Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Published: Del Rey (2017)
Series: Book 1 of the Winternight Trilogy
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel Award

The Book:

"Winter lasts most of the year at the edge of the Russian wilderness, and in the long nights, Vasilisa and her siblings love to gather by the fire to listen to their nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, Vasya loves the story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon. Wise Russians fear him, for he claims unwary souls, and they honor the spirits that protect their homes from evil.

Then Vasya’s widowed father brings home a new wife from Moscow. Fiercely devout, Vasya’s stepmother forbids her family from honoring their household spirits, but Vasya fears what this may bring. And indeed, misfortune begins to stalk the village.

But Vasya’s stepmother only grows harsher, determined to remake the village to her liking and to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for marriage or a convent. As the village’s defenses weaken and evil from the forest creeps nearer, Vasilisa must call upon dangerous gifts she has long concealed—to protect her family from a threat sprung to life from her nurse’s most frightening tales." ~Penguin Random House

The Bear and the Nightingale is Arden’s first novel, and I read it for consideration in voting for the John Campbell Award for Best New Writer (now the Astounding Award for Best New Writer).  Arden was a finalist for both 2018 and 2019.

My Thoughts:

The Bear and the Nightingale is a chronological story of the birth and childhood of the main character, Vasilisa (a.k.a Vasya).  The story is slow and meandering, often shifting to follow small subplots, and changing viewpoint characters fairly frequently. The supernatural conflict mentioned in the description does eventually arise, but it takes a long time for it to come to the forefront.  I think this kind of story rewards a reader with a strong emotional investment in the main character, Vasya. For me, she is an easy character to like -- kind, curious, and bold-- but I also think the narrative oversells her specialness a little. I get the impression that this novel is an origin story, and that the rest of the trilogy might follow her adventures as an adult.

Similar to my reaction to Vasya, I get the feeling that my emotional responses to the characters were not quite in line with the intent of the story. For instance, the description above makes Vasya’s stepmother, Anna, sound far more malicious and powerful than she actually is. I felt I could see the whole shape of Anna’s life, and it was a neverending nightmare. Her ability to see supernatural creatures could have been a blessing, but she genuinely believes that they are demons haunting her every waking day. She is also a victim of repeated marital rape, by a character we are meant to like.  She has no real power over anyone, not even herself. The enforcement of Christian piety is through the local priest, another person who is in Vasya’s life against his own will. I don’t blame him for some bitterness, since he is aware that his career is being sabotaged. Beyond that, though, he starts to embody virtually every negative stereotype of the Christian church. As a Christian, I didn’t like the way the story set up Christianity as an uncomplicated villain. 

Though I might not have had the intended reactions to the characters, I liked the writing style and the setting. It was interesting to see the various spirits from Russian folklore, and I enjoyed the chance to practice my understanding of Russian diminutives.  The setting was vivid--it seemed like I could almost feel the chill of winter. The supernatural elements were well-grounded, and felt like an organic part of Vasya’s world. I am not sure whether I would consider this novel to be part of the YA subgenre. The denser writing style and slow build of the story is more characteristic of adult fantasy, but it is a story about the childhood and coming-of-age of a young girl. Regardless, I can see how this is a book that has captured the imagination of many people. 

My Rating: 3/5

The Bear and the Nightingale is a slowly-paced origin story for the heroine, Vasilisa, who I expect will continue as the main character in the rest of the Winternight Trilogy.  I enjoyed the descriptive writing of the rural Russian countryside where she grew up, and the inclusion of creatures out of Russian folktales. The parts of the story that were supernatural fit in well with the natural world.  I personally had more sympathy for the antagonists than I think was intended, and perhaps a bit less for the heroine. I feel like this one was just not exactly up my alley, though I can understand its popularity.  

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Review: A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
Published: Amulet Books / Macmillan Children’s Books (2017)
Awards Nominated: Locus YA, Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, Carnegie Medal

The Book:

Sometimes, when a person dies, their spirit goes looking for somewhere to hide. Some people have space within them, perfect for hiding. Twelve-year-old Makepeace has learned to defend herself from the ghosts which try to possess her in the night, desperate for refuge, but one day a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard. 

And now there's a spirit inside her. The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, and it may be her only defense when she is sent to live with her father's rich and powerful ancestors. There is talk of civil war, and they need people like her to protect their dark and terrible family secret.”

I don’t tend to review a lot of YA on this site, but that’s mostly because I know I’m not really the target audience.  Nevertheless, I decided to try reading some of the Lodestar nominees of 2018, and this book was provided to me through NetGalley.  I did read it in time for the voting, but my reviews have just gotten terribly delayed. This novel was my favorite of the bunch, though Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher was also really good. This is the first book I’ve read by Frances Hardinge.    

My Thoughts:

I would call A Skinful of Shadows a mix between horror and fantasy.  The horror is obvious; the premise of the book involves spirits invading the bodies of the living.  However, Makepeace does not view her ability to host the spirits of others within her own body as only a thing of terror.  She is frightened by the prospect of her own mind being crushed by the spirits of the dead, but she is also willing to share the space inside herself with those for whom she finds compassion.  I liked that her ability was not portrayed as inherently beneficial or harmful, but as a potentially useful, yet dangerous tool. In this way, the supernatural elements feel more like the magic system of a dark fantasy, and this shifts the whole story closer to my interests.

The heart of the story is the coming-of-age of the heroine, who bears the unusual puritan name of Makepeace. She is a young adolescent girl that does not have the support or guidance of anyone with her best interests at heart. There is a lot about the world around her that she does not understand, and every day she must struggle to find a place within it that doesn’t result in her death, or worse. Even so, she meets the difficulties she encounters with determination, intelligence, resourcefulness, and a solid sense of self-worth.  I thought she was an excellent heroine, and there is a lot in her character that younger readers could admire.

The book starts just before the English civil war (~1640s, I think), which is not a period of English history with which I’m particularly well-versed.  I didn’t feel like my lack of familiarity with the history was a barrier to understanding the story, especially since this seems to be a primarily fictional take on the period. It seems to have been a confusing and chaotic time, and I liked that the narrative primarily focused on the common people caught in the chaos rather than the politics of aristocrats.  Makepeace has no reason to favor one side of the civil war over the other, though she does get caught up in events from time to time. There is also a strong sense of place and atmosphere, so younger readers who are interested in historical fantasy would likely find a lot here to enjoy.  

My Rating: 4/5

Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows is an entertaining YA horror/fantasy set in mid-1600s England. The story involves an aristocratic family who has the hereditary ability to harbor spirits of the dead within their bodies, and I appreciated that it considers both the harm and good that can come from such an ability. I liked the strong sense of the place and time, and I liked the mental strength and determination of the heroine, Makepeace.  As an adult, my perspective may not be that of the target audience, but I can say that I enjoyed this novel very much.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: Jo Fletcher Books/Broadway Books, 2016
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

“A generation ago, the city of Voortyashtan was the stronghold of the god of war and death, the birthplace of fearsome supernatural sentinels who killed and subjugated millions. Now, the city's god is dead. The city itself lies in ruins. And to its new military occupiers, the once-powerful capital is a wasteland of sectarian violence and bloody uprisings.
So it makes perfect sense that General Turyin Mulaghesh -- foul-mouthed hero of the battle of Bulikov, rumored war criminal, ally of an embattled Prime Minister -- has been exiled there to count down the days until she can draw her pension and be forgotten. At least, it makes the perfect cover story.
The truth is that the general has been pressed into service one last time, dispatched to investigate a discovery with the potential to change the world -- or destroy it. The trouble is that this old soldier isn't sure she's still got what it takes to be the hero.”
I didn’t really have much time to form expectations about this book, because I started it immediately after the first.  I was in an airplane, I had it on my e-reader, and the first book had been really good. There are some vague spoilers below, but I tried to keep from giving away specifics. I should also mention that this book was provided to me by Net Galley for Hugo considerations in 2018. I did read it for that purpose, though my review is considerably delayed.
My Thoughts:
City of Blades takes place a few years after City of Stairs, and it tells a standalone story. There are some recurring characters from the first book, but I think you could read them in whatever order you prefer. As in the previous book, I loved the cultural world-building and the atmospheric descriptions of place. The basic set up this time is similar, following a retired general traveling to Voortyashtan with the ulterior motive of investigating a strange disappearance.  Naturally, things are more complicated than they at first appear, and it soon becomes clear that deities might be involved somehow. The focus this time, though, is on the nature of war in general, and the effects of the specific war between Saypur and the continent. This makes for a somewhat darker book, and also one that I felt was more emotional. The brutality of Voortya’s people is still not far from the minds of Saypuri, and it is not surprising that peace there is a brittle thing.  On a more personal level, we see what war has done to the heroine, Turyin Mulaghesh.    
Mulaghesh was introduced originally in City of Stairs, but she didn’t make that much of an impression on me.  In this book, she takes center stage, and she became more compelling to me as I learned more about her.  She starts out as a particular character type, a veteran who isn’t coping well with the trauma of war and who has turned to alcohol for solace. However, she was not simply a soldier in the first war against the continent--she was an un-indicted war criminal.  The guilt that has been killing her since those days is justified. Her acceptance of her own sins also helps to keep her from romanticizing war and violence in the way that others might. I thought she made for an excellent protagonist for this kind of a story.  Fans of the first book might also be happy to hear that Sigrud plays a large supporting role, and that we do get to learn more about him. 
There’s one other thing I feel I should mention, since it happened both in City of Stairs and in City of Blades: a distressing and seemingly gratuitous character death.  There is a major side character in each book who is killed late in the story.  In both cases, this happened to a character I liked, and in both cases I didn’t see why it had to happen that way. This is more an issue of personal preference than a criticism of the book, but I thought it might be helpful to mention for other readers.  For me, it felt like a little unpleasant jab in a story where I would otherwise expect the major characters to save the day and emerge victorious. Aside from this small twinge, I found the story and the world to be as immersive and entertaining as ever.  
My Rating: 5/5
City of Blades, the follow-up to the impressive City of Stairs, tells a standalone story that is perhaps even more entertaining than the first novel.  Where the first novel focused on religion, culture, and history, this second novel focuses on war and its effects. For this purpose, rumored war criminal Mulaghesh is a natural protagonist.  Her personal story was emotional and compelling, and it matched nicely with the mystery she went to Voortyashtan to uncover. I am looking forward to seeing how the trilogy will conclude!