Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

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Trans. by Annie Prime. The Red Abbey Chronicles bk 1. Pushkin Children's Books, 2016. ISBN 9781782690917
(Age: 13+) Recommended. Finlandia Junior Award 2014. Fantasy. Women. Nuns. Abbeys. After the Hunger Winter, Maresi came to the Red Abbey to escape death from malnutrition. In the Red Abbey she is safe and has ample food to eat and a treasure chamber of books to learn from. Then Jai arrives on a ship. She has scars on her back and has been cruelly treated by a father who considers his wives and daughters to be worthless. Jai knows that his honour has been threatened by her escape and believes that he will pursue her, harming everyone at the Abbey. Maresi and the other women must call on the powers of the Mother in all her forms to save Jai and the other women and children.
This is a gripping story in many ways. The setting of the Red Abbey, where men are forbidden and women grow strong in body and mind is beautifully described as are the inhabitants of the island. Maresi is a wonderfully caring young girl, who looks after the youngest children, and takes the terror stricken Jai under her wing, helping her to heal and gain confidence. Sister O looks on Maresi as her protege and teaches her how to read the stories of the seven women who originally came to the island. Mother, the nun in charge is wise and tolerant and other characters are also fully developed so the the reader gets a great sense of the community spirit that pervades the Abbey.
Jai's ordeal and the way that women are treated in the society that she flees has a familiar feel, reminiscent of some modern day countries. There is a calm sense of underlying feminism, with women and girls being empowered at the Red Abbey, but it is never strident, and the themes of friendship, of sacrifice and of terror and magic are the ones that captivate the reader as the tale of whether Jai and Maresi can survive the wrath of Jai's father takes over.
Maresi's story seems complete and comes to a satisfying conclusion, so it will be interesting to see where the next in the series, Naodel, takes the reader. Maresi is a book that will appeal to lovers of fantasy, who want something a little more than a dystopian quest. Its themes of coming of age, women's rights and community living could make for a interesting book to discuss in a literature circle.
Pat Pledger