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Literature / The Year of the Rat

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The Year of the Rat (2009) is a two-book Russian fantasy novel by Olga Gromyko. It is set in an alternative universe in two countries, Rintar and Savria, former allies, now always at odds. The main character is a Rintarian village girl Ryska (meaning in Belorussian "small line, stripe", explained by Word of God), naïve, simple-minded, nine years old at the beginning. She is deeply unhappy at home, because she is the daughter of a Savrian soldier who raped Ryska's mother during the last Savro-Rintarian war. Everyone in the village despises the girl, save perhaps for a weak-willed boy who pities Ryska but doesn't stop his friends from taunting her, and the village priest (Savria and Rintar have the same religion, that being a cult of the good goddess Holga and her mischievous husband Sashiy).


Ryska's life begins to change when she encounters a crazed old man, a former Wanderer (practicing magician in this world). After the meeting, a strange gift awakens in the girl – she begins to foresee and sometimes change the future.

Meanwhile, she is sent to work at the farm of her wealthy uncle (her stepfather's brother) Vikiy, nicknamed Marmot. There Ryska, though starting as shy and restrained, makes friends with a delinquent but brave and good-humored young boy Zhar (in Russian "heat") and a kindly servant woman Fessya, who acts as a mother-figure to her.

But when Zhar is forced to leave for the town (Ryska is around fourteen at the time) she begins to grow lonely again. Fessya is sympathetic with the girl, believing her to be in love with Zhar – but Ryska thinks of him only as a brother.


Marmot arranges a marriage between Ryska and his own lazy, infantile son, and the infuriated Ryska runs away. She goes to town in hopes of meeting Zhar, but on her way finds a mysterious talking rat called Alk Haskil, extremely hateful and sarcastic – who is not what he seems.

The Year of the Rat contains examples of:

  • Accidental Truth: Two villagers in the first book, and the truth isn't revealed until the second half of the second one. They joke about Tsarevich Shares who's still single at thirty and say that he must be longing for the Savrian Tsarevna. He is.
  • Action Girl: Ryska. Unwillingly. She dreams of a quiet happy family life, but ends up stealing cows, fighting Wanderers and robbing castles.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Zhar and Alk, both womanizers, are a thief and a perverted vagabond respectively.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Ryska's whiny stepbrother, eight years her junior. Before his birth she gets at least some affection from her mother, but after...
    • In a lesser sense, Alk's younger sister. He describes her as "sometimes annoying", and in comparison with himself it means VERY annoying.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: Both sons of the Tsar of Rintar. The first was planning a coup against his father but was killed before he could set it into action, and the second quietly defies his father while also... well, it's rather small to be called a "coup", but Shares makes allies with his father's trusted guards and spies.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: There's quite a number of mighty seers who can change the future, and a talking rat is relatively easy to take in, but magic is something only used in fairytales, says Ryska (a seer herself, by the way).
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: Discussed. Ryska is afraid to go to a tavern in the morning because she thinks she will be taken for an early-rising hooker. Alk remarks that there's absolutely no chance of that, and she can't help but feel a bit offended.
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Practically everyone notices the chemistry going on between Alk and Ryska, at least by the beginning of the second book. While Alk is constantly taunting Ryska, and Ryska thinks she hates him.
  • Retired Badass: Also can be counted as Badass Grandpa. Alk's grandfather, who moved to Rintar to feel as alone as possible, may seem a quiet hermit, but no cordial family welcome for that disappointment of a grandson!
    • An opposite kind of Retired Badass - the grandpa from Vikiy's farm. He's no one's grandpa, but everyone calls him so. He used to be a military doctor during previous Savro-Rintarian wars, but now he does small tasks at the farm. He is quite a Grandparental Substitute for Ryska: tells her stories, teaches her to read, comforts her when she's frightened of rats, and is the only one to rush for her rescue when she comes face-to-face with a rabid fox.
      • And yet another example being the Former (no one knows his name), the elderly Seer who was kicked out of the Wanderers' Haven and gone absolutely nuts. He awakens the Seeing gift in Ryska - to be eaten alive by rats only a day later.
  • The Bartender: Lots of them, and all practically the same: each advertising their bar (the feedery, as these things are called in Savria and Rintar) and trying to get as much money from the guests as possible.
  • Betty and Veronica: The gender-switched example. Ryska initially dreams of a simple Nice Guy sort of husband, but when presented with a choice, realizes she cares more for the sarcastic jerk Alk.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Zhar, who's very smart but spends most of his smartness on trying to figure out a way to enjoy life without much work.
  • The Bully: Ilay, the leader of the village children who plays them against Ryska.
  • The Cynic: Alk almost all of the time. Basically he softens only (but not every time!) when remembering his parents and sister.
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Alk. His bawdy jokes infuriate Ryska and he never fails to tease her about her growing attraction to him, but woe betide any perverse bandit who comes near the girl.
  • Child Mage: Ryska in the first chapters.
  • Disappeared Dad: Ryska's biological father. He never reappears again after raiding Ryska's village. Well, Ryska's stepfather as well makes only brief appearances after sending the girl to Vikiy, and they never talk again.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Alk. Always like that. Even when he's turned into a rat, drugged, sick and beaten half to death.
  • Droit du Seigneur: Discussed. When Zhar asks Alk about it, the latter tells him that technically it was an option in his family home, but he didn't like it: there was no fun with the unwilling women, and from the willing ones there was later no escape.
  • Embarrassing First Name: The two cows Zhar finds near a village took part in a half-religious carnival involving the banishment of disease and death… and are henceforth called Disease and Death respectively.
  • Fat Idiot: All three of Marmot's spoiled noisy kids. Also, Mayor Sharak – though that one has moments of enlightenment.
  • Food Porn: "Eggs with lard and parsley", "cheesecake with ghee", "pancakes with sauce", "fried potato rolls"... are you drooling already? Well, perhaps "a crow with carrots" might make a difference for you. But not for the characters, since crows are edible and considered a gourmet dish!
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Ryska hates Alk, but she still doesn't like it at all when he enjoys himself with local hookers.
  • Handsome Lech: Even being a hated Savrian on Rintar territory and throwing meaningful jokes around, Alk manages to be very popular with girls.
  • The Idealist: Ryska, after living at the farm. She, for example, feels uneasy about defying authorities, such as town mayors, because she firmly believes that the ruling ones are good and honest, guards are law-abiding as no other, etc. etc.
  • Just Friends: Ryska and Zhar. He admits she is very attractive and playfully flirts with her sometimes, but overall they are Like Brother and Sister.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Subverted with Savrian men who wear their hair long and braided.
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Tsar Vitor, his relationship with Tsarevich Shares becoming more and more strained, suspects that Shares isn't his biological son.
  • Mayor Pain: The evil sort of one, to be exact. The mayor of Zaitsegrad (Haretown) does an excellent work to improve the town's appearance and infrastructure, but for his manners and behavior towards the citizens he isn't very popular.
  • Mysterious Past: Alk's past is like this during the first book. The second gradually unveils it.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits!: Zhar isn't really Ryska's biological brother, anyway, they think of each other as siblings, and he's very protective over her when it comes to Alk. He's quite The Casanova himself, but he always knew that Ryska is a much more gullible, gentle and fragile girl, and he is sure Alk will do nothing but hurt her.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Many of the main characters' troubles come from the countries' secret service that hunt down a love letter written by Tsarevich Shares of Rintar to Tsarevna Isenara of Savria to reassure her of his devotion, Tsarevich Shares being one of the nicest characters overall.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Ryska becomes desperate after noticing Alk through a brothel's window playing with a half-naked hooker's breasts… while in reality he was pinning down a killer in the secret service's pay.
    • Played for Laughs when Zhar breaks into a rich lady's house (not to burgle, but to obtain evidence and save a chance acquaintance from the hangman), and the lady thinks him a Stalker with a Crush who has come to have his way with her. Trouble is that she's a Fat Idiot who has to turn sideways to pass through the door.
  • Roman à Clef: Savro-Rintarian religion is based on two deities: benevolent and hard-working Holga and mischievous Sashiy. Holga is an alternative spelling of Olga, author's name, and Sashiy is a joking derivative from Alexandr, her husband's name. In her blog Olga accidentally calls that her husband, confirming this.
  • Self-Made Man: Vikiy aka Marmot. He is the most prosperous farmer in the region, and it's rumored he began with "a calf worth barely half a srebr", srebr being a silver coin.
  • Shrinking Violet: During her first days at the farm, Ryska is a classic of this trope. Used to being loathed and ignored at home she fears everyone and rarely ever speaks. Her mood begins to change when Fessya comforts and praises her and Zhar fights the village boys who were insulting Ryska.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Tsarevich Irtan, who is a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, and his brother Tsarevich Shares, a kind and just man.
  • Sickeningly Sweethearts: Tsarevich Shares and Tsarevna Isenara. Merely reading Tsarevich's love letter can give you toothache.
  • The Snark Knight: Alk: "I hate villagers. Stupid, senseless beings". Ryska: "So I can't hate Savrian men and you can hate Rintarian villagers, huh?" Alk: "Savrian villagers are pretty much the same. And I'm not asking anybody to love me".
  • Seers: Actually recognized in this universe. Ryska is a seer but later sacrifices her gift, Alk is one as well. Anyone who possesses the gift of prediction and altering of the future but doesn't make it his main profession is called Seer. And the Seers who are purposefully trained to strengthen that ability are named Wanderers.
    • Wanderers that for any reason don't have a rat to amplify their abilities are often called Seers as well.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Ryska's relationship with Alk. Though they technically don't kiss during the novel. Yet.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: The characters' landlady from Losiniye Yamy (Elkpits) tells Ryska a story of her youth, which includes her... ahem, sort-of romance with one of the Savrians who occupied the town. It's hinted that she still misses the lustful Savrian (who was killed) a lot more than her husband (after all of his cows died in an epizootic, leaving him penniless, he turned to alcohol and harlots, and died early in the war).
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Ryska and Alk, by the middle of the second book deep into that. They have many awkward moments - like Alk offering Ryska to roast a goose for her (in Savria men roast meat for women after sleeping with them) or Ryska getting teased by their landlady about her relationship with Alk; but they never do IT.
  • White Hair, Black Heart. Played with. Savrians usually have white hair, and in the Rintarian villagers' opinion they are all evil. Subverted with most Savrian characters, most notably Alk and Tsarevna Isenara.

Example of: