentient house on chicken legs.

Thistlefoot, as the house is called, has arrived from the Yagas’ ancestral home in Russia–but not alone. A sinister figure known only as the Longshadow Man has tracked it to American shores, bearing with him violent secrets from the past: fiery memories that have hidden in Isaac and Bellatine’s blood for generations. As the Yaga siblings embark with Thistlefoot on a final cross-country tour of their family’s traveling theater show, the Longshadow Man follows in relentless pursuit, seeding destruction in his wake. Ultimately, time, magic, and legacy must collide–erupting in a powerful conflagration to determine who gets to remember the past and craft a new future.

An enchanted adventure illuminated by Jewish myth and adorned with lyrical prose as tantalizing and sweet as briar berries, Thistlefoot is an immersive modern fantasy saga by a bold new talent. 

I’ve read a few stories about Baba Yaga and her house with chicken legs, but this one absolutely blew the rest of those out of the water. Nethercott has put an entirely new spin on the story, melding historical fiction, Jewish folklore, magical realism, and fantasy with a story of two siblings facing the long legacy of intergenerational trauma, and I was hooked from the first page to the very end.

Isaac and Bellatine are two estranged siblings who are brought back together by a phone call promising a mysterious inheritance all the way from Russia. But when they actually receive it, it’s nothing like what they expected. It’s actually nothing they could have ever dreamed up, since it’s … a house on chicken legs, that responds to verbal commands delivered in Yiddish, a language that neither of them speaks. 

In fact, the two of them don’t actually know much about their family history or background. They were raised in a family that didn’t focus on any kind of family history or religious traditions at all, eschewing them in favor of creating new holidays of their own. So they know nothing of the Yaga family or the land they came from. Instead, they focus on Isaac’s plan to put on some puppet shows across the country so that Bellatine can fulfill her end of the bargain, and Isaac will let her have the house, which they’ve called Thistlefoot.

However, there’s a dangerous thing following them known as the Longshadow Man. And he’ll do anything to destroy Thistlefoot, and anyone else who gets in the way. On their travels, Isaac and Bellatine come across a small group of people who know about the Longshadow Man, and are working to fight against him. 

I really loved Bellatine and Isaac’s characters, despite their flaws. They’re two siblings who definitely don’t see eye to eye, and I can completely understand that. The two of them also have very different goals in life, and very different ways of living. Isaac is more of a wanderer, happy going from place to place and never settling down, which is conducive to his street performer/hustling lifestyle, while Bellatine is more of a homebody, happiest when she’s working with her hands as a carpenter. But they’re both keeping secrets, from each other and the rest of the world, and they’re not completely sure they can trust each other.

One of my favorite parts of the story is the way that traumatic events echo down through generations. Today we call it intergenerational trauma, which is a well-studied phenomenon, but they didn’t have words for it just a few generations ago. Both sides of my family left their countries of birth due to antisemitic violence in different generations, and it has carried over into the younger generations in various ways, whether we were aware of it or not. This quote hit me right into the feels:

“There are no ghosts of the dead. But events? Events, if they carry enough wailing, can leave a mark.”

I couldn’t stop reading this story, but at the same time, I almost didn’t want it to end. I probably could have flown through it, but there was just something about it that demanded that I slow down and savor the story. It’s written beautifully, with hints of romance that never overshadow the story. I loved the underlying Jewishness of the story, despite the fact that the two MCs aren’t religious or even culturally Jewish, because you don’t have to be knowledgable or practicing to be Jewish. It’s perfectly paced, with plenty of action and plot twists, and I couldn’t put the story down at any point. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more of Nethercott’s work, even if I still think puppets are a bit creepy.

People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn’t an upper limit.

Gasp Factor: 12

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