This is historical fiction/fantasy to the extent that it claims to be based on an oral tradition. Mebet is a hunter living in the Taiga of Russia’s far north, a Nenets, one of the indigenous tribes that inhabit that area. He appears to live a charmed life, invincible and impervious to the dangers around him, so much so that he has come to be called “The God’s Favourite”. He lives with his wife and son, seemingly apart from other people. He had abducted his own wife and urges his son Hadko to do the same, but Hadko wants to keep to the time-honoured ways and pay the usual bride price. But when this is refused, Mebet abducts the girl on behalf of his son.
This leads to reprisals, but Mebet demonstrates his cunning and ingenuity when a battle ensues, ultimately emerging victorious. Life continues peacefully for a while, but Mebet realises he is aging, and when a grandson is born, he is desperate to ensure he lives long enough to see the child grow to adulthood, so attempts to do a deal with the local supernatural powers. The book then turns into a traditional folk tale, a quest narrative with a series of trials for Mebet to perform, complete with a talking dog, and Mebet’s trajectory becomes that of many another folkloric hero.
This second half of the book with its magic and mysticism I enjoyed less than the first half with its realistic details of Nenets daily life, but the tale rattles along at a good pace, with unadorned yet vivid language and a real sense of jeopardy. I particularly enjoyed having a window into Nenets life, culture, myth and legend, and although Mebet is in no way a sympathetic protagonist, the adventure he embarks on is a compelling one.