This is a story about a young wizard and a gambler, thrown together and sent on an adventure. They encounter a dead girl and her living elderly father, a wizard in his own right. Descriptions of Mythic Russia include people, places and creatures – including that of the title.
From the author's description, "A rusalka is a Russian ghost: a drowned maiden who dies for love will become a rusalka, haunting the river where she perished." A few other Russian beasties appear in this story – including bannik, leshy, and vodyanoy. The interactions of these between themselves and with the main characters form much of what I liked about this book.
Unfortunately there was a lot I had difficulties with. The thought processes of each main character were overly detailed, slowing any action to a crawl. I've read Heinlein's chapter-long discussions between characters easily enough, but found myself distracted or worse, nodding off during thought-filled paragraphs in this book. When the characters conversed, the dialogue wasn't much better, and could be repetitive at times. The book does contain a few action sequences, including most of the first chapter. These went by quickly, perhaps because the characters were focused on actions instead of thoughts.
Rusalka is the first book in a series of three, though it definitely stands alone as a complete story. I read the paperback version, from Del Rey and Ballantine. The rights have reverted to the author, who has rewritten and republished the following two books, Chernevog and Yvgenie. If I were to read the rest of this series, those are the versions I would seek out.
And that's the rub – I don't think I will, or at least not in the near future. C.J. Cherryh is an award winning author, and this book was nominated for a Locus Fantasy award in 1990 (losing out to Orson Scott Card's Prentice Alvin). I just don't have the stamina to work through another book like this one. After spending more than three weeks with these characters, Rusalka rates just 2 out of 5.