[The Bear and the Nightingale] Katherine Arden

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I absolutely loved The Bear and the Nightingale. Katherine Arden has crafted a beautiful tale of wildness, beauty, and fantasy. It’s the story of Vasilisa–called Vasya by those who love her–and her family’s trials and triumphs in a world that doesn’t always believe in the mystical. In the wilds of Russia, far from the civilized world of Moscow, Vasilisa and her siblings grow up believing in Morozko–the not-always-nice Frost–and other household and wilderness beings such as the domovoi and the rusalka. It chronicles the life of Vasilisa as she grows and discovers how to reconcile her old beliefs with new ones that make their way to her household.

The Bear and the Nightingale opens with a Russian folktale, that of Morozko and the maiden. It sets up the story quite well, as there are parallels to this folktale throughout The Bear and the Nightingale. While I would say that is the main folktale that is threaded throughout the book, Arden has included more of the mythology and stories of the region to create a rich cultural setting in addition to a rich physical setting. And it wasn’t mentioned just to have “culture.” The beliefs of the North–which is, according to those who live in the cities, obsolete and incorrect–are consistently in the narrative. As Vasilisa grows, Arden introduces more of the mythology as she learns about it through exploring her world. It was a natural way of storytelling and of growing the world contained in the book.

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Morozko and the Maiden

Vasilisa is characterized as a wild child. As a daughter, it’s expected of her to marry. Those who love her expect that this wildling will eventually grow calmer. She never does. I was very happy that Vasya was the main protagonist in The Bear and the Nightingale. She sees the world differently than the others do, which is often why there’s a lot of conflict between Vasya and the people around her, especially when the new stepmother comes from Moscow.

With the introduction of the stepmother comes one of the main conflicts of the novel. While there are other, minor conflicts such as growing up and wanting to be your own person while also respecting the wishes of your parents, this one is the focus. And it was great. It allowed Arden to take a look at the conflict of the old versus the new, in particular the beliefs in the old Gods  and spirits against the new God. At first, it’s little things. Then as it escalates into a larger conflict, Vasya realizes that forgetting the old Gods and spirits may be more harmful than anyone realizes.

I think that there’s a lot of conflict between Vasya and her stepmother not only because of the contrasting beliefs, but also because they’re so similar to each other. They act as foils to each other, but they’re also similar in their stubbornness. It causes them to clash to the point where neither particularly cares about how it could potentially harm the other. Sometimes you dislike someone because you can see things that you don’t like about yourself in them. That was slightly the case with Vasya and her stepmother.

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An iconostasis likely similar to the one that Father Konstantin paints. An iconostasis is a wall of icons that separate the nave from the sanctuary in a church.

Eventually, the conflict between the two religions escalates to a point where Vasya is one of the only ones who believes in the importance of the old. Her efforts to save her household and that of the people under her father’s care makes her come into her own power, and that makes others feel threatened. She’s a powerful female in a world where men traditionally have the power. She’s also a part of the old world, as was her mother before her. With her mother gone, Vasya is the only one left to uphold this. While the majority of the book is in Vasya’s point of view, Arden also switches points of views to expand the story. Some of these points of view are of male ones. It really works well for this story. We’re not taken away from Vasya for too long, and the different points of view highlight other aspects of the world and informs readers more of the world and how it works, without giving unnecessary information.

I’ve only talked about two characters, but that doesn’t mean that the others aren’t equally as fascinating and developed. While some have smaller roles in the story, I felt that all characters were equally rounded. I didn’t feel that there were any that existed just to exist. I particularly loved Father Konstantin’s story arc and the temptation that he was going through. I also really liked her brothers–while the focus was on two of them, I could sense the love that the others had for Vasya and their family. I loved that they were included because they challenged Vasya. I would definitely read another story that focuses on these characters.

Kind of how I imagined Moscow.

Kind of how I imagined Moscow–people bustling about everywhere.

Ultimately, what won me over were the various well-written elements of The Bear and the Nightingale, namely the characters, the physical setting of the world, and the cultural setting of the world. Arden has such a talent at crafting something deep and immersive. Mere chapters in I realized just how much research had gone into creating this world and by the time I finished the novel I was deeply impressed with the care that she had taken. Not only is her writing beautiful and engaging, but it gave me a true sense of Russia in a time before–when being a member of the ruling class is precarious and some of the people are transitioning from the old Gods to the new God. The only knowledge I have is through self-learning and is limited, but this felt real. The information–such as how what I would characterize as pet-names–was released slowly and I learned by reading. I felt a little lost at the beginning but consistency helped me find my way.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a historical fantasy novel, and I loved it. I really think it’s going to do well. Not only does it have a heroine who does her own thing, but it has a fantastic story with a great setting. I think it’s clear how much I loved it because of the details on an unfamiliar culture and setting. It’s a great start to a new book year, even though I technically read it in 2016! The details make this story and I’m very thankful that I got to read it early and gush about it in a review. I’m looking forward to what Katherine Arden comes up with next. If it’s anything like The Bear and the Nightingale, I’m sure that I’ll love it.

5 very well-deserved stars.

The Bear and the Nightingale will be published on January 10th, 2017. I received a copy from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

[The Graces] Laure Eve

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The Graces is a story about one girl’s obsession. To fit in. To discover their secrets. To find her father. River and her mother recently moved to a small town where they can start over after River’s father left them. It is there that she first sees the Graces.  The Graces have perfected the art of appearing above it all. They’re friends only with themselves, their parents are mysterious, and all of them have odd behaviors. River knows that she needs to get in with them if she wants to have a chance at getting her father back. But things aren’t always what they seem. Everyone says that the Graces are witches; but are they? Obsession can lead you into dangerous places without you even realizing it.

It’s hard to review books like The Graces because I don’t want to reveal too much. So a lot of the wording in this review is going to be roundabout and vague intentionally. This novel follows the popular trend to have a thriller with an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, the “thriller” aspect of this novel wasn’t there for me. I just didn’t find it very thrilling. If anything, the things that are meant to set it as a thriller just came off as a bit flat. This is because I didn’t feel that there was much or any set-up for most of the things that occurred in the novel, giving it a very disjointed feeling regarding the action. It just happened and I was expected to believe it. In retrospect, I do think I can pinpoint when and what were meant to be the “hint-hint-nudge-nudge” moments of the book, but I still don’t feel that it was strong enough. Because of that, I didn’t feel that there was much action in this book in the plotting sense.

The majority of the novel was viewed through the protagonist’s eyes, but it was like she wasn’t engaging, which was frustrating. Much of the novel was pure dialogue and the lack of action tags made it difficult to keep up with who was talking at times. River was an unreliable narrator, so while we knew that she was keeping things from the Graces, she was also keeping them from the reader. It sometimes works. I didn’t feel that it worked in the case of The Graces. I did enjoy reading River’s gradual slide into full on obsession. She manipulated the Graces by keeping things about herself secret and being a mirror for their feelings. By becoming the ultimate listener, River learned things about the Graces that other people hadn’t. Everything they told her only made her more obsessed with them. She felt that she found people who understood her. This happened right away in the beginning of the novel when River introduces herself. She’s never felt like her birth name describes her, something that Summer Grace understands. Because there’s a focus on being who the Graces expect her to be, the reader never finds out what River’s birth name is, making her more of an enigma.

Now we come to the thing that is the most difficult thing for me to describe as a reviewer. The overwhelming feeling of nothing that this book left me with. It’s rather odd; while reading this book I was fascinated with what was happening. I wanted to see what River would discover and if the questions that were being put forward about the Graces would be answered or not. The four of them run into some trouble in the book and it’s not easy to get out of trouble when people are watching you constantly and waiting for any misstep. But once I got to what should have been the climax of the story, it just fell short. There was a lack of proper buildup. Of course, I’m sure it will work for many readers. But it left me with the sense that although reading this was enjoyable and I do think Laure Eve can create characters that are interesting, I didn’t actually find the book itself that interesting. I don’t feel like there’s anything to rave about. Neither to I feel that there’s anything to talk about negatively. It just exists as it is.

I recommend The Graces for readers who like extremely unreliable narrators. However, I feel that the unreliable narrator aspect was done better in books like We Were Liars and Beware that GirlIf you’re intrigued by that and the fact that there may or may not be witches involved, give it a go. As for myself, I will not be continuing with this series. It didn’t leave anything memorable in my mind and I feel that it can work as a standalone novel.

2 stars.

I received a copy of The Graces from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The Graces is coming September 1st, 2016.

 

[Legacy] Ellery A. Kane

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I really enjoy this cover.

 

The basic premise of Legacy is an interesting one: in the near future, pharmaceutical companies have created mood altering drugs that have then gotten out of hand. You can get large doses of euphoria that allow you to float in a haze all day. There is a fear altering drug to help people with PTSD. Any emotion you want to feel–or not feel–has been made into a drug you can take. Where we now use our phones to ignore our surroundings, the drugs in Lex’s world takes it to another level. Unfortunately at the point that Legacy starts, all of the information about these drugs is given to us secondhand. We are not in the action when they discover that the drugs are not actually safe. Of course giving people emotion altering drugs makes them too violent or too passive. Legacy is set after the government has banned the casual use and production of these drugs. And that is where things stop making sense.

It is a loss that Legacy starts after all of this. It would have been far more interesting if we had been included in this action instead of reading it second hand. For some reason– presumably because people were addicted to these drugs–when the government recalled the drugs they descended into a light dystopian world. I say “light dystopian world” because I don’t feel like this was particularly clear. Yes, we know that there have been bombings of bridges and that the city is not particularly safe for Lex, but much of this is given to us through Lex’s thoughts, which aren’t particularly detailed. She simply tells us how it is, she doesn’t show us. It seemed like San Francisco was the only city that had been abandoned, because when Lex was in her hometown everything seemed fine.  To me, this does not qualify as a dystopian world.

Legacy seemed like it was the bare bones for a dystopian novel that was missing the meat of the story. We had all the hallmarks of a dystopian novel:

* Resistance figures going against the big, bad government, check.

* Bonus for not giving a clear reason why the government is bad, check.

* Girl who constantly writes herself off, check.

* Sudden love interest, check.

* Instant-love, check.

This is not Ellery A. Kane’s fault, because many authors have followed this same formula to create a dystopian novel. It is just frustrating to see a synopsis of a book that sounds quite amazing, like Legacy,  turn into yet another of the same story with a different book cover. Unique dystopian books can be done. They just need to stop following the plot of The Hunger Games with only a few things changed.

I enjoyed Legacy until I realized that its unique premise didn’t really carry the same oomph through the entire novel. The plot wasn’t really surprising; any sort of point that was supposed to be shocking was rather obviously laid out. I would have felt more empathy for the characters and their backgrounds had they been given more of a personality throughout the story. I assume that when their pasts were revealed we were supposed to care for them but they came too late in the novel to really give any sort of impact for me.

Two stars.

I received a copy from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for a honest review.