“All creatures were alike, all were either eater or eaten, under the wide expanse of the all-consuming night.”
For the space of a breath or two, that wolf had entranced her, mesmerised her, made her believe—the impossible. And that was all it took.
Nothing about this wolf was as it should be.
Pyotra Nikolayevna Kulakova lives in a small Russian settlement in the northern Siberian taiga, where the polar night lasts for a good month out of the year and the temperature rarely reaches above freezing point. Pyotra’s days, too, seem congealed and unchanging, laden with grief, until her baby brother’s close encounter with a tundra wolf upends the lives of the three members of the Kulakov family in one fell swoop.
Pyotra and the Wolf is a queer retelling of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale, structurally influenced by matryoshka dolls and memory castles. This is a story of darkness and light, love and loss, beast and human. Whichever way the spinning kopek falls.
Pyotra and the Wolf is a wonderful reimagination of Sergei Prokofiev’s symphonic fairy tale. The author was able to fully claim the story and make it her own while still honoring the source elements. As I am writing this blog post, Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 composition is happily playing in the background and I must say I highly recommend it for a dynamic but ambient music for either recreation or concentration. I digress but I just really wanted to mention that. Let’s move on!
Elna Holst’s retelling of Prokofiev’s classic tale takes the good old trope of enemies to lovers to new heights in this meeting of hunter and hunted, of predator and prey, where the lines between woman and beast first blurs and then blends until the reader is no longer sure where one entity ends and the other begins. Pyotra and the Wolf is such a unique and sensual experience (at times to the point of steamy), but never without a sense of humor. It is filled with “a disparate assortment of characters” you can’t help but love and root for.
“You are the impossible come true.”
We are introduced to Pyotra–a loyal granddaughter and sister living in a small village in the taiga; and Volk– the mysterious werewolf of the tundra, a fairy tale made real. Two strong women with their own share of vulnerabilities. In a genre populated with “strong” women that borders on questionable morality, it is refreshing to meet two fierce creatures, that are also gentle at heart. As to be expected with the meeting of two formidable forces, there is a lot of crazy and intense moments but I found myself smiling or giggling at every other chapter. Our main characters are “madwomen” and “hags” to borrow the author’s words, and they are mad in the most adorable way. I normally don’t go for insta-love but I’m all for seeing the main characters end up with each other. It is such a joy to see this couple work out how a relationship between woman and wolf could work. It was a lot of fun to witness their banter, and their chemistry just sends up hot sparks even in the frozen tundra setting.
“She was Volk, a wolf of the Siberian tundra, a creature of fur and flesh and bones, running noiselessly through the polar night, her heart beating in tandem with her swift paws across the snow.”
The novel goes beyond challenging social conventions and conservative gender roles but also pushes the boundaries between different species. I liked that the author stayed loyal to the wolf’s bestial traits. It shows even in the smallest details, including her reactions and interactions. I can only describe the relationship between Volk and Pyotra as visceral, and animalistic–in every sense of the word. Holst does not give us a safe or half-assed portrayal. If that is something that you feel may not be for you, maybe think twice about picking this book up. But then again–why not?
I expected a love story, but was pleasantly surprised by the developments in the second half where the reader is introduced to a real monster. As invested as I was from the start on our main couple, I was even more hooked by Part Two. The couple will meet allies along the way and I won’t say a lot more about them in fear of spoilers. What I can say is, I enjoyed the second part a lot not only because I was able to meet new and interesting characters, but also because I learned more about Pyotra and Volk through their interaction with others. I only wish I could have seen more of the ensemble. I love reading stories of found families and this novel has one of the most lovable I’ve ever met.
“Sometimes I think we are all of us monsters. All of us and none of us.”
By the end of the journey I was effortlessly and fully transported to the mesmerizing winter world of the northern Siberian taiga, dazzled by the colors of the northern lights, and brought to the serene beauty of Naryan-Mar, Arkhangelsk and the White Sea; not to mention being absorbed by the many fascinating references to Russian culture. On the cover of the book itself we see a matryoshka doll. This doll (or technically, dolls) is one of the cutest things in the planet, and it is not just a decorative piece. In Russia, it is associated with concepts of family and fertility. It represents the sacred act of a mother carrying a child in her womb, and we see this continuation of births in this symbol of family and lineage. Pyotra and the Wolf also explores the concept of motherhood and bloodlines–in a supernatural perspective that perfectly reflects real nuances of parenthood.
“There are enough things out there to be afraid of. But not this. Not yourself.”
We often read about average humans falling for beasts or vampires or any other kind of mutants, but loving a werewolf is also a different kind of challenge if you consider the duplicity of their existence. Pyotra displays the kind of love that does not see only superficially, it does not exoticize or accept in spite of. Her heart sees and loves both of Volk’s worlds.
“The wolf always die at the end,” the youngest member of the Kulakov family thought at some point in the book. And I can only agree. It happens in almost all of the fairy tales I’ve ever read when I was little. I am glad that finally, in Pyotra and the Wolf, we now see that sometimes the wolf has a kind heart too, and she definitely deserves her own happy ending. 💙
Before I let you go, here’s a link to the wonderful animated adaptation of Peter and the Wolf by Walt Disney from the 1940s. You’re welcome!
Many thanks to the author Elna Holst and the publisher Nine Star Press for the advanced reader copy, gifted with a request for review. I’m a big fan.
About the Author
Often quirky, always queer, Elna Holst is an unapologetic genre bender who writes anything from lesbian lust and love stories to the odd existentialist horror piece. Find her on Instagram @elnaholstwrites, Goodreads, or visit her website here.
Pyotra and the Wolf by Elna Holst
Paperback, 382 pages
Published February 15th 2021 by NineStar Press
Edition Language English
Genre: Fantasy | LGBT | Romance