REVIEW: “The Swamp Hag’s Apprentice” by Szmeralda Shanel

Review of Szmeralda Shanel, “The Swamp Hag’s Apprentice”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 101-124 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Despite the change of location — shifted from the Slavic forests to the southern American swamps — and the translation of the names — from Vasilisa to Queenie — the first half of the story is identical to the classic story of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Once Queenie finds the swamp hag, the story shifts into something new, as the swamp hag sets her not impossible tasks but a variety of lessons, training Queenie to be her apprentice.

Unfortunately, this story didn’t quite do it for me. It was too repetitious of others in the anthology in the beginning, and the plot and motivation in the second half were not clear to me. I also found the overall “voice” of the story unclear; sometimes it slipped into dialect, sometimes it read in quite a high register, most of it was in the past tense, but sometimes it shifted into the present tense. I’m not against these types of things in principle, but I want to see clearly why an author choose the voice they do at each point. For instance, if the dialogue was in dialect and the narration in the high register, that would make sense; or if the entire story were told in dialogue, including the narration, that would also make sense, and would have been enjoyable. Similarly, if the shift in tense happened in particular scenes, or particular characters, that would make sense; but as it was, it was a sentence here or there, in the middle of a paragraph in the past tense, leaving me uncertain whether it was a deliberate choice or simply a mistake.