The Pickled Mushroom

Book: Kai Meyer – Frostfeuer | June 1, 2009

Title: Frostfeuer

Author: Kai Meyer

Date of publication: 2005

Original language: German

Der alte Mann saß auf einer Bank vor dem Winterpalais und fütterte die Schneeflocken.

Neben ihm lag ein kleiner Lederbeutel, aus dem er dann und wann eine Hand voll silbrigen Staubes hervorzog und mit einem leisen, glücklichen Lachen vor sich in die Luft streute. Die wattigen Flocken, die seit Tagen ununterbrochen aus dem grauen Himmel fielen, schwärmten sogleich aus alles Richtungen herbei und ballten sich um die glitzernde Wolke. Wenn sie am Boden ankamen, war der Staub verschwunden. Die Schneeflocken hatten ihn aufgezehrt.

~*~

The old man was sitting on a bench in front of the winter palace and fed the snowflakes.

Next to him lay a small leather bag out of which he took every now and then a handful of silvery dust and sprinkled it with a quiet, happy laugh into the air in front of him. The cottony flakes that had been falling out of the grey sky for days immediately came swarming from all directions and clustered around the glittering cloud. When they reached the ground, the dust had gone. The snowflakes had eaten it all up.

High up in the North, eternally frozen since the beginnings of time, shrouded in snow and mist, lies the kingdom of the Snow Queen – no one goes there without good reason, for she is cold and cruel as the lands she reins over.

One day in 1893, however, Tamsin Spellwell dares what no one has dared before: the young sorceress steals an icicle from the Queen’s heart and such brings her wrath upon herself. She flees to St Petersburg.

In the capital of the czardom, the girl Maus (= mouse) was born twelve years ago in the grand hotel Aurora and has grown up there, never leaving the building once in her life. She is bullied by the other servants, called girl boy for her androgynous appearance and given the most tedious tasks. One day, however, when the hotel boys play the cruel prank on her of putting her out of doors and she nearly freezes to death, she is rescued by Tamsin – and so begins their acquaintance that will lead to much more. Because by this time, the Snow Queen has arrived at the Aurora and is out to get the icicle back… Without it, she cannot contain the cold she is holding from the beginning of time, and it will slowly consume and crush the world. With her, she has the mysterious mute boy Erlen, and Maus is drawn right into the feud between the two powerful sorceresses…

The book is presumably directed at younger readers, older children and teens, but has the power of enchanting any reader. Kai Meyer’s writing is truly spell-binding, rarely is it so easy to get drawn into a book. His style is so visually descriptive and magical that it is hard not to find yourself shivering as Maus is out in the cold, or holding on to your chair when the world turns upside-down.

Despite the somewhat younger age group, the story does not have a simple, linear concept of “the good guys” and “the bad guys” – people are not what they seem to be, loyalties change, ulterior motives are revealed and the past discovered bit by bit. I personally love all the characters very much. Tamsin is absolutely beautiful, like a dream image come alive to me with her strange clothes in screaming colours, her magical words and her conflict between love for the present including those around her, and revenge. Maus is quite adorable, a shy heroine, tormented by her fear of the outside world and the others’ constant bullying, but she develops and overcomes herself in many ways as she discovers the magic in the world – and the truth about her own origins.

Kai Meyer is one of my favourite German authors, my personal favourite is his Wellenläufer trilogy (= wave walkers). He was born 1969 in Lübeck and is one of the most successful German writers of the present, a representative of modern magical realism – connecting historical persons and events with fantastic elements -, most famous for his Merle trilogy and his historical fiction. (The latter I do not find as convincing as his fantasy, however.)

As far as I know Frostfeuer has not been translated into the English language yet, but maybe that is still going to happen. To finish this review, a second excerpt – one of my favourite bits.

Hautlos, wie die Abbildung in einem von Kukuschkas Biologiebüchern, ging sie weiter. Mit ihrer Haut war auch ihre Kleidung verschwunden. Ihre Muskeln, Sehnen und Blutgefäße lagen offen. Alles glitzerte und glänzte, schillerte in alles Farben des Regenbogens, pulsierte und bebte und funkelte roh. So also sehe ich darunter aus, dachte sie verblüfft. Sie wartete vergeblich darauf, dass sich heillose Panik einstellte. Stattdessen brachte Maus es fertig, an sich herabzusehen, sich selbst zu inspizieren wie einen faszinierenden Fremdkörper. Ein wenig Ekel überkam sie, aber selbst der hielt sich in Grenzen. Nach einem Augenblick begann sie sogar, Schönes an sich zu Entdecken, zum allerersten Mal in ihrem Leben. Ja, unter ihrer Haut, der spröden Verpackung des Mädchenjungen, war auch sie wunderschön und glanzvoll, beinahe elegant. Niemals hätte sie gedacht, dass ihr beim Nachdenken über sich selbst je das Wort Perfektion in den Sinn käme. Aber der rohe, unverhüllte Leib, der sie jetzt in Richtung der vierten Tür trug, schien ihr genau das zu sein: geradezu vollkommen.

~*~

Skinless as the pictures in one of Kukuschka’s biology books she continued walking. Her clothes had disappeared along with her skin. Her muscles, sinew and blood vessels lay open. Every glittered and shone, shimmered in all colours of the rainbow, pulsed and trembled and glinted raw. So that’s what I look like underneath, she thought stunned. She waited futilely for panic to arise. Instead she managed to look down herself, to inspect herself like a fascinating foreign object. After a moment she even began to discover beautiful things in herself, for the very first time of her life. Yes, under her skin, in the brittle packaging of the girl boy, she was beautiful too and glittering, almost elegant. Never would she have thought that thinking about herself the word perfection would ever cross her mind. But the raw, unveiled body that carried her in the direction of the fourth door now seemed to be exactly that to her: almost perfect.

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