One of the standard critiques of the Twilight series is that the protagonist stands in between two supernatural critters and the only choice she can make is between the two of them. A pair of male supernatural entities also bracket the action of Baba Yaga’s Daughter and Other Tales of the Old Races, but the women who pass between them are anything but helpless, passive, or shackled. Instead, they’re the real powers in this collection of short stories, one that fills in the gaps in the secret history of author C.E. Murphy’s Negotiator.
At first blush, it appears the book is about the two “men” — vampire Eliseo Daisani and dragonlord Janx — and their eternal, mostly friendly competition. When we meet them, they’re newly arrived in Russia and playing at rivals for the hand of a budding witch. Except, of course, the witch is a) the legendary Princess Anastasia and b) the daughter of the ancient and powerful Baba Yaga, who knows just how to catch a dragon and bend it to her will. And surely, there’s no better bait for a vainglorious dragonlord than a beautiful, seemingly helpless girl with a whiff of magic about her.
Anastasia has plans of her own, though, and she’s far from content to be a pawn in her mother’s game. And so the final act in what might be the long dance of the Old Races is kicked open. What follows is a chase down the years, jumping back to the Chicago Fire and its supernatural causes, and jumping forward to the present day where all lies are finally revealed and a century-old reckoning comes due.
Janx and Daisani are compelling characters, both smooth and confident, and playing off each other to great effect. However, this isn’t their book. It belongs to Anastasia, and to Daisani’s human partner Vanessa Grey. It belongs to the peerless vampire hunter Susannah Stacey, whose pursuit of a missing dragon’s egg helps set Chicago ablaze, and it belongs to Margrit Knight, whose skills at negotiation may be the only thing that saves the Old Races from themselves. The men provide the framework, but these are women’s stories, and they drive the action that pushes the narrative through the long years.
Stylistically, Murphy experiments from tale to tale. “Chicago Bang Bang” is noir pastiche, while “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” is deliberately arch in tone and construction. Anastasia’s stories —“From Russia, With Love” and “Baba Yaga’s Daughter” – are largely stream of consciousness, driven by image and description instead of action. And Vanessa’s stories – “Five Card Draw” and “Last Hand” are more straightforward, understated and explicative. The constant change-up in style and technique keeps the collection fresh and the reading experience from getting repetitive.
The book itself is gorgeous. Cover art comes courtesy of Thomas Canty. At 264 pages it may feel a bit short to the voracious reader, but the stories themselves are a delightful coda to Murphy’s Negotiator books, and coherent enough to be read and appreciated by a reader who hasn’t experienced the trilogy.