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Julie Mathison
Elena the Brave

From award-winning indie author Julie Mathison comes the sequel to BookLife Prize Semi Finalist VASILISA.

Old Rus, a land of witches and ogres, bogatyr warriors and six-headed dragons, magic and myth. A land lurking below the waking world, a fabled land – except for the chosen few.

It’s 1942, and the world is at war. Elena Petrovna Volkonsky is just a schoolgirl in a Pennsylvania steel town, the Russia of her forebears long forgotten – except in tales, sung by her babka in haunting tones. Elena can picture Old Rus clearly as she ponders her pet rock, its surface black and smooth, but its depths strange. Such visions! The snow-swollen Dnepr, wending southward through the wild steppe all the way to Byzantium. Vladimir of the Bright sun, ruling from glorious Kiev!. If only it were real. If only hers was not just an ordinary family in trying times. An ordinary family – with an extraordinary destiny.

Be careful what you wish for.

Meanwhile, Old Rus is in crisis. A dragon flies, a maiden is captured, and the great bogatyr, Dobrynya, is tasked with her rescue. But his son, Mitya, senses treachery on all sides. How can you save a man who will not save himself? And must he venture alone, trailing his father across the steppe where warring nomads range, even to the distant peaks of the Sorochinsk Mountains? He is prepared to do just that when a strange girl appears in the prince’s stables and upends all his plans.

What happens when two worlds – and hearts – collide?

Semi Finalist

Plot/Idea: 9 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 10 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 9.75 out of 10


Plot/Idea: Mathison returns to Old Rus, the exceptionally well-constructed fantasy world introduced in VASILISA, one that blends the mythical and the historical to winning effect. 

Prose: Mathison uplifts the story with elegant phrasing, original vocabulary, and lively descriptions of both the mundane and magical. Readers will feel fully immersed in the tale from the first page to the last.

Originality: The author's captivating worldbuilding, clear knowledge of folklore, and convincing historical setting, allows Elena the Brave to stand out.

Character Development/Execution: The titular protagonist proves to be complex, spirited, and charmingly impulsive. Readers will value her growth throughout the novel, while a vibrant cast of central and side characters--human, dragon, or otherwise--further enhances the story. 

Date Submitted: July 18, 2022

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review

A teenager leaves 1940s Pennsylvania to seek her destiny in medieval Russia in the second book in Mathison’s Old Rus fantasy series, following Vasilisa (2021).

It’s 1942, and 15-year-old Elena Ivanova Volkonsky loves James Cagney movies, flying with her pilot father, and listening to great-grandmother Babka’s Russian ballads about witches, spirits, ogres, and giants. Her favorite: the saga of “Dobrynya and the Dragon.” A strange black stone gives her visions of the dragon slayer, and her focus shifts to Mitya, Dobrynya’s teenage son, as events unfold involving his father and the court’s ruler, Prince Vladimir. Elena’s odd feeling of kinship with Mitya, her discovery of her mother’s companion black stone, and hints of enigmatic secrets allow her to find her way into the Russia of Babka’s tales. Mathison weaves themes of love, betrayal, and self-discovery into a believable world of magic, myth, and history. In it, three remarkable young people—Elena, 16-year-old noble Mitya, and their young companion, Sasha, a 12-year-old boy saddened by his own secrets—embark on a quest through forest, desert, and mountains to find Dobrynya, whom scheming Prince Vladimir has ordered to slay one last dragon. (A mysterious traveler lists the trio’s unseen burdens, integral to what is to come: Mitya carries his “father’s sins,” Sasha bears “the burden of knowledge without wisdom,” and Elena’s “line bears the burden of the stones.”) Mathison’s tale hauntingly interweaves the dragons, 1940s America, and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in a way that might have felt forced in less-skilled hands. Elena is a spirited hero who’s quick to castigate herself for impetuosity but just as apt to put her knowledge, generosity, and intuition into action. As she affects those around her, she absorbs lessons about love and loss. Readers will root for Elena to stay with Mitya and not return home, and the author masterfully finesses that decision. Also included is a glossary of historic and mythical Russian names and words.

A vivid mix of history, romance, and folklore with a notably relatable hero.

Writer's Digest Competitions

1st Place Winner for YA Fiction: 2022 Writer's Digest Self-published Ebook Award.

A beautifully written tale. The author excellently weaves old Russian myths, lyrical prose, and 1940s history into one coherent and compelling tale that is hard to put down. The prose is particularly magical, with gorgeous sentences and lush language, and the relationships between characters, especially Elena and Vasilia and Elena and Mitya, stick with the reader longer after the tale has been told. Compactfully and beautifully told, Elena the Brave is a gorgeous novel that the reader will enjoy to both learn more about Old Rus and read a well crafted story. The ending is poetic and beautiful, as the reader can also feel Mitya’s longing, and the family connection in the wedding truly brings the novel full circle for a satisfying ending.