You don’t have to be a fan of Russian folklore to appreciate The Veil of Gold. Australian writer Kim Wilkins’s latest fantasy takes readers into this dark and magical world where secrets and spells abound.
In the tenth century, Olga, Princess of the Rus, adopted Christianity, giving the Christian Church “a clawhold in the minds of Russian people” and resulting in the dilution or abolishment of many of the old ways. Thus, one world became two. There is Mir, the world of humans. There is also Skazki, which is a "cruel and bitter place. It is also a place where your own death cannot find you; only a death not-of-your-own." A veil separates these two worlds, and it is almost impossible to get across.
The story revolves around a golden bear. Found in an old bathhouse in modern-day St. Petersburg, the bear ‘marks’ three people: Rosa Kovalenka, a Russian beauty who has the second sight; Daniel St. Clair, her former lover and a researcher of Russian history; and his colleague Em Hayward, who accompanies him on his trip. Rosa entreats Daniel to take the mysterious bear to a professor in the university in Arkhangelsk to authenticate it, but along the way he and Em vanish. Rosa searches for them only to learn that the golden bear has taken them across the veil and into Skakzi or "the world of stories."
Wilkins divides the story into three sub-plots. First is Rosa in Mir, where she meets Anatoly Chenchikov, a powerful magician, near one of the veil crossings. He agrees to teach her to understand her second sight. In order to learn from him, she has to stay and work for his family. Rosa soon learns that the Chenchikov family keeps many secrets and hides much pain. Second are Em and Daniel, struggling to make their way through the dangerous world of stories, where the old folktales of woodland and water spirits and witches have come to life. The last sub-plot is of the background history of the division of the two worlds and one man’s mission to bring them back together. Wilkins admirably makes each plot strand as compelling as the next.
Wilkins’ characters are no swashbuckling heroes: “We’re like two rejects from Oz, Em. You don’t have a heart, and I have no courage.” Cowardly Daniel can get on one’s nerves sometimes – he is completely lost and helpless in this new world, and often depends on frosty Em to take the lead. Rosa is vivacious and feisty, but in her story thread the haunted Chenchikov family is more captivating.
It takes a while to get into The Veil of Gold, but as the characters explore the world of story, it becomes a rather engaging read. Page after page flew by, and the book ended all too soon for me. However, parts of the narrative are a little predictable. As one of the characters says, “a good storyteller always knows to select only the tales that are important to his ending.” Wilkins, with nearly 20 books under her belt, does just that – she selects the pieces of her puzzle just a little too carefully, and the book would have worked better with a lighter touch.