Russian folklore and Cold War intrigue come to blows in Barlow’s uneven but charming five-part novel. The reader is introduced to Zoya, a babayaga, or witch, living in Paris some years after WWII, as she gets rid of a lover who has noticed her failure to visibly age. The messy results lead her to drag in Elga, her mentor; Elga in turn gets heat from a detective and turns him into a flea. Zoya then meets, charms, and falls for a CIA agent named Will who has problems of his own. As Elga takes on a new novice in order to take revenge on Zoya, Will’s mistakes entangle him in a CIA plot involving a former Nazi doctor with ties to the babayagas. The love story between Zoya and Will never quite gains believability, and the first half of the novel is slow, but the history Barlow (Sharp Teeth )weaves for the babayagas—Elga in particular—is worth reading. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, the Gernert Company. (Aug.)
“This supernatural-spy-thriller-romance-history is one of the most entertaining books you'll read [this season]or decade.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Tolkien meets Graham Greene meets Anne Rice in this wild, surrealistic caper.” New York magazine
“A fun brew of witches, CIA spies, and fraught romance....Barlow casts a magical spell.” People
“Barlow is adept at combining unexpected genres....When Barlow began writing fiction, he has said, he was ‘blessed by Plimpton's spirit of making the impossible possible.' This book continues in that tradition: It's an absurd hybrid that winds up as a bewitching caper novel.” Los Angeles Times
“Toby Barlow is a warlock. Babayaga is his potion. Drink up.” Robin Sloan, New York Times bestselling author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
After his triumphant 2008 novel Sharp Teeth, in which L.A. werewolves went beyond the usual horror-genre ghetto, Barlow returns with a work equally ambitious but ultimately lacking in the cohesiveness and heft needed to sustain 400 pages. The premise is gripping: a 1959 American ad exec in Paris is really a CIA operative, but love proves it can override work and politics. The romantic interest is Zoya, an ageless witch and a great character next to Inspector Vidot, the story's straight man, who is turned into a flea. The plot tends toward messy, the flashes of wit don't come often enough, and the writing feels rushed or half-baked, which leaves this book a few yards away from another best seller. VERDICT Barlow's true believers may seek this out, but discriminating paranormal readers might want to wait for the next one. [See Prepub Alert, 2/4/13.]—Travis Fristoe, Alachua Cty. Lib. Dist., Gainesville, FL
Mix up Mad Men, Russian folklore, James Bond, An American in Paris, Gorky Park and maybe a hint of Franz Kafka, and you get something like, well, this decidedly odd and most entertaining sophomore novel by Barlow (Sharp Teeth, 2008). Will Van Wyck is anything but an ugly American, but he's a bit at sea in the City of Lights. An adman par excellence back home, he's been slowly stripped of his accounts, ignored at brainstorming sessions where his French counterparts are hopping about to jingles of "Chase your pimples away. Chase your pimples away." But pimples dissolve, and so do mortals, in the face of the supernatural, as represented by the dazzling, chest-heaving Zoya, whose lover wonders how it is that she manages to stay so young; she hasn't changed a day since the liberation--or, for that matter, since the Franco-Prussian War, for all we know. Zoya's got the zazzle of immortality thanks to being turned by a resourceful and oftentimes very bad witch named Elga, who turns up in the story just when mischief is needed, as when said lover winds up in the great beyond and a police detective makes his way to her door, only to be turned into a flea for his troubles. Naturally, Will meets Zoya. Naturally, she puts the zap on him: "There was an essence to her gaze--the way her eyes connected with his--that took the simplest words in his mind and effortlessly broke them down into small, useless heaps of letters." Meanwhile, Will's best pal in Paris turns out to be a CIA spook, and there's all kinds of hijinks to be had there, as, undeterred, Inspector Vidot tours the demimondes of Paris by hitching rides on mangy critters, and Zoya stays a step ahead of the law, the KGB and everyone else who's got an interest in her wiles. Barlow's story is goofy, wholly original and a lot of fun, and he ably captures the feel of both the gray 1950s and free-spirited France. Great reading for a flight to Paris. Just stay away from witches, bathtubs and maybe the Metro once you get there--oh, and spooks, too.