[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.

[Wintersong] S. Jae-Jones

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Wintersong is the story of what happens when you make wishes and promises to a mysterious stranger and they come to collect. Liesl is nineteen and dreams of composing, but she’s put her desires on hold in order to help out at her family inn, train her brother for a position as a violinist, and indulge her younger sister in her vanities. Liesl has to content herself with snatched moments and hidden scraps of her compositions as she acts as the strong, older sister. But when her younger sister is stolen by the Goblin King, Liesl has to remember the songs and stories of her childhood in order to save her from a Goblin King who deals in riddles and trades. Suddenly, Liesl finds herself in a precarious position deep underground in the world of the Goblin King. It is there that she discovers more about herself than she ever allowed herself to learn. As she passes the threshold from innkeeper girl to adult composer, Liesl has to make a choice about just how much she is willing to sacrifice.

Wintersong had an extremely strong start. Jae-Jones introduced us to her world slowly using beautiful language reminiscent of music. The story promised touches of the fantastic that is often found in fairy tales. I truly enjoyed reading how Jae-Jones used words to construct a familiar yet fairy tale-esque world. The inclusion of Christina Rossetti’s poetry at the beginning of each part of the book also set the stage for what was to happen perfectly without giving too much away. Threaded throughout the story was the language of classical music. Sadly I didn’t understand this as well as I understood the poetry due to the fact that I never studied music in the way that Jae-Jones seems to have. I thought it was a really unique way of writing. It wasn’t something that I had seen before. I was glad that Jae-Jones used it to enhance her writing rather than overwhelm her story with it.

I really thought that using music as a way to create more stunning imagery was wonderful. It’s one of the reasons why the writing style was so engaging for me; even though I struggled to get through the second half of the book at times, the writing kept me reading. The one downside to using music so much is that any time something sexy or sexual came up, music was used as a metaphor. There was a fair bunch of cringey lines that were repetitive or just plain corny. I much preferred when it wasn’t used that way, because I just could not see anyone ever using these lines on their romantic interest.

The thing that is really odd about Wintersong is the way that the book is split in two. Other reviewers have mentioned it and I feel compelled to as well. There is a clear divide between part one and part two, and for me, there wasn’t much of a bridge between the two of them. I understand the connection, but character-wise, it was like I was reading another book or a book where the characters, namely Liesl, weren’t fully realized.

Honestly, I was far more interested in the first half. It focused on family and Liesl’s love of them. Even though she had given up her dreams in favor of her brother and sister’s, even though her mother and father didn’t really believe in her the way they believed in her brother, you could see the love that she felt for all of them. I liked that part one was a love story to her family. Liesl was desperate to protect both her brother and her sister, but she couldn’t divide her time equally. Focusing on her brother’s future nearly lost her sister’s future; when Liesl realizes this, the love she feels for her sister demands that she engage in the impossible task of saving her.

Her journey into the Underground was a wonderful blend of familiar and unfamiliar myth. I have a very surface level understanding of Goblins and their Underground, so I’m not sure how much was of Jae-Jones own design and how much was the usual spiel. I loved that there was an element of sacrifice, which further showed just how desperate Liesl was to get her sister back and how much she loved her sister. Everything Liesl did in the first half marked her as an incredible and incredibly interesting heroine who was spunky and wouldn’t take any garbage from anyone around her, particularly when she’s Underground. She was so interesting and she easily made the first half of the book a  4 or 5 star read.

That’s why the departure from this is the second half of the novel was so disconcerting. She was, technically, still spunky and outspoken. But too many times it became her throwing a tantrum or refusing to act like an adult, while at the same time complaining about not being treated as an adult. I was confused, because Liesl didn’t seem like the Liesl that had been present in the first half of the book. She became less of a heroine and more of a whiner who near-constantly thought that there was something wrong with her or complained about the Goblin King not liking her enough. It became a mope fest.

Something that part two also introduced was the idea of this novel as less of a young adult novel and more of a new adult novel. I read both, so it didn’t bother me that there was sex scenes in the book. What did bother me was that I felt kind of blindsided by this. It just seemed out of place. Honestly, I felt that the sex scenes weren’t really necessary. They furthered my annoyance with Liesl because I didn’t feel that she was the same character that she was in the first half. She became obsessed with her love interest, and that wasn’t cool.

Throughout the majority of the second part I wished that it would go back to what I had loved about the first half: the exploration of the Underground, the love she felt for her family, and the willingness to go to hell-and-back for her sister. That was where Jae-Jones’ storytelling really shone and where she could weave her mythology about the Goblins and the Goblin King. I really liked that humans were often tricked into positions by the Goblins. Even knowing this, Liesl is often tricked by both them and the Goblin King. Her naivety in the first half is because she doesn’t care what she has to do to rescue her sister; her naivety in the second half is because she is blinded by a relationship. Throughout the novel there are stories of both the brave and the beautiful (re: stupid) girl–Liesl manages to be both.

There is talk of a sequel that will be out at some point in 2018, so perhaps some of the loose ends of the story will be concluded in that. I can never decide if I like loose ends or not. What it usually comes down to is if the author manage to portray the loose ends in a way that I personally like and it’s often very arbitrary. So while I liked the conclusion of Wintersong,  I am also curious about what is going to happen in the sequel. I also wonder if it will end up being a sequel or a companion novel because I’ve read rumors about that too.

There are so many different nods to things in Wintersong that I think it’s welcoming to a variety of readers. Fairy tales, and not necessarily the happy ending ones; Labyrinth, which I’ve never seen (so I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing); poetry, some of which I was familiar with; and music. The music was my absolute favorite part. I thought it was lovely to pull that theme through the entirety of the novel and made the writing exceptionally beautiful. I really think this is going to be popular for people who like all or some of those things.

Despite really liking it, the partial disconnect I felt between the first half and the second half of the novel really threw me off and brought my rating lower.

3 stars.

Wintersong will be available on February 7th, 2017. I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

[The Lunar Chronicles] A series review with a focus on [Winter] by Marissa Meyer

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Although Winter came out a little under a year ago, it’s only recently that I bit the ebook bullet (so expensive!) and started the final book of The Lunar Chronicles. I had some down time, so I decided to reread the first three books. The last time I read them I did so around the time of Cress‘ publication. Long before, I think, Winter had been announced. This will be a review for the series as a whole, but I will focus on Winter. There will be spoilers for CinderScarlet, and Cress.

So briefly then, the reviews for the first three books:

11235712Cinder is a mechanic in New Beijing, the capital of the Eastern Commonwealth, a conglomeration of countries in Asia and its cultures after a fourth World War. She uses her talents to provide for her step-family, who are just as needy and rude as the Cruel Stepmother and Stepsisters in the original tale, with the exception of the youngest daughter. Cinder works diligently and keeps her head down, dreaming one day of escaping the city and the plague that threatens at any moment. When Prince Kai comes to her in the hope that the best mechanic in the city can fix his royal android, Cinder is pulled into a world that she didn’t ever think she’d be a part of.

I love familiar stories with a twist. For me, making Cinder a cyborg was a brilliant decision to make Cinder stand out as a different retelling of Cinderella. Not only is she dirty (from grease this time, not ashes), she’s not even recognized as human by her society! I had a very clear picture of what she wanted for herself and enjoyed her as a character very much. Her progression throughout the novel was steady and well-done.

I really enjoyed that the setting of Cinder. I do wish, however, that it had gone into more detail about what sorts of cultures made up the Eastern Commonwealth. I could have done with less vagueness. Chinese and Japanese motifs are mentioned at times in the decoration of robes and the palace, but it came dangerously close to not being enough. I think it would have made the reader more interested to see just what Cinder would lose if she lost.

Cinder was a fast read for me because I wanted to see what would happen next. There’s the threat of something bigger for the entirety of the novel and when that finally comes to a head, I found it very rewarding. The build to it kept me turning pages as I eagerly plowed on toward the conclusion. Of course, some of my eagerness to read came back to wanting to see how the romance progressed. However, I really enjoyed the story didn’t stop to focus on that romance. It truly is a story about Cinder and her place in the world.

5 stars.

*****

13206760Scarlet picks up where Cinder left off, with a character named Scarlet introduced and focused on as a new point of view.  She watches as the events in New Beijing unfold with a sort of detached interest, because she’s far more worried about her missing grandmother. Searching for answers, Scarlet discovers that her grandmother’s life was not as simplistic as Scarlet initially thought. As she travels with Wolf, a street-fighter who can possibly help her find some of the answers in Paris, she doesn’t know that her path and Cinder’s are fated to cross.

When I first read Scarlet I wasn’t sure how the rest of our cast would meet up–after all, Cinder focused on Cinder, so I initially thought that Scarlet would be the same. Marissa Meyer weaves the different points of view together in a cohesive way, so that when they do finally meet up, it’s really rewarding. They fit together really well, building relationships at first out of necessity but later with true emotion. Of course, there can’t be a Lunar Chronicles novel without conflict; I really enjoyed the suspense at having new crew-mates that were not entirely trusted by the others.

Unlike Cinder, I do feel like a large chunk of the plot of Scarlet focuses on the romance. It’s framed in a way that makes sense in the greater narrative of the series and the drives of the characters, but it is a little ridiculous when you think about the timeline. Because the romance is reciprocated, I feel that Scarlet is the most instant-love-y of the four novels. The rest of the plot of the novel is a little bit quest, little bit mystery, little bit coming of age. It balances out nicely, and I found that I really enjoyed Scarlet despite the slight problems with the romance. I was able to suspend my disbelief because it seemed like more time had passed. Eventually you start to see how the first two books will connect as you continue reading the different points of view that are getting closer together.  I really enjoyed reading how the plot points from Cinder were woven into Scarlet.

I enjoyed that the larger world was expanded upon in Scarlet. The other countries were mentioned in the first book, but readers didn’t get a chance to experience them. It was nice to see how other parts of the world had developed after the fourth World War mentioned in Cinder. It starts a nice precedence that The Lunar Chronicles will not just focus on one location in the world first created in Cinder.

5 stars.

*****

13206828Remember that girl that contacted Cinder back in Cinder? We finally get to meet her. Since she was a young girl, Cress has been living in a satellite in the space between Earth and Luna. She was tasked with searching for information on Earthens, something that she was incredibly talented at. When she realizes that her research has been used for negative reasons, that people are dying, she begins to think of ways to escape. Taking her chances with a rescue mission planned by Cinder herself, Cress suddenly finds herself facing more challenges that she’d ever imagined. When the rescue mission doesn’t go as planned and the group is fragmented, Cress has to search for the strength to make her way back. Her talents are still needed.

Out of all eponymous protagonists, Cress and Cinder are my favorites thus far. Cress, like Cinder, never really had anything. She had to carve out her own life using what she was given while being a prisoner. Sure, she’s allowed access to things and provided with food, but she’s trapped in a small space. This makes her interactions with other characters different, as the only people she’s ever really talked to is the Thaumaturge tasked with giving her orders. Cress doesn’t really know how to exist on Earth; she’s incredibly naïve as she experiences everything for the first time. This could get frustrating, but luckily Cress is also a quick learner. Even though there are still moments where her naïvity shows through, as the book progresses she becomes stronger and more willing to stand up for herself and her new friends. She becomes more confident. I really enjoyed her character growth and am looking forward to its continuation.

This was very nearly a 4 star book for me because of how it dragged.  It only drags on a little, but I could really feel how much longer this one was compared to the first two books. There are portions of the book where she and Throne are travelling that get long. I understand that it’s hot. I understand that they’re running out of supplies. I understand that they’re beginning to see and imagine things. I get it. I don’t need it endlessly repeated. A lot of the movement to the action of the book is done in a trudging way, which is something that frustrates me as a reader. When the plot does pick up, I couldn’t stop reading it. For most of Scarlet, they’d been hiding out on the Rampion. So when they finally start doing something against Levana, I couldn’t stop reading. We’re given more glimpses of why she needs to be stopped. Cinder begins to take more responsibility as she comes (more) to terms with her true identity. I think that everything that had built in the first two books is really explored in Cress, making it a solid climax of the series and the one with the most character growth.

This one is a bit darker than the other books. It’s first explored in Scarlet, but it’s mainly through brief, horrible moments with the promise of more to come. It ups the anticipation for the ultimate conclusion of the series. This continues in Cress, where readers are more privy to just the sorts of things that Levana is capable of and has done. Of course, knowing what Levana is capable of also means that Cinder is capable of them as well. This is the first novel where we can really see her Lunar powers in action. There’s good and bad that comes with that, which is something that Cinder struggles to come to terms with. Cinder is not necessarily all good at all times. It made her more human.

Cress concludes with a promise that everything that has been building in The Lunar Chronicles will finally come to an end in the final installment of the series. As Cinder realizes she’s becoming more powerful, she begins to  learn how to balance that with her morals. The relationships are tested as each crew member realizes just how much they have to lose in going up against Levana.

5 stars.

*****

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Not everyone believes in Levana. Winter decided years ago that her using her Lunar gift was something she couldn’t live with–growing slowly insane is a better alternative to becoming something she hates. As the stepdaughter to Levana, Winter is in a unique position to undermine her stepmother. After all, this is a woman who made her disfigure her face when she felt threatened by a child. Alone for years but for her childhood friend, Winter is eager for the chance to help Cinder and her people. But starting a revolution is harder than you think when you’re not sure what is real and what is imaginary. Everything from the first three books is pulled together in this final book of the series.

Ultimately, I found Winter surprisingly not really about Winter as much as it was about Cinder’s plans on Luna. For books named after main characters, I found that the focus in Winter on Winter was lacking. I wanted to know more about her and found her chapters really interesting. She’s unique in the sense that she’s the only other Lunar with powers that we get to read a point of view from–and she doesn’t use her powers. We know from reading the other three books that if Lunar’s don’t use their powers they go a bit insane. That’s something we finally see here. Winter could be a character who allows her problems to control her, but instead she tries to function as best she can while navigating her hallucinations. She’s strong and I wanted to see more of that. Instead it felt like Marissa Meyer was merely continuing the trend of naming her books after characters but didn’t really put in the effort for Winter to stand out. She needed to finish the story but didn’t have enough pages to do both that and proper character building for Winter. Considering that this is the longest book of the series, that’s disappointing.

This is the first book where we really get to see Luna. Although Scarlet has been there since she was taken prisoner, her view is a little limited. It was richly described with the standard dystopia trend of the upper crust having it so much better than the common folk. I enjoyed that I was finally able to see a place that thus far had only been mentioned fearfully by the Earthens. This set Winter apart from the first three books of the series because the characters were completely out of their element. They had allies on Earth and now they’re on their own. They had to start from scratch and I liked reading as they found their way around Luna and gained allies.

The plot of Winter was fairly predictable as it’s based on fairy tales, but as with the other books, that didn’t take any enjoyment out of it. I always like reading how Marissa Meyer changes the tales slightly to fit into this fantasy / science fiction tale. It’s familiar but is not one hundred percent predictable. The ending was super tidy, which makes me happy, but at the same time I felt it was also slightly unrealistic given that the whole book deals with the revolution they’re trying to start.

Overall thoughts on the series? I definitely recommend this for readers who like fantasy with a bit of science fiction mixed in. Marissa Meyer’s takes fairy tales and retells them in a way that doesn’t focus on the fact that they’re fairy tales. We’re given a unique blend of characters and settings, in a future that is removed from our current times but is also familiar. The Lunar Chronicles has a slight dystopian feel to it, but that’s not the focus of the story. I definitely will pick these books up again in the future.

*****

Final thoughts on the series:

Strengths: Strong characters and settings; romances that are believable.

Weaknesses: There are points where the plot slows a bit too much for my tastes. It allowed me to put the book down for a bit, but I also felt that it shouldn’t have happened considering the high stakes that Cinder and friends are flirting with.

The romances from best to worst:
Cress and Thorne: It built slowly and was realistic. There’s an element of playfulness that I really enjoyed. I ended up being disappointed there wasn’t more book time with them.
Cinder and Kai / Winter and Jacin: I love the dynamic of common person and royal, what can I say?
Scarlet and Wolf: While I enjoyed their romance in Scarlet, it came down to the fact that they fell in love in…two, three days? It was the most instant-love-y of the four romances and by the time Winter was concluded I was tired of their rash actions and was done with their relationship.

4 stars.

Overall series rating, not the actual average, 5 stars.