Posts Tagged ‘Literary’

It took me a few weeks to come to terms with this novel, but I finally did and this is what I decided: despite the hype about Station Eleven, or perhaps because of the hype, the book turned out to be a huge disappointment for me.

About :

It starts off brilliantly with an actor’s onstage death that, while seeming both tragic and horrible to the cast and fans, also feels right—this is an elderly actor, surrounded by his favorite people, doing his favorite thing amidst the glorious fanfare of playing King Lear, dying a completely natural death. Sad, but, in a sense, also normal and even enviable. The way a person wants to die. (This scene made me want to go pick up King Lear, immediately, which is a bonus. I love being inspired to read classics by reading modern books.)

Then, as the acting cast meets afterwards in a bar to take in the death of their lead, we get this line:

Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on a road out of the city.”

Whoa, what!? This compelling line introduces the coming apocalypse—which, we soon learn, will be in the form of an epidemic that causes collapse of human civilization. The actor’s death is indeed a happy mercy in comparison. The perfect prose sets up the drama of this revelation perfectly.

Unfortunately, the prose is the only thing I enjoyed about the rest of the book. My interest died fairly soon after that amazing intro, after which we find ourselves following a cast of narrators connected in distant and basically meaningless ways. The revelations about those character connections are supposed to somehow give the novel structure, but the strategy doesn’t really work. It just reads like a bunch of character sketches set against a relatively static “post-apocalyptic” background. We see the fall of humanity through the eyes of these characters, which is sort of interesting, but…

Thoughts :

For me, two problems killed the character-driven premise of “examining the individual and collective human response to apocalypse.”

First of all, the cast is boring, completely average and largely unchanging. These are normal people who make huge mistakes, but never redeem themselves. The two characters who do change only do so in flashbacks: the actor, imo the least sympathetic character, and the vaguely-Protestant-sounding cult leader. Although Mandel attempts to give the story structure by following the arcs of the actor and the cult leader, both are snoozeworthy. I’ve read so much more interesting and illuminating portrayals of religious nutsos (see Hazel Motes in Wiseblood or St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre or even Kelsier in Mistborn!), so this kind of religious stereotype completely bores me.

Second, Mandel wrote Station Eleven almost entirely from the viewpoint of non-religious peoples of European descent. A little more diversity would have gone a long way toward creating a more compelling cast. The lack of sane religious people in particular seems like an odd disparity in a post-apocalyptic population. So, in regards to religious people, either: (1) ALL of them are nuts; (2) ALL the sane ones died already; or (3) ALL the sane ones were raptured!

‘What about the post-apocalyptic setting?’ you may be wondering. Well…it’s largely static, like the characters, unfortunately. [Highlight to view SPOILER: After the initial fall, we just see everything collapse again and again through the eyes of the cast, and that’s where it stays. Nothing else happens, no clues about the future. Maybe that’s what Mandel is saying: the future remains static forever. I guess you could interpret it that way, but it’s boring and relatively hopeless and in conjunction with everything else I didn’t like about this story? MEH. ]

To end on a high point: several members of the cast belong to a troupe of Shakespearean actors traveling through the wasteland, and Mandel uses them to share the redeeming power of story. I enjoyed that theme, even if it is apparently the exclusive source of meaning and hope characters find in the world of this novel (which is just silly. I love my books, but I don’t base my identity and hope in them, and I certainly wouldn’t do so in the case of an apocalypse. That, in addition to the apparent Theophobia??, made it difficult for me to find myself anywhere in this novel). Still, imaginary bonus points for the lit love.

Overall :

Dull, dull, dull. I’ve read literary fiction that accomplishes all of this with far greater success, so I really don’t understand why people loved this one. There’s just such better stuff out there. For a much more compelling character-driven and literary post-apocalyptic novel, I would recommend Arslan by M. J. Engh. Happily, I just reviewed it two days ago and it’s fresh enough that I’ll guarantee a much more thoughtful reading experience than Station Eleven can provide. Still not much plot, but the characters are way more interesting PLUS they’re unreliable narrators, which, I mean, bonus points, right?

So I gave Station Eleven 1 star for the prose, 1 star for the terrific intro and a half a star for a half-way decent cast. But I rounded down because I was so disappointed.

2.5/5 STARS

Recommended To:

If you super-love post-apocalyptic fiction, you might still enjoy Station Eleven, especially since it’s so mainstream and popular now. It will likely come up in conversations about literary sci-fi, and sometimes it’s just fun to take part in a popular sci-fi fandom. My library is giving away free copies of it this year for the Big Read, which is really a big deal for a science fiction novel!

Station Eleven is adult post-apocalyptic science fiction authored by Emily St. John Mandel and published September 9th 2014 by Knopf. Hardcover, 336 pages. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

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Humanity was a plague. Locustlike, we ripped holes in the world’s fabric.

About :

Wow. What to say about this book. Well, it’s all about Arslan, a young Asian general from the European-created state of Turkistan, who takes over the world’s military powers without firing a single shot. His methods and reasons remain a mystery from most of the world, but he gradually reveals his vision to two men in small town Illinois, where the modern conqueror makes his capital.

Arslan was just republished by Open Road Integrated Media last month, and that’s how I heard of it, but it was originally published in 1976 to much critical acclaim. Being a fan of Dystopias and occasionally tempted by SF classics of the 70s-80s, I couldn’t resist a classic of the subgenre coming in at only 288 pages. I’m glad I got the chance to read it.

Thoughts :

Two very different, unreliable and extremely well-realized characters narrate the story, telling us details of humanity’s deterioration and of Arslan, the man causing said deterioration. Franklin Bond is a Christian conservative and school principle in the small, rural town where Arslan appears, and he cares very much for all under his responsibility. Therefore, he risks the wrath of the town by enforcing the hated general’s every rule, having quickly determined that a resistance would only survive its initial stages if he kept it a secret from Arslan; he’s all action and no talk. He gets most of the page time, since he helps run everything from food distribution, to the resistance, to the town government itself.

The other narrator, Hunt, is one of Franklin Bond’s sixth graders and only twelve years old when Arslan takes him as a sex slave. Over the course of the book, Hunt grows in and out of physical captivity and learns to play both sides of the conflict over Arslan, whichever offers him the best chance of survival. Though clearly a victim, Hunt’s pretentiousness and love of literature—his ability, as he grows, to express his anguish through poetry, and his pride, which prevents him from addressing it in any other way—make him a strong, complex narrator of indeterminate sexuality whose reactions defy prediction. His quotes from Milton express his situation particularly well:

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Hunt’s perspective is just…I had to take breaks from reading it. Anguished is probably the best word for it. Cynical, yes, but also constantly flirting with death of all kinds. It’s awful and beautiful. Hunt’s perspective gets all the psychological depth of Franklin’s perspective plus the benefit of literary allusion and a poetic lens. I don’t normally swear, but literally the only word that can properly express Hunt’s perspective is “mind-effery” lol But it is through Hunt’s perspective that we get the clearest and most in-depth ruminations about Arslan—since Hunt is unable to form a coherent picture of himself, he puts all his energy into defining Arslan to himself and to readers in observations such as the one below:

Confronted unignorably with a phrase he was unsure of, [Arslan] would turn it back, with a straight face, in question, threat, or provocation, to elicit more data. I thought, too, that one reason for his inscrutable looks, his reluctance to show surprise or annoyance or enthusiasm, was a simple fear of betraying misunderstanding by an inappropriate reaction.”

I can’t share anything about Arslan without spoiling the plot, since it relies very much on revelations about his purpose and actions. Although the details of his conquest ultimately feel inadequate and somewhat disappointing, even those aren’t really the focus of this novel—Arslan himself is. And his plan for the world is what makes the novel so interesting. [Highlight to view SPOILERS: Arslan’s concerns seem largely environmental. “To save the world from mankind.” “But man, man is too strong. He fouls and exhausts too rapidly, and nothing checks him for long. There is only one end for such a species: extinction.” ].

But since we can’t get into those details, let’s talk instead about the fascinating and disturbing silence of the women portrayed in Arslan. In the beginning, women are dolls.

I made Luella stay inside, but I stood out on the front steps to watch…I wasn’t about to crawl into a hole.”

I don’t think Franklin Bond meant to make this sound like Luella was crawling into a hole—rather, he was trying to show defiance against the army invading his town. Still, why “make” her stay inside? The general treatment of women is degrading in Arslan, even before the “Dystopian” part happens. Halfway through the book, women become a tool of the enemy (through no fault of their own) or they have simply died of housework.

I constantly wondered about the lack of female presence and agency in Arslan, as I read. Thus it shocked me to find out that M. J. Engh is a woman. BECAUSE ONLY MEN CAN BE SEXIST, RIGHT?! lol. Apparently I’m just sexist like that 😂 Anyway, after further consideration, I found more than meets the eye in the “silence of the women.” It has been argued—successfully, I think—that Engh may have been commenting on the male view of gender roles during the 1970s. It’s hard to say for sure, since this was actually published in the 70s, and not in retrospect, but my personal opinion is that the female silence itself tells of “her” experience. Perhaps their conspicuous silence suggests, “it’s obviously all drudgery and degradation, so much so that nobody was listening to us.” Or perhaps Engh was just trying to appeal to the male reader of the 1970s-80s. That’s also a possibility. At the very least, complete immersion in the unreliable male perspectives undeniably provides food for thought.

Overall :

Full of stunning insights into humanity—or at least into the male half of it, lol. Although the plot falls short in terms of feasibility, the unreliable and fascinating character narratives by far make up for that. I think I would need to read Arslan several more times before I came away with a clear, full picture of Engh’s intent. And Engh’s riveting prose, full to the brim with poetic and historical allusions, gives Arslan a depth that a lesser writer could never have accomplished.

Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Worldbuilding: 3/5
Plot: 2/5

3.75/5 Stars

Arslan is adult Dystopian fiction authored by M.J. Engh and originally published in 1976. Digitally republished on 18 Apr 18, 2017 by Open Road Integrated Media.

Huge thanks to M. J. Engh, Open Road Integrated Media and Netgalley for this free eARC. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

shika3

I just loooooove these covers!

Publisher Description of Series

A self-assured warrior stumbles into a game of Go that turns fatal. An ambitious lord leaves his nephew for dead and seizes his lands. A stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother. A powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne. A woman of the Old People seeks five fathers for her five children, who will go on to found the Spider Tribe and direct the fate of the country.

As destiny weaves its tapestry in Lian Hearn’s Tale of Shikanoko series, an emotionally rich and compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields in Lord of the Darkwood.

About :

Lord of the Darkwood, the third installment of the four-part medieval Japanese fantasy serial The Tale of Shikanoko, covers an enormous amount of time considering its small size of 220 pages: over a decade. As the older power-players of the empire die out, a younger and equally-ambitious set of players matures and takes over. This book covers that shift and the shape of the book reflects it: unlike the previous two installments, the ending does not hinge on a monumental choice by our eponymous hero; in fact, Shikanoko hardly appears at all, compared to his near-constant presence in the first two. I enjoyed this shift from the older to the younger characters; the flat male characters in authority during installments I & II interested me less than the younger crowd does.

Spoilers For Books I-II in the next 2 paragraphs!

In the first two books, Hina lived as a neglected stepdaughter who was then captured and raised by her father’s mortal enemy in another town. All these years, she admired the Deer’s Child (Shikanoko) from afar. But the death of the Autumn Princess at the end of book II leaves Hina in charge of Shika’s infant son—and she only twelve years old herself. In book III, she hides among the courtesans of Lake Kasumi’s pleasure boats and works for them as she comes of age and watches Shika’s son grow up. Along the way, she meets the true emperor for the first time.

Meanwhile, in the Darkwood, Shika’s Spider Tribe sons grow in emotional maturity and demonic magic. Like Hina, they learn of love and lust; but unlike the powerless Hina, each of the sons finds his own place in the power hierarchy of the family, and the most powerful among them shape the empire far beyond the Darkwood, inheriting the power structure left by the deaths during of the first two books. Ultimately, they aim to spin a trap for Shikanoko, the father who sent them away at the end of book II, as he hides in the Darkwood, unaware and still lost in grief for the death of his beloved Autumn Princess, now over a decade before.

Overall :

Even though Lord of the Darkwood feels very much like an installment (instead of a novel), I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the previous two. The younger characters present a wide array of hopeful heroines and terrifying monsters, and their journeys more than make for an interesting story. With Hearn’s characteristically spare, but perfect prose, she has drawn an even more immersive and adult fantasy world than her famed Tales of the Otori series.

****4/5 STARS

Lord of the Darkwood is adult fantasy written by Lian Hearn and was published August 9th 2016 by Fsg Originals. Paperback, 224 pages. Thank you to Lian Hearn, FSG Originals and Netgalley for my review copy! The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

shika2

“He sleeps beneath the lake,
The dragon child,
But he will wake
And spread his wings again,
When the deer’s child comes.”

Sounds so peaceful, right? Pastoral, almost.

But the Tale of Shikanoko is a bloody game of thrones inspired by medieval Japan and told in riveting, heartbreaking fashion.

About :

If you haven’t read book I or at least my review of book I, my recap of the plot won’t make much sense because there’s sooo much going in this series. Lian Hearn’s spare style allows for constant action, and the politics of the large cast is fairly complex, so if I try to recap every important plot line, my entire review will be one long recap and you won’t need to read the book anymore!

But here’s the short version of volumes 1-2:

An impostor prince sits on the Lotus throne and the Heavens take out their vengeance on all as the true emperor hides his identity from his scheming enemies. Shikanoko, The Deer’s Child of the prophecy, retreats to the magician Shisoku to mend his broken deer mask, following a humbling magical defeat by the Prince Abbot. While there, his heart softens toward a dangerous new threat, the five Spider Tribe demon children birthed by the Lady Tora. But despite the chaos all around him, all Shikanoko can think about is the true child emperor and his guardian, the lovely Autumn Princess…Autumn Princess, Dragon Child is an adult fantasy written by Lian Hearn and published June 7th 2016 by FSG Originals. Paperback, 288 pages.

Thoughts :

“The Tale of Shikanoko” series contains four volumes, but it’s really one long story published in four installments. FSG Originals published all four in quick succession in 2016. I read the first installment back in August 2016, so I worried about keeping track of the large cast after so many months; but with a little patience and piecing together, I was able to pick up the story again. I do, however, recommend reading them all within a shorter space of time than I did.

As in volume one, the main form of currency in volume two is power. Although the women vary in motivation and personality, the men all ruthlessly take power to protect themselves and their own families and tend to blend together to some degree. (I felt the same way about the genders in Across the Nightingale Floor, Tales of the Otori #1; but my antipathy toward the bland male characters in that earlier book was much stronger. I do find the characters in The Tale of Shikanoko much more interesting, as a whole, as well as finding the larger plot and style much improved.) But Hearn has a way of changing my mind about seemingly-irredeemable primary and secondary characters. I always end up caring about them by the end.

Shikanoko’s character develops in particularly interesting ways. His defeat at the end of book one broke him, and during the course of book two, he starts to grow from used child to adult warrior/sorcerer. His new humility proves to be a strength, by the end of this volume. His character development is one of my favorite things about the story.

Each volume ends with a monumental choice by Shikanoko—usually a combination of glorious victory and terrible mistake—and each time this poignant victory/defeat has made me eager to to pick up the next installment (although I didn’t get the chance to do that after volume one). Many readers have concluded that combining Shika’s story into one large volume would have made more sense, since the four small volumes (all well under 300 pgs, extremely short for adult fantasy) have very little in the way of self-contained plots. But regardless of this publishing model, the story is just as compelling in one or four volumes.

Overall :

So far The Tale of Shikanoko series is very dark and very adult, nothing like what I remember from Across the Nightingale Floor. I’m completely hooked!

Plot: 3.5/5
Characters: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Worldbuilding: 4/5

****4/5 STARS

Recommended To :

If you enjoy literary fantasy and Asian settings (specifically feudal Japan, in this case), I highly recommend this series. Not recommended to readers wanting fast, action-oriented or “magic-systems” fantasy; though the spare, impactful style never wastes a word, the tale’s emphasis on character and political machinations leaves little room for action or humor. And although magic exists and influences the story in interesting ways, it remains completely mysterious to readers, used for atmospheric and structural elements.

The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors. Thank you so much to Lian Hearn, FSG Originals and Netgalley for my free review copy! I loved it.

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

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.

DazzleofDay

About: A new generation of pioneers seeks sanctuary from our dying earth in a mission to a new planet. Only the patient, whole-minded Quakers have worked out the challenges to turn these theoretical missions into a reality. This literary hard sci-fi follows the takeoff, the problems encountered during the mission and the effects of those challenges on the very human community that rises to meet them. Published 1998, Adult Sci-fi. Awards: 1998 Oregon Book Award Nominee for Fiction (Finalist). A NYTimes Notable Book.

The Short of It: This book will appeal to a certain kind of reader, certainly, because of its carefully crafted tech details, people and atmosphere. I care about two of the three (people and atmosphere), so I liked it. The complaint I hear most often (and agree with) is that the plot moves very slowly.

What I Loved: (1) The setting and descriptions work with other elements to create pitch-perfect tone in this novel of “the new frontier.” It’s beautiful and bleak, a real gem. (2) Molly Gloss slows down each moment so you can understand the psychology of each moment, sensation and act of humanity—grief, adultery, lust, fear, etc.—and you grow to care for these flawed people because you see yourself in them. (3) I also loved the cultural vision and authentic feeling of the Quaker meetings, both the personal and collective experiences of them. They feel very genuine, neither sentimental nor unfeeling. Having attended small religious meetings all my life, I was tickled to recognize the characters in the Quaker meetings: the elder, the blah-blah-er, the gossip, the elderly, etc.

What I Didn’t Love: (1) A few things didn’t ring quite true—such as when a God-fearing person refers to humans as animals. Maybe futuristic Quakers will accept a completely naturalistic explanation of life, in which humans are considered animals; but I doubt that this will ever be a majority opinion among spiritual communities (although I have very little familiarity with Quaker theology). I think the reverence for our humanity, the thing that separates us from animals, is too great for that sort of casual comment. It sounds like agnosticism trying to mask itself as theology.

But those moments are comparatively rare. Gloss got the important thing right, namely that for all the truthful, searing human folly present in every character, there is also a certain peace about the community that rings just as true.

(2) The plot is a bit of a snore, although the tension in the writing still kept me reading. The structure and purpose of the book were better formed than they are in your typical character or plot driven novels. This novel was more “idea-driven,” or, as Orson Scott Card might have put it in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, “milieu-driven.” The wandering plot feels designed to mirror the wandering quality of a Quaker’s movements in the spiritual realm—waiting for the spirit to speak through them to the community at large. Waiting. Listening. Then, perhaps, speaking.

Other Comments: There is some very technical jargon about the ship and the theories of survival. I don’t really understand or care about those, but I thought I’d mention them in case they matter to someone else.

Recommendation: For adults who love thoughtful, literary sci-fi and for readers wanting an intro to hard-sci-fi (because the book is rather short).

***3 stars for character, atmosphere and cohesive vision.

Favorite Quote: “When people are feeling the weight of their own lives, they want to see the life other animals are given, and there is something mysterious and revealing about the discarded machinery of birds’ lives. In abandoned flakes of eggshell, emptied seed cases, the hollow stems of cottongrass, in the delicate attenuated backbones of fish and the teeth of desiccated crustaceans, you can sometimes glimpse the bare and intricate structures of God” (239).