In the world of Rusalka, magic is a matter of intent or "wishing." Sasha is an orphaned teen who has long kept his wishing abilities as tightly leashed as possible, living as he does on the mercy of his aunt and uncle. But when the town's layabout jokester lands himself in trouble and unwittingly involves Sasha, they must flee together. The wounded Pyetr Kochevikov, who once frolicked with the children of the nobility, finds in Sasha a true and unstinting friend. Although their theoretical destination is Kiev, the two refugees find themselves wandering through a blighted forest and eventually end up at the mercy of the cranky and elderly wizard Uulamets.
Uulamets agrees to heal Pyetr and teach Sasha in return for an undefined payment, which repeatedly leads the young men into peril. The old wizard's daughter Eveshka is a rusalka, a spirit that devours all living energy around it; Uulamets wants to bring her back to life, and Sasha and Pyetr become caught up in his magical workings. An emotional sympathy arises between Pyetr and Eveshka, despite the fact that her mere presence drains him of life without outside intervention. Budding wizard Sasha learns to negotiate the world with his awakening powers as the skeptical Pyetr comes to grips with the knowledge that much of what he's long scoffed at is not only real, but much more powerful than he can comprehend. This motley band must seek out the wizard who holds Eveshka's heart trapped, or they will all meet an untimely end.
The setting and magic system employed by Cherryh were a refreshing change from the erotic romances I've been reading for my 50 Shades readalikes project, but there were moments when it seemed as if they were never going to get out of the forest. The characters seemed trapped in an infinite loop--fruitless searching, repeated conversations, and a depressing gradual loss of life and energy. Despite that, I did ultimately power through and enjoyed the book's climactic scenes.
The book was nominated for a Locus award, and Cherryh "extensively rewritten" the series--known collectively as the Russian Stories--and reissued them in ebook format. There were enough issues with pacing that I would be curious to read the updated version to see what she's done with the text, and if I go on to read Chernevog and Yvgenie, I will be buying the ebooks for sure.