Review: The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

The Man Who Spoke Snakish by Andrus Kivirähk

Published: November 3, 2015 by Grove Press, Black Cat (English)
Originally published as Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu in 2007 by Eesti Keele Sihtasutus
Genre: fiction > fantasy, fairytale, Estonia
Pages: 400p
Source: NetGalley
Rating: ★★★★★

A bestseller in the author’s native country of Estonia, where the book is so well known that a popular board game has been created based on it, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is the imaginative and moving story of a boy who is tasked with preserving ancient traditions in the face of modernity.

Set in a fantastical version of medieval Estonia, The Man Who Spoke Snakish follows a young boy, Leemet, who lives with his hunter-gatherer family in the forest and is the last speaker of the ancient tongue of snakish, a language that allows its speakers to command all animals. But the forest is gradually emptying as more and more people leave to settle in villages, where they break their backs tilling the land to grow wheat for their “bread” (which Leemet has been told tastes horrible) and where they pray to a god very different from the spirits worshipped in the forest’s sacred grove. With lothario bears who wordlessly seduce women, a giant louse with a penchant for swimming, a legendary flying frog, and a young charismatic viper named Ints, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a totally inventive novel for readers of David Mitchell, Sjón, and Terry Pratchett.

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This is the strangest, bleakest novel I have ever read in my life. The world is a fantastical version of ours where wolves are milked and ridden, women have trysts with bears, there’s a louse the size of a goat, and some folks can talk to snakes. Or, rather, those who live in the forest can still speak the language of snakes – Snakish – which the rest of the world has forgotten. Leemet is not exactly a likable character. In fact, nobody is likable, except maybe Ints the adder.

It’s definitely unique, gorgeous, and well-written – and well-translated. It doesn’t hold any punches. Don’t be shocked to turn the page and find someone dead or maimed or missing. For example, only a few pages in Leemet’s father is decapitated by the bear his wife is cheating on him with. That alone should set the tone pretty well.

If you don’t care for unlikable main characters, anti-religious messages, or the death of humans and animals, maybe give this a pass. There is sex and murder and whatnot, but none of it is indulgent, it just happens.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This has in no way affected my opinion of this book.


Your blogger just hours before the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.

My name is Alex, and I’m a twenty-something queer girl from the midwest with a hardcore fiction addiction. I don’t care for romance in books, but I love my cat and cute video games.

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