REVIEW: Tanya Grotter and the Magic Double Bass

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Maureen O'Brien

Jun 19, 2003, 12:31:35 PM6/19/03
Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass
Dmitriy Yemets, 2002.

Do you remember seventies and eighties fantasy? Remember how almost
every book imitated Tolkien, Star Wars, and Dungeons and Dragons --
and if one didn't, it had a blurb and cover to make it look like it
did? But that was what readers wanted, since there was only so much
Tolkien available, and they craved something enough like it to feed
their epic fantasy addiction. From medieval romances to Bored of the
Rings, they read it all -- and sometimes among the Shannara schlock,
there would surface a book that was actually good -- or even great.

Replace 'Tolkien' with 'Rowling', and this is just such a book.

Dmitriy Yemets has apparently spent the last ten years or so not
using his degrees in linguistics. He has instead written twenty or
thirty childrens' books, most apparently ordered by his publisher to
exploit various popular trends: dinosaurs in modern times in response
to Jurassic Park, star empires for Star Wars, paranormal
investigations by kids for X-Files, and so on. But His sales were
apparently solidly midlist, but no more. Then his publisher asked him
to do a book which was Harry Potter-like ("Garry Potter", in Russia).
Yemets responded by not only using his writing and humor skills, but
by combining his deep knowledge of Russian folklore and world
mythology and his wit with an obvious love for sports and role-
playing games. The resulting book is both a parody of Harry Potter
(with an implied commentary on its weaknesses as well as a running
joke about Pipa's unseen heartthrob GP, whom she keeps wishing will
come steal her away on his broom) and a richly felt story about life
as a kid in the New Russia that admits both the horrors and beauties
of its history and culture.

Tanya Grotter, orphaned daughter of two computer hacker/musician/
mages, is grudgingly raised by her third cousin once removed, a
skeletal, pale Russian businessman/politician who doesn't realize his
health problems are rooted in the fact he hates his jobs (and his
descent from Count Dracula!), and his incredibly stout wife, who
refuses to waste food on Tanya that should go to her psychopathic
cousin Penelopa. Tanya's life with these rich people is one of
hardship enough to make Harry Potter shudder (and to impress Russian
kids who would _love_ Harry's cupboard room), and only her pluck and
resourcefulness make her lonely life bearable.

However, when chance allows her to go on a field trip to the Kremlin
Armory museum, she begins to realize that perhaps she is more than
the troublesome girl destined for prison her relatives say she is.
Working by strange instincts and scraps of memory awakened there, she
manages to summon her father's magical double bass, one of the most
powerful magical items in the world. Afterward, she is visited by a
flying bed and a mage so wrapped up in bandages that she at first
thinks he's a mummy, who tells her about a magic school named Tibidox.
But to get there she will have to learn spells and how to power them
with a magic ring, by studying the textbook he brings her.

After much effort, dangerous flight mishaps caused by mind control
attacks, and a strikeforce of undead creatures invading the apartment
building, Tanya finally gets to Tibidox and finds out the place is
not just a school, but a reform school. Tibidox is also a
Gormenghast-like Grail castle and keeps evil ancient gods and chaos
spirits in maximum security down in the basement. The school is run
by both Dark and Light mages, each side with a different idea of what
spells are permissible.

Tanya also learns she's the subject of a prophecy that indicates
she'll do something rather destructive to Tibidox, so half the school
and teachers treat her like a leper while the other half think she's
the Second Coming.

But as she takes classes from a staff that includes Baba-Yaga, an
Australopithecanthropus, the reformed Medusa and a legendary Russian
bandit with a whistle that can kill anyone in earshot, she makes
friends with Baba-Yaga's grandson and a kid who once ate a whole
supermarket worth of food, has a hostile dark magic clique leader as
a roommate, and finds out that experience cooking funky health foods
for picky Aunt Ninel comes in handy for making potions. She also
discovers that she has the stuff to play Dragon Ball, the magic sport
where humongous hungry dragons capable of taking out fighter jets are
both the goalie and the goal. (Each team of ten gets five balls
carrying offensive spells which only work in a dragon's mouth, and
the game ends when all ten balls are used up or all the players are

But there are other, more dangerous opponents she must face or die --
Chuma del'Tort, the mistress of the undead who once ruled the magical
world (and disappeared at exactly the same time as a certain Evil
Empire), and her mysterious ally at Tibidox. They are both working to
release back into the world the chaos spirits imprisoned under the
castle. If they succeed, there will be "blood -- rivers of it."

With solid children's fantasy allied to hometown pride and Harry
Potter parody, the book sold like hotcakes. In fact, it sold half a
million copies in the first six months -- more than the
pathetically-translated first Russian edition of _HP and the
Philosopher's Stone_ had. This circumstance brought down the wrath of
Rowling's lawyers. They utterly failed to impress Russian judges with
their charges, but managed a cease-and-desist in Holland. (Apparently
with the help of a WB lawyer-commissioned translation which replaced
every Russian reference with European and British ones, and removed
Baba-Yaga. How can you take out Baba-Yaga?) The case is due to come
up again in Holland soon, but Warner Brothers and Rowling definitely
have more lawyers. So the English-speaking world may never get to
read the Tanya Grotter series, though it's sold over a million copies
and deserves those sales.

This is a pity. As I said before, the book is good. The stark Russian
viewpoint makes for considerable realism in its depiction of Tanya's
dark world, and there are appropriately fairy tale references to the
possibility of serious gore. But Yemets' baroque imagination and sense
of humor, as well as Tanya's occasional bursts of justified bad
attitude (she's a redhead for a reason!), keep things from getting too
scary for the kids. His pictures of Russian school life are
fascinatingly different but similar enough to identify with; each of
the teachers and students are so individual that I'm tempted to think
them portraits of people Yemets knew. (Although that may just be
because I've had teachers and friends exactly like some of these
folks....) Like the Harry Potter parody, the political commentary and
social satire are kept low-key enough to entertain but not overwhelm
the story.The mystery of the traitor's identity is played out very
cleverly. Most of the typical things kids do in books when
investigating a mystery have fairly realistic dire consequences
instead of the usual easy and convenient escape, and one of the more
heartwarming scenes in the novel turns out to be just another part of
the traitor's plot. The climax turns out to owe much more to Gothics
or Russian fairy tales than to traditional Western action, but it's
satisfying all the same.

It was written for older junior high or high school students, but has
plenty of interest for both younger kids and adults. (Also, its
varied styles of writing and levels of discourse make it the perfect
book for brushing up on your written Russian, while the radio plays
you can download from the official site at will give
you listening practice!) There are a good number of references to
Russian fairy tales and fantasy as well as Pushkin (most of which
went over my head), but there are also more Western references,
including one moment when Tanya and her friends find themselves in a
maze of twisted corridors, all alike.

If only the book wasn't in Russian, it would certainly have become one
of the comfort books I reread again and again. Even now, I tend to
recall certain passages to mind and hunt them up in the book. The
characters, good and evil, have a fascination that makes you want to
learn more about them and their amazingly detailed universe. (I've
become very fond of Tanya's cousins, horrible as they are.)

In the next book, I hear, Tanya is free of Chuma and the prophecy and
thus must create her own destiny. Most of the Harry Potter parody is
out the window as well -- though, apparently in response to the
Rowling lawsuit, the cast is joined in book 3 by a famous dragonball
player named Hurry Pooper who embarrasses poor Tanya by falling in
love with her and not taking a hint. In fact, he tries to join
Tibidox's team in book 5....) I fully intend to read all seven books,
and am interested to see what Mr. Yemets will do in the future. If
the Spanish, French or English translations ever come out, I
encourage you to buy them early and often.

(I also think American and British publishers should ask Eksmo the
name of their cover artist. The combination of incredibly detailed
computer graphic "carved walls" with incredibly detailed cover
paintings is a very beautiful and effective one.)

FYI, the other books in the series are:
TG and the Disappearing Floor, 2002
TG and the Golden Leech, 2003
TG and the Throne of Dvernir, 2003
TG and the Staff of the Magi, 2003
TG and the Hammer of Perun (coming soon)
TG and the Pince-Nez of Noy (coming soon) will show you the covers and blurbs.

Maureen O'Brien, who just spent four months and change reading this
thing! So the review's a tad long in compensation....

Joseph T Major

Jun 19, 2003, 12:49:23 PM6/19/03
Maureen O'Brien wrote:

>Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass
>Dmitriy Yemets, 2002.

Isn't this (Yemets, publisher, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all) being
sued by Rowling & Co as another copyright infringement? Or does it
stand in the same limbo as Nick Perumov's sequel to _The Lord of the Rings_?

Joseph T Major


Jun 19, 2003, 1:02:33 PM6/19/03
Joseph T Major wrote:

> Isn't this (Yemets, publisher, old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all) being
> sued by Rowling & Co as another copyright infringement? Or does it
> stand in the same limbo as Nick Perumov's sequel to _The Lord of the Rings_?

Do not mention this abomination...

Jo'Asia who read 2,5 of 3 volumes of _Ring of Darkness_ :>

__.-=-. Joanna Slupek .-=-.__
--<()> (Add one 'l' to 'hel' when replying by e-mail) <()>--
.__.'| ..................................................... |'.__.
Seen it all, done it all, can't remember most of it.

Maureen O'Brien

Jun 20, 2003, 8:09:57 AM6/20/03

It's apparently being left alone in Russia, the Ukraine, and points
east after Yemets and his publisher won the plagiarism suit in
Russian court. Publication of the Dutch translation was
cease-and-desisted in Holland for possible copyright infringement,
with the actual copyright infringement case coming up sometime soon.

The idea of being sued for copyright infringement over parody
elements is a rather scary one. (Run, Mad Magazine!)

The rundown of what they thought was infringed was even scarier. (Why,
both books had a Dark Lord! Okay, so Grotter's was actually a Dark
Lady, but there's Darkness involved, right?)

Well, either justice will triumph or it won't. Not much I can do
about it other than bite my nails, unless somebody knows how to
submit friend-of-the-court briefs in Holland.


Joe Bernstein

Jun 21, 2003, 6:19:53 AM6/21/03
In article <>, Maureen O'Brien
<> wrote:

> Well, either justice will triumph or it won't. Not much I can do
> about it other than bite my nails, unless somebody knows how to
> submit friend-of-the-court briefs in Holland.

There's a sizable crew of people from that country in rasfc, which
is what prompts this cross-post. Folks, Maureen O'Brien just posted
a really fascinating review of what sounds like a book I'd love to
read, but apparently Western publication is being held up in general
by copyright infringement claims in re Harry Potter, filed in court
in the Netherlands. Assuming the review to be even remotely related
to reality, these claims are groundless. Anyone care to help Ms.
O'Brien file that brief?

Thanks... -- JLB

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