Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

The Immortals

“I protect you, just like I protect all the women who come to me. And all I ask in return is two promises: You won’t tell the cops about me, and you won’t hook up with ***holes again.”

About :

The pantheon of Greek gods is alive, though not exactly well, in the city of Manhattan. Artemis—or Selene the Huntress, as she calls herself these days—wearily goes about her age-old task of saving women from male predators, but in truth her powers waned long ago as mortals began to worship other things.

But a brutal murder puts Selene back in touch with her ancient calling, and suddenly her powers begin to return…In her search to find the murderer, she finds herself disarmed and, alarmingly, charmed by a handsome classics professor, Theodore Schultz, who doggedly pursues the same answers. The Immortals is adult urban fantasy authored by Jordanna Max Brodsky and published February 16th 2016 by Orbit. Hardcover, 447 pages.

Thoughts :

Let’s start with the good things. The publisher marketed this as Percy Jackson for adults, and I’d say that’s about right. How could I not at least try “Percy Jack for adults”? So much potential in this premise! Brodsky clearly researched the pantheon, too, and developed an interesting faith system for modern life, as gods try to stay relevant to today’s worshippers. (Selene’s brother Apollo tours with his rock band, catering to adoring crowds and groupies.) Brodsky combines a murder mystery with this brilliant idea, and it held my attention, although I’ve read enough murder mysteries to have pinpointed the culprit immediately.

My other favorite thing? Nerdy and hilarious academic references abound. I love Theo’s pseudo swear, “Holy Roman Empire!” which had me literally laughing out loud as I listened to the audiobook. Brodsky represents the world of academia with great color and life. This goes beyond just the killer premise of bringing the Greek pantheon to life in modern Manhattan; Theo’s university scenes left me feeling totally nostalgic for college.

So it kills me to write this, but…

DNF at 33%

I could not get into the characters. I couldn’t help getting the impression that both protagonists are condescending snobs. Selene condescends to everyone except her dog, but especially to men and specifically to Theo, who practically prostrates himself before her. In one scene, he proves his credentials by helping her with a lead, then pleads to be allowed to help her investigate the murder. This response characterizes Selene’s attitude during the entire conversation:

She put on her baseball cap and pulled it low, so he could barely see her eyes glaring at him from beneath the brim. ‘But don’t think we’re partners, because we’re not.’”

Uhhh okay. Why does he find her attractive again? And she’s just like that all the time. It’s sort of inhuman, which I guess might be the point: Selene is a vengeance goddess. She doesn’t want or need to be liked.

At least Theo’s a nice enough guy, but both he and Selene spend the first 150 pages condescending to the police in ways that just irritate me. Just one example: Theo physically grabs a cop and then gets all amped up when the cop supposedly “trumps up” assault charges on him; but the fact is, grabbing anyone will legitimately earn you an “assault” charge. These kinds of misunderstandings always bother me because my husband is in law enforcement and depends on these laws for protection in the field.

I almost can’t blame Theo and Selene for their attitudes, though, because the cops in The Immortals are all bumbling idiots. They fail to investigate leads and, as poor Theo observes, can’t even remember to Mirandize their suspects (or perhaps don’t want to?). Brodsky’s narrative about law enforcement feels more angry and targeted than the humorously inept “Lestraudes” of normal mystery stories, going beyond humor and straight into using police corruption, brutality and neglect as the main antagonists of the investigators. I don’t know if this is just a clumsy mishandling of the mystery trope or if Brodsky is trying to set up a narrative, here, but unfortunately it made the book difficult for me to enjoy.

Overall & Recommendation :

If the things I mentioned above don’t personally barb you, and if you like the sound of the synopsis, I would definitely recommend trying The Immortals. I think most urban-fantasy lovers and mythology geeks will enjoy it; and luckily for you who do enjoy it, book II just came out in February!

thevaliant

“I punched my fists skyward in victory before sweeping my arms out to either side, stretched wide as wings. I felt for that fleeting instant as if I really were the goddess Morrigan in flight, swooping low over a battlefield to collect the souls of the glorious dead.”

About :

Fallon is a Celtic Princess with an ax to grind: Julius Caesar killed her warrior-sister in his battle to conquer Britain (or Prydain, as the Celts call it) and Fallon trains to one day get revenge on the Roman conqueror. But when her father betroths her to her boyfriend’s brother, instead of asking her to join his royal war band, she’s sure she’ll never get the chance after all.

While tracking down her betrothed to confront him, Fallon’s life takes another sharp left turn: slavers capture her and bring her to Rome, where her greatest enemy, Caesar, buys her for his gladiatrix training academy. While Fallon’s Cantii spirit still cries for freedom, she trusts the will of her goddess and trains hard to become the best gladiatrix in Rome. The Valiant is YA Alternate History authored by Lesley Livingston and published February 14th 2017 by Razorbill.

Thoughts :

The Valiant opens with Fallon successfully completing the fabled chariot stunt known as the Morrigan’s Flight, wherein a warrior steps from the chariot’s carriage to the shaft between the running horses and hurls a spear at her target. This lushly detailed and action-filled opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. The first third sucks readers into Fallon’s journey from Roman Britain to Rome itself with the thrum of chariot wheels, the stench of corpse-fouled wells and the chill of the metal torcs that mark you as royalty—or slave.

Then we reach the promise of the premise: Caesar buys Fallon for his gladiatrix training school. The “school” trope is one of my favorites in YA, and this very trope is the “twist” that makes The Valiant an alternate history: though rare, individual female gladiators did exist; but Livingston imagines elite training schools to prepare the female warriors for the Colosseum battles. As in the first third of The Valiant, Livingston brings this premise alive with great details.

One of my favorite examples: when Fallon is training for the Colosseum, she analyzes the different styles and strategies of gladiatorial combat, such as what classes of gladiator the women belong to, depending on their weapons—and what Hunger-Games-like strategies they use to please the crowd of spectators:

Gratia fought in the style of the murmillo gladiators, with sword and heavy shield. It suited her physique—and her penchant for thoughtless brutality—and made her something of a force to be reckoned with in the arena. It also compensated for her utter lack of personality.

And that was something that the masters of the ludi, the gladiatorial games, coveted above all else.

Flair.”

The rest of the plot feels a little stringy and predictable to me, but Fallon’s journey to the school and her struggles there draw the real focus anyway.

And although the character psychology doesn’t always ring true, the politics of identity, race and culture give strong flavor to character interactions and agendas. For example, Fallon chafes against her bondage, disgusted by the idea of battling to satisfy this foreign Roman bloodlust; she can’t understand how the Romans can stomach forcing their slaves to fight like animals. But she also realizes that her tribe and family kept, worked and sold slaves just like the Romans:

We bought them and sold them the same way as we did out cattle. Slaves had meant swept floors and lit fires and clean water carried in heavy clay pots. I was ashamed to admit I had never given them much thought. They just…were. I had been so very blind. And stupid. And now I was learning what it was like to have someone else decide my fate.”

While I expected some action and hoped for some good historical detail, I didn’t at all expect this kind of historical depth. It was such a great surprise!

Overall :

This is exactly what I’m looking for, when I pick up a YA with a historical bent. I want the entertainment and the detail. Balanced pacing, slam-bang action and an engaging level of historical awareness raises this YA Alternate History above the market average. It’s very well edited with invisible prose, active description and almost none of the “telling” that can drone on and on and kill the forward motion in historical fiction.

Recommended To :

Readers who wish Rosemary Sutcliff had written more YA. Or, you know, anyone who likes the idea of reading about female gladiators 😀

****4/5 STARS

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midnightcurse

“Whoever had forced Molly to kill her friends wanted her to get caught, go on trial and be executed before she had a chance to prove her innocence.”

About :

Scarlett Bernard is a “null,” a human who cancels out any magic around her. Her abilities come in handy on the job—she works to keep the magical world a secret from normal humans in the city of LA. She’s actually starting to enjoy her job, although she’s also enjoying the good life with her werewolf boyfriend, Eli, outside of work.

But duty calls when someone magically forces a vampire friend of hers into murdering 12 USC roommates. Scarlett’s job becomes twofold: hide the magical involvement from the humans and find out who wants to hurt her friend.

Nobody believes in the vampire’s innocence, but Scarlett is determined to find the real murderer with a little help from an old LAPD buddy. Midnight Curse is adult UF authored by Melissa F. Olson and published February 7th 2017 by 47North.

I was browsing Netgalley for a promising new series when I ran across Midnight Curse, first in the new “Disrupted Magic” trilogy. It wasn’t until after I requested the book that I learned about a previous trilogy starring Scarlett Bernard, but I jumped in anyway.

And Olson had me from the first line.

Thoughts :

Scarlett is at an art show with her boyfriend when she gets a creepy, blood-spattered SOS note delivered from her old vampire friend, Molly. The note asks Scarlett to come meet her secretly, so Scarlett blows off her boyfriend, hoping he’ll understand and let her handle it. After all, if she tells him, he has to tell his werewolf pack leader, and then the secret’s not so secret anymore.

But things careen out of control and soon, Scarlett finds herself running damage control on all fronts while still trying to uncover the real mass murderer—and their veiled purpose. The story unfolds in the perspectives of both Scarlett and her LAPD friend Jesse, and a fantastic first 50% ensues. Scarlett and Jesse keep the twisty mystery plot moving, interspersing their investigation with humorous one-liners, psychologically layered character dynamics and precise, interesting backstory and worldbuilding.

Because I jumped in without reading the earlier books, I worried that missing information would muddy the experience for me. But Olson integrates explanations smoothly without info-dumping. The worldbuilding becomes clearer with every page. A lot of the mystery developments do rely on past history and knowledge of Scarlett’s manifold abilities, but I still enjoyed the plot very much.

So with all this going for Midnight Curse, why did I rate the book at 4 stars instead of 5?

It’s largely due to a subjective reaction to one relationship arc that left me feeling bitter during the second half. Throughout the novel, we see the themes of relational control and abuse taken to different extremes, and I didn’t enjoy how it played out in Scarlett’s case. I’m not a huge fan of these dysfunctional relationships from hell, haha. [Highlight to view SPOILER: I struggled with Scarlett’s breakup because she kept running away from communication and playing petty games with Eli. Maybe if she had invited him along on one of her jaunts, instead of taking off with Jesse (whom she’s already developing feelings for), Eli could have understood her strengths or been part of her team or something like that. I don’t buy the irreconcilable differences crap because my husband and I are about as different as two personalities can get and we somehow manage to talk things out like adults. Going on six years of blissfully wedded life, I value faithfulness very highly in relationships, so Scarlett’s behavior irked me beyond what another reader might have felt.]

But I get the feeling that Olson wanted/needed to shake things up for the new trilogy, and my impression of Scarlett suffered without an understanding of the love triangle and character histories of the original series. She came across as very immature to me in this one isolated relationship. She’s a great protagonist in every other way, and in fact, a lot of readers enjoyed everything about the book (the overall Goodreads rating is super high—currently 4.27, wow!), including this arc. Your experience of this relationship arc seems to really depend on your emotional connection to the characters.

Overall :

So while Midnight Curse is a great UF, it left me severely cranky, haha. I probably won’t read any more about Scarlett because I try to avoid getting my heart ripped out; but I’d be down to read more by this author—I loved everything else about the book. I could see a lot of readers giving it five stars.

Recommended To :

I recommend this to readers looking for adult UF with a strong mystery, a fast pace and characters that don’t leave room for ambivalence. I think teens would love it, too, although there’s some language that parents might want to be aware of.

Thank you so much to Melissa F. Olson, 47North and Netgally for this great ARC. I really enjoyed it!

4/5 STARS

crossroads-of-canopuAbout :

The opening novel of Thoraiya Dyer’s “Titan’s Forest” series takes place in the world of a giant forest. Three realms live at different levels of this forest: “Canopy” claims the privileged position at the treetops, Understorey clings the boughs, and “Floor” settles in the shadows at the foot of the trees.

Crossroads of Canopy opens in Canopy, the most privileged of the three realms. Here, thirteen theocracies rule the Canopian citizens and interact through the usual ways of war, trade and peace. When a god or goddess dies, they are reincarnated into the body of a human babe. Unar lives in the Garden, a theocracy ruled by the goddess, Audblayin. Having run from poverty and barely escaped slavery, Unar plans to find glory by winning the position of Audblayin’s next bodyguard. But she becomes sympathetic to the slaves from the lower realm of Understorey, a complication that gets her into trouble with the Gardeners.

Then, suddenly, Audblayin dies. With her death, the magic that bound Unar to service and mandatory abstinence disappears, and new, overwhelming distractions get in the way of her plans…Crossroads of Canopy is fantasy published by Thoraiya Dyer. Published January 31st 2017 by Tor Books.

I requested this one immediately, when it popped up on Netgalley. Look at that cover. And the description?! Sounds amazing, right?

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get into it and ended up DNFing it at 47%

Why DNF?

When I started Crossroads of Canopy, I expected political divisions among the theocracies, adventure among the trees and a sense of wonder about the gorgeous forest realms. I hoped for some interesting philosophy about the religions, perhaps debated among friends.

But this book focused on other things, and unfortunately I struggled to connect with the characters, who often provoked each other with hostile attitudes; also, most of the action felt uninteresting and incidental to the plot. The purpose of each scene got lost in Unar’s focus on other things, mainly her sexual awakening.

Following the death of the goddess’s abstinence magics, most of the cast seems fixated on sex and sexual organs—and we’re not just talking about during a few sex scenes. One minute, we’re discussing religions/climbing gigantic trees/social inequality, and out of the nowhere, we’re talking about male “organs” and lady “flaps” and unrequited crushes.

Some of this makes perfect sense and would have been fine, had it remained a minor distraction from Unar’s plans; but it goes overboard and we end up spending lots time oogling Unar’s love interest or exploring Unar’s theories about masturbation when meanwhile, we only know the names of three of Canopy’s thirteen theocracies.

Since Crossroads of Canopy is book 1 in a series, the author seems to be taking her time in exploring the world (and adding in sexual tensions and drama-rama to keep us interested) instead pushing forward with the plot. Unfortunately, while the descriptions did a great job portraying the social stratification, I felt like they neglected other areas of worldbuilding—although some of the imagery of the garden flowers blew me away. Clearly Dyer spent a lot of time developing the flora of her three realms. Check this out:

The exotic plot was filled with rare blue and bronze-colored grasses from the places where Floor met the edge of the forest. A messy hedge of maroon guavas, interspersed with purple sugarcane thickets, formed a semicircle around the western boundary.”

Overall :

The worldbuilding has lots of potential, if you find the style appealing, but the book just moved too slowly for my tastes.

Recommended To :

Reads who might enjoy slow worldbuilding through the eyes of a single narrator. Also, readers who really appreciate gender and racial politics might enjoy the book’s diversity enough to keep reading. A couple of Goodreads reviewers really enjoyed the book for that reason.

Thanks so much to Thoraiya Dyer, Tor and Netgalley for this e-arc!

the-witch-of-portbello

What happened to Athena? 

About :

Athena was a lot of things, but nobody’s labels seemed to stick. Everyone who knew her had an opinion…but did any of them really know her? Told in “transcripts” taped by Athena’s “biographer,” The Witch of Portobello is an unusual mystery tale. Not only does the reader discover Athena, Athena discovers herself—through the eyes of others. The Witch of Portobello is adult fiction by Brazillian author Paulo Coelho and published in 2006. Coelho also wrote The Alchemist.

Thoughts :

What happened to Athena? This question drove my interest in The Witch of Portobello. Early on in the transcripts, we learn from several of the narrators that Athena was murdered. But how? And by whom? Details, details!

This is the second Paulo Coelho novel I’ve listened to, and I enjoyed it as much as the first (The Alchemist). When I realized this was an epistolary novel told through the alternating “transcripts,” I worried that I might confuse the narrators over audio; but it worked out just fine, although I occasionally had to rewind to figure out who was speaking.

We hear the story of Athena’s journey through the eyes of her parents, her teacher, a besotted journalist and his ex-girlfriend…and they all share really strong opinions about her! Conflicting opinions! It was so entertaining to go from the love-struck journalist to his poisonously jealous girlfriend, etc. Athena evoked strong reactions wherever she went.

The central question of the novel relates, of course, to self-discovery. (If you’ve read anything by Paulo Coelho, you probably know how important this theme in his fiction.) Here’s the pitch:

How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of whom we are?

While Athena discovers her own identity, we hear a lot about the New Age beliefs she comes to devote herself to—seriously, a lot. And they’re weird. As a foster-child adopted from a Transylvanian gypsy woman, and as a young mother, divorced and cast from the Catholic church, Athena struggles to recover from loads of internal wounds. She searches for her identity in a goddess who may or may not speak through her (depending on who is narrating at the time) and trances and dances and other, er, strange places. I admit that sitting in on these meetings is a little awkward, but the rotating narrators make it more fun than preachy. I love when authors use a multitude of narrative perspectives to share different versions of the same story, ultimately leaving the interpretation up to the reader.

And anyway, the central mystery—“What happened to Athena?”—has such a strong pull that I would have listened through ten more of her bewildering New Age sermons just to find out.

And then that surprise ending! Good stuff.

Overall :

A short, refreshing contemporary mystery by the bestselling author of The Alchemist.

Recommended To :

If you don’t mind wading through the weird stuff, I think you’ll be hooked by this posthumous tale of Athena’s self-discovery. Some have complained that it’s too preachy—most of Coelho’s books could probably find warm spots on those lists of “most controversial books”—although I didn’t mind at all. It’s a relatively short book and, I think, really brilliant.

****4/5 STARS

The past becomes a continuous future, unless you break the Change…No further analysis!

About :

Arienrhod, the Snow Queen, rules over the planet of Tiamat. She won the right to rule during Tiamat’s 150 year winter cycle, and she stays young and immortal on the blood of the dolphin-like mer. No one understands the immortality, but clues point to remnants of the ancient “Old Empire”…

Unable to explain the mystery, Arienrhod embraces eternal life and has decided that her own rule really should extend beyond the planet’s winter cycle and further, into the summer years. Several of her potential plans to that end appear to be bearing fruit.

If only that troublesome police chief, Jerusha, would stay out of her way. If only Arienrhod’s clone, Moon Dawntreader Summer—a Summer native, raised to understand and eventually manipulate the naiveté of Tiamat’s technologically-backward Summer natives—would heed the Winter queen’s call to the great royal city of Carbuncle. If only Moon’s cousin and pledged, Sparks Dawntreader Summer, would love her, or at least both of them…

One way or another, the Queen is determined to rule this planet forever. And the Queen always gets what she wants. The Snow Queen is classic hard sci-fi authored by Joan D. Vinge, originally published in 1980 and republished several times since. First of a series. Won Hugo Award for Best Novel (1981), Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (1981), Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1981).

Thoughts :

Coming in at 536 pages, The Snow Queen is a monster of ambitious character- and worldbuilding, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale of the same name. While the novel takes time to come into its own, its depth becomes clearer as the clues gradually unfold to reveal the full picture of The Snow Queen Cycle universe. Two of the main narrators—The Winter Queen and her young clone, Moon—have information unknown to the other, and the large cast of characters (including Moon’s lover Sparks and the police chief Jerusha) adds other pieces to the puzzle. With patience, I found myself quite taken with the universe.

Moon and Sparks are cousins, pledged in their Native sort of “marriage.” The young lovers have committed to spending their lives together, no matter what, and to Moon, this means they will both become sibyls of their Native goddess, the Lady of the sea. But to their joint dismay, only Moon is chosen, and Sparks leaves both her and their home for the royal city of Carbuncle, hurt and confused about his own future.

Sparks is not wholly Summer Native. Though he never knew his Offworlder father, he spent his childhood dissecting technology that other Summer Natives of Tiamat reject in favor of simple lifestyles. On Carbuncle, he quickly finds that his naiveté will make life difficult…until he draws the attention of the Winter Queen herself.

Meanwhile, Moon learns the art of the sibyl, connecting with the unearthly reservoir of knowledge that can perfectly answer any question (which she assumes is from her goddess, the Lady…). But when the Queen summons her to visit her cousin and lover, Sparks, on Carbuncle, she determines to make the trip.

Along the way, she is kidnapped and taken Offworld, an act that will banish her from ever returning to Tiamat—by law, and by physics. Soon, the season will change into Summer, when all technologically-savvy Winters will leave their colony and travel back to their homeworlds–and the stargate to Tiamat will close. And anyway, once “Offworld,” sibyls aren’t allowed to return to Tiamat, for reasons that not even the queen knows all about…So now Moon must stay on this colorful new planet of Kharemough, forever, or so say her kidnappers. But Moon won’t give up on Sparks that easily.

As Moon plans her return to Tiamat, the Winter Queen, who mirrors Moon with perfect physical precision, slowly poisons young Sparks with her power-hunger. Eventually, she corrupts him into breaking his pledge to Moon and hunting out the mer blood for her immortality. Reveling in her success, the queen hatches a plot to live forever with her newest consort.

I was able to settle in and get swept away by the vision of the book, although it did take some time for me to feel committed and interested in the plot and characters. Partially, this is due to Vinge’s slow pay out of answers to our many questions. We’re also following quite a large cast of characters, so the desire lines can be difficult to follow and slow to develop in urgency.

Unfortunately, the characters grew on me very slowly, although I loved the awesome police chief, Geia Jerusha. I wish we could have spent more time with her. However, almost every character does have complex, grey-scale morals and motives—even the strong, well-developed secondary characters—so even if it can be hard to like them, they are interesting to read about (and watch tumble into the dark depths of their ambition, muahahahaha!).

The writing itself has little feel or atmosphere, although it does reach literary heights in several places. I found it difficult to connect with, during a lot of the book.

But even with its slow-burn plot, difficult characters and remote writing, The Snow Queen is a hard sci-fi you can get lost in. I’ve been preoccupied by its exploration of colonialism, sexism, feminism, technology and religion in the days since I finishing it; I would certainly be interested in exploring more “Offworld” planets, whose politics and technology I found very interesting. I’m not in a hurry, at the moment, but perhaps in the future.

Overall :

Despite my difficulty in connecting emotionally with this book, The Snow Queen is hard sci-fi you can get lost in.

Recommended To :

The Snow Queen reminded me very much of Julian May‘s Pliocene Exile saga ( The Many-Colored Land ). They read similarly in many ways, although the latter moved slightly more quickly, with its killer premise. I would recommended The Snow Queen to hard sci-fi fans looking for a complex, grey-scale space opera.

****4/5 STARS

thebearandthenightingale

‘All of my life,’ she said, ‘I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender myself to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow that live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

Vasilisa Petrovna has “the sight.” All around her she sees creatures from Pre-Christian folklore, known as “chyerty” by the villagers and “demons” by the Catholic. But in medieval Catholic “Rus,” having the sight is a dangerous; so she hides her gift and seeks her own way in the world.

Her way does not include marriage. Every other girl may marry or go to a nunnery, but Vasya refuses, preferring to talk with her creature friends and ride horses in the wild woods around her village.

Everything changes when her father remarries to a Catholic stepmother. Vasys’s idyllic—if never easy—life in the woods shifts from difficult to miserable. The oppressive atmosphere over the village bodes ill for Vasya and her chyerty friends. She has no idea that the Winter king watches her, just as his brother, the devourer, watches. But she slowly begins to realize that her village may depend on the very gifts it scorns. The Bear and the Nightingale is Historical Fantasy/Russian Fairytale written by Katherine Arden and published January 10th 2017 by Del Rey.

Thoughts :

I actually requested The Bear and the Nightingale thinking it was adult fiction, but I quickly realized it could easily be considered crossover, with the way the whole narrative revolves around the young heroine. So it was with pleasure that I read about the two girls who see the “demons” and soon become family by marriage. I thought, “Oh, how good Anna will be for Vasya! They can talk about their visions. They can be friends; they’re not so far apart, and Vasya desperately needs a friend.”

Clearly I didn’t read the book description very thoroughly before starting the book! I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say nothing turned out like I hoped. Anna’s marriage into the family begins all the troubles for Vasya and her village. Why?

Because Anna is a fearful, superstitious Catholic. She assumes the harmless house creatures to be demons; and from then on out, the whole village slides into the clutches of the enemy: the one-eyed man, brother of the Winter King. He is,

Appetite…Madness. Terror. He wants to eat the world.”

He gains more and more power, thanks to the fear-mongering, misguided Catholics, whose belief system is entirely based on a misunderstanding of the reality of Pre-Christian Russian folklore. God, Satan and demons? They’re all just misunderstandings. So they misinterpret the the harmless domovoi as demons and the one-eyed man as both God and the devil, at different times, and they lead the village into danger.

‘You are the devil!’ whispered Konstantin, clenching his hands.

All the shadows laughed. ‘As you like. But what difference is there between me and the one you call God? I too revel in deeds done in my name. I can give you glory, if you will do my bidding.’”

Thankfully for the villagers, Vasya understands that fear feeds the one-eyed man and that the domovoi help protect the households against him. She heroically and sacrificially turns the other cheek as everyone gathers against “the witch,” saves the bumbling priests again and again (as they, of course, fall head over heels in love with her), and finally rides out to save the day.

I don’t want to make light of all the things I truly enjoyed about The Bear and the Nightingale, because the story reads beautifully, despite its problems. I loved Vasya, as a truly strong female protagonist, and I sympathized with her plight of making the village see reason. But we spend a lot of time in the head of a Catholic priest who is led astray by powers he misunderstands, to the folly of the entire village. We also spend a lot of time pitying Vasya’s situation as a woman, as she is forced to choose between either the marriage bed or the nunnery. Arden did Vasya a disservice by turning everyone against her, to the point that it felt overdone and melodramatic. When Vasya misses a certain funeral because she’s out slaying the village upyr, this is the response she gets:

Witch-woman. Like her mother.

[Highlight to view SPOILER: Dunya ] loved you like her daughter, Vasya,’ [her father] said, later. ‘Of all the days to play truant.’”

C’mon. She just spent 24 hours nursing this dying woman into her grave. This is just obnoxiously melodramatic, and it happens again and again throughout the book.

I dreaded posting this review, knowing that my opinions would be different from most of my friends; but I just have to say that good Fantasy authors know how to respect the mythology and beliefs they interact with. Jim Butcher and Max Gladstone come to mind- they don’t pick and choose winning and losing faiths, among the devout of their fantasy. There are good guys on every team. Katherine Arden didn’t get the memo on this. Her handling of medieval faith, while sensitive in the way of characterization, is drastically biased in many other ways. I’ll leave it at that.

With less emphasis on the human and religious drama and more on the fairy tale elements—which are, I suspect, why most of us pick up this book—I would have loved The Bear and the Nightingale enough to give it five stars.

This is obviously just my opinion, but I think this could have easily been children’s fiction to rival Elizabeth Enright’s. Which is…amazing! I loved reading about Vasya’s life in the woods and the fairy tale aspects from Russian folklore. Here, she’s breaking in a young horse, after a period of convalescence:

Vasya eyed the stallion’s tall bare back. She tried her limbs, and found them weak as water. The horse stood proudly and expectantly, a horse out of a fairy tale.

‘I think,’ said Vasya, ‘that I am going to need a stump.’

The pricked ears flattened. A stump.

‘A stump,’ said Vasya firmly. She made her way to a convenient one, where a tree had cracked and fallen away. The horse poked along behind. He seemed to be reconsidering his choice of rider.”

This is what people loved about The Bear and the Nightingale! The writing and atmosphere are truly, breathtakingly lovely, and the characters, though dark and often tiresome, are clearly imagined with care and love. But the books’s flaws are big enough that they did largely ruin the book for me.

Overall :

Gorgeously wrought fairy tale with a few major flaws. They won’t be fatal flaws for everyone, although they are for me.

Characters: 3/5 Stars
Worldbuilding: 3/5 Stars
Plot: 2.5/5 Stars
Writing: 5/5 Stars

***3/5 Stars

Recommended To :

A lot of readers enjoyed this story based on the historical detail, the strong characterizations and the perfect atmosphere. And no wonder! I suspect most readers won’t feel the way I do about it, so I say go ahead and try it. You’ll probably like it a lot better than I did. (Which is to say 3+ stars at least!)

Thanks so much to Katherine Arden, Del Rey and Netgalley for my review copy of The Bear and the Nightingale.