Egg & Spoon
Like the legendary phoenix rising from its ashes, folklore carries the potential for infinite regeneration. Gregory Maguire, author of the popular The Wicked Years series, is back with another revisionist fairy tale. This once-upon-a-time is set in tsarist Russia and features an interlocking structure of stories-within-stories, reminiscent of the Russian nesting doll. The novel’s frame introduces Brother Uri, a monk locked in a tower for betraying the Tsar. While serving his prison sentence, Uri narrates the main action of EGG & SPOON. By some unknown magic, the partially blind Uri takes on the vision of the birds flocking outside his tower. The rare ability inspires him to consider the world from a wider lens: “A bird sees out of both sides of its head. It can see two stories happening at the same time, on two sides of its world. We humans can’t do that very often.” Uri’s dual narrative, following two young heroines, reflects this new perspective.
"EGG & SPOON truly picks up steam when the infamous crone Baba Yaga makes her entrance. Maguire endows her with a sharp sense of humor, marked by contemporary pop culture references."
Like Scheherazade prolonging her life through storytelling, Uri tells his captor the tale of two 13-year-old girls --- one rich and one poor --- and their chance meeting. Elena and her family are slowly starving in the countryside. Meanwhile Ekaterina (Cat) and her great-aunt are traveling by luxury train to St. Petersburg for the Tsar’s ball. Cat bears a lavish present for the Tsar, a Fabergé egg depicting icons of Russian folklore: the Firebird, the witch Baba Yaga and the Ice Dragon. When a bridge collapses outside Elena’s hometown of Miersk, Cat and her aunt are trapped. By the time the train is moving again, Elena and Cat have accidentally traded places, with Elena bound for St. Petersburg and Cat stranded in Miersk.
The mishap launches the heroines on a fantastic adventure, one that upends class distinctions and the magic that holds Russia together. Suddenly both girls are living out their own version of the tales shown on the Fabergé egg. EGG & SPOON truly picks up steam when the infamous crone Baba Yaga makes her entrance. This is no typical Baba Yaga; Maguire endows her with a sharp sense of humor, marked by contemporary pop culture references. But behind her quips lies a maternal concern for Russia’s wellbeing. With magic on the fritz, it’s up to Cat, Elena and the witch to set things right.
For all its grandeur, EGG & SPOON is not without its flaws. Compared to the wise-cracking Baba Yaga, the novel’s heroines feel somewhat flat and undifferentiated. And while the metaliterary touches add depth to Maguire’s world-building, the constant shifts in focus often interrupt the reader’s momentum. The journey, however halting, proves worthwhile as Maguire unpacks his nested stories and reassembles them to achieve satisfying closure.
Reviewed by Emma Kantor on September 9, 2014