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A thinking woman sleeps with monsters April 21, 2019

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I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a book that glories in, and commits to, its darkness and the sheer seductive joy of villainy as much as Emily A. Duncan’s debut young adult novel, Wicked Saints. Most other young adult literature like this that I’ve read tends to hold back, pulling its punches. These books soften the men, making them less villainous, giving them a reasonable explanation for their behaviour that makes it justifiable. Or they take the opposite route, allowing the heroine to recognise the villainy at the last minute and recoil in righteous horror. But Duncan doesn’t just embrace the darkness — she revels in it, and lets her heroine follow her path without judgement.
Cover - Wicked Saints
The heroine in question is Nadya, a young cleric who can commune with her country’s, Kalyazin’s, pantheon of saints, raised in seclusion in a monastery until the moment she’s ready to be released like a weapon in the long, religious war her country is waging against its near neighbour Tranavia. Unfortunately, the war comes to her door before Nadya is ready, forcing her into a temporary, unwilling alliance with Malachiasz, a renegade blood mage from Tranavia whose motives are shrouded in secrecy. Serefin, the heir to the Tranavian throne — who drowns his father’s disappointment in drink and battlefield heroics — rounds out our trio of messed-up primary characters. Wicked Saints is, in many ways, the story of Nadya’s journey from righteous moral clarity to moral ambiguity and beyond. Much of the story takes place in enemy territory, as Nadya goes undercover at the behest of Malachiasz, and becomes mired in the various political intrigues that swirl around the Tranavian court. Nadya is at once attracted and repelled by Malachiasz, and her attempts to understand and second guess him come up short until the very end. I follow Duncan on social media, and so I was pretty sure I knew where the story was heading, but for those more steeped in the expectations and conventions of YA fantasy, the twist at the end — and how far Duncan allows Nadya to fall — is likely to come as a shock.

The world of Wicked Saints is certainly aesthetically Slavic (specifically Poland and Russia), but unlike recent fantasy works such as Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy, Rena Rossner’s Sisters of the Winter Wood, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, Duncan doesn’t seem to draw much on existing Slavic folklore or history. In this the book has much in common with Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse novels, which use their Slavic setting as scaffolding and structure, visible in the names of characters and places, and the look and feel of the landscape and cities, but then move beyond this real-world inspiration.

For those who, like me, found Bardugo’s original Grishaverse trilogy enjoyable but ultimately frustrating, Wicked Saints is a welcome breath of (chilling, gothic) fresh air. Bardugo’s heroine Alina Starkov’s story concluded with one of my least favourite tropes: a powerful young teenage girl, brimming with terrifying magical abilities, gives it all up because her own power frightens her and she yearns for an ordinary life. Not so Duncan’s Nadya: here is an unabashed power fantasy for teenage girls that doesn’t judge them for this fantasy or try to direct it in a more morally or socially acceptable direction. Sometimes power, villainy and darkness are attractive — and that’s okay.

Living legends January 29, 2019

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In some ways, 2019 had a most auspicious beginning for me, at least as far as reading was concerned: three of my most anticipated books of the year were published in consecutive weeks of January. This meant that each week began with a new literary delight appearing in my ereader for me to savour. By a strange coincidence, each book represented a different stage in a trilogy — one the explosive beginning, another the middle book, doing far more than just bridging the gap between introduction and conclusion, and the third the extremely satisfying conclusion to an extraordinary series. And each book, in its own way, built on a foundation of religion, myth, and fairy tales to construct something exquisite, powerful and page-turning.

First off the mark was Katherine Arden, with The Winter of the Witch, the final book in her medieval Russian fantasy Winternight trilogy. In this series, Arden weaves folklore and fourteenth-century Russian history with a sweeping, all-encompassing battle of good against evil. Her heroine, Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the eponymous witch, can perceive the ancient supernatural powers of the land — these range from pagan gods of death and winter to smaller deities of hearth and home and gateyard — and has found herself as entangled in their supernatural battles as she is in the more earthly political struggles facing the rulers of her land. Both temporal and supernatural Russia stands at a crossroads: there are tensions between the old religion and the new, the threat of invasion from the Mongols is ever-present, and indeed the region we now know as ‘Russia’ is only beginning to conceive of itself in this way, giving birth to itself amid war, fire and violence. Meanwhile, various supernatural beings are taking advantage of the chaos to fight battles of their own, while — as Arden has elected to go for an underlying mythology in which gods require belief in order to exist — struggling to survive in a world which increasingly denies their existence.

cover - winter of the witch

Arden is a master at balancing these grander, broader struggles with the more personal concerns of her heroine. As the story progresses, Vasya uncovers more buried secrets about her uncanny family history, grows in self-knowledge and confidence in her own powers, and embraces the role her magical mentor and protector Morozko envisaged for her: as a bridge between the earthly and supernatural, the old religion and the new, and the otherworldly power struggles of immortals and the violent birth of the Russian state. In previous books in the series, Vasya would have fled from such a destiny, protesting that her preference was for a quiet life roaming the forests with her beloved horse Solovey, but in The Winter of the Witch she has accepted the inevitable — and realises that she relishes the role of bridge-builder and protector. Part of this lies in accepting her connection with Morozko, and all that this implies, and the way that this renders her partly monstrous, and the old death god partly human is beautifully done and one of my favourite elements of the series. The result is a land protected on both supernatural and earthly fronts, leaving Vasya free to roam the stark, wintry landscapes, the line between otherworldly and mundane forever blurred.

We move from the ice and frost of medieval Russia to the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and the beautiful cities of Central Asia in The Kingdom of Copper, the second book in S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy. To be more precise, these landscapes are the otherworldly equivalent of their real-world counterparts, inhabited by djinn and invisible to the human eye. The simmering political tensions of Chakraborty’s imagined world were on the brink of bubbling over, with various djinn factions jostling for supremacy and — being long-lived, if not immortal — unable to let go of long remembered grievances. In the previous book, we had left the trio of point-of-view characters in rather desperate circumstances: Dara, the murderous nightmare or courageous freedom fighter (depending on one’s political perspective) and Ali, the frustrated young prince locked in a fight to the death, and Nahri, the lost daughter of a legendary healer making bargains and compromises (including a political marriage) in order to survive the cut-throat power struggles surrounding her. After setting her pieces in place, Chakraborty jumps the narrative forward by five years, to see how the various split-second decisions made by these three characters are working out for them. For the most part, things are going disastrously: Ali has been politically and geographically isolated, Nahri, hampered by a chronic inability to trust and a genuine fear for her life, is unable to effect real change, and Dara is swept up in a rebellion which values him for his ability to deal terror and violence.

cover - kingdom of copper

Chakraborty draws deftly on Islamic legend and lore about djinn and other supernatural beings, as well as extensive historical research into Abbasid-era Baghdad, and the result is a tense political thriller in which the fantastical elements blend seamlessly. She is particularly skilled in showing how her characters’ personal weaknesses and blind spots hamper their ability to solve the larger political problems of their kingdom — Dara’s prejudices, Nahri’s wariness and suspicion of others’ skills and motives, and Ali’s dogmatism and inflexibility — and how, were they to pool their resources and compromise, the results were extraordinary. Ali and Nahri’s personalities are particularly conflicting, and for this reason every scene they had together was explosive and a joy to read, especially as the book hurtled towards its denouement. I cannot wait to read the concluding book in this trilogy to find out what happens next.

One of the subtler themes of the Daevabad books is the idea of appropriation — Chakraborty’s djinn profess to detest humans, and view them with contempt, but they relish human innovations from architecture and engineering to food and fashion. Where Chakraborty keeps this theme understated and metaphorical, Roshani Chokshi brings it front and centre in The Gilded Wolves, the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Belle Époque Paris. Hers is a world in which magic is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy families, who supplement their power with magical objects that they ‘acquire’ and make use of. Chokshi’s magical acquisitions are, like their real-world museum counterparts, more often than not looted, uprooted by colonial powers with no thought as to their cultural significance or the moral right of colonised people to retain ownership of their own treasures. In keeping with this story that asks readers to look beyond the comforting pieties former colonist countries tell themselves, Chokshi’s main cast of characters are almost all people marginalised by empire in some way. Two are the mixed-race sons of powerful French men, and women from countries colonised by France, grudgingly accepted into the halls of power if they constantly deny and devalue half of their heritage. One is a migrant from India who has to perform a palatable version of her culture for public consumption, and who defensively embraces this sense of performance of the ‘exotic East’ as a way to maintain a semblance of control. Another — a Polish-Jewish scientist — reads to me as a hint at the antisemitic Dreyfus affair and the associated ugliness lurking at the heart of supposedly progressive and rational countries. My favourite character is a Filipino-Spanish archivist who hangs around on the fringes of revolutionary Filipino groups, yearning for acceptance and longing to commit himself to their cause.

cover - the gilded wolves

What brings this marvellous cast of characters together is a spectacular heist, and, like the best of all heist stories, The Gilded Wolves is filled with puzzles, races against time, and the squabbles and struggles of a fractious group of people whose skills they bring to the job do not compensate for their clashing personalities and disparate personal aims and motives. I love a good heist novel, particularly if — as is the case here — the characters responsible for pulling it off are marginalised, somewhat traumatised outsiders who find a family in each other. Their resourcefulness, talents, and, ultimately, ‘us against the world’ mentality stand in sharp rebuke to the society that views them as lesser, other and outsiders. Their presence amid the champagne flutes, Art Nouveau architecture, and bank vaults stuffed with looted treasures is a reminder on whose backs empires were built, the ugliness sitting like poison at the heart of even the most beautiful places. Chokshi has created a powerful and resonant work, and I can only hope that the remainder of the trilogy continues as it has started.

Winterheart October 5, 2018

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When you clear away the whimsy and Disneyfication, fairytales are pretty terrifying. They are concerned, above all, with survival, and all the tricks their resourceful characters employ to navigate the web of threats and danger they face in a terrifying, incomprehensible, and unyielding world. Contemporary reworkings of these fairytales that grasp this dark heart that lurks at the centre of enchanted forests are an absolute joy to read. Naomi Novik has done just that with Spinning Silver, her second novel that draws on fairytales for inspiration. In it, she takes familiar fairytale tropes: an unbreakable bargain with an unknowable, capricious otherworldly being, a brave woman forced to reckon with marriage to a monster, and poor children, starving in a frozen, famished landscape, given sustenance as a reward for their innate goodness, and gives them depth and complexity. Whether you like her take on these tales is going to depend a lot on how much you enjoyed her previous fairytale-inspired fantasy, Uprooted, as both involve very similar character dynamics and resolutions to their stories’ conflicts. Luckily for me, I adored Uprooted — and found Spinning Silver, if anything, even more to my taste.

Cover - Spinning Silver

In this new work, Novik weaves the stories of three brave, resourceful women, living in the harsh landscapes of pre-modern Lithuania. There is Irina, a noblewomen dealing with forced marriage to the Tsar, whose cruel behaviour hides an even darker secret. Wanda, a peasant girl, is struggling to keep herself and her younger brothers fed after the death of their mother and in the face of their father’s alcoholism and abuse. And, at the heart of the story is Miryem, the daughter of an unsuccessful moneylender who is struggling to keep her family afloat amidst poverty and antisemitism. The three women’s stories interweave, and in different ways all three become embroiled in the supernatural, which sits uneasily beside the human world, always threatening to intrude, with destructive consequences.

Novik has chosen Rumplestiltskin as the frame on which to hang her own broader story, and she gets right to the dark heart of this fairytale (which, like all fairytales, has incredibly disturbing undertones when you read it closely), bringing its themes of unequal bargains and exchange to the fore. In her own tale of Jewish moneylenders and superstitious villagers, mercantile ability and honest bargains are made heroic and magical, with Miryem’s skills that she developed as a moneylender (in marked contrast to her father’s lack of success in this area) saving both the human and supernatural worlds from myriad dangers. Miryem’s mercantile work sits beside the novel’s more general emphasis on the day-to-day work of everyday people, particularly women, with this work constantly reiterated as heroic and life-saving. Irina, who, as the wife of a tsar can hardly be said to be an everyday person, is nevertheless saved countless times by skills built up in women’s spaces, such as castle fireplaces where groups of women congregate to embroider and sew clothes. Meanwhile, Wanda’s hard labour with outdoor farmwork and indoor housework is equally valorised, and the novel also emphasises that the steps she takes to appease and placate her violent father and deflect his anger and abuse are a kind of labour of their own, one which takes its toll. And, in the novel’s exploration of another kind of marginalisation, Spinning Silver makes the point that living with the horrifying threat of anti-Semitism, the ever present fear that their peaceful neighbours will at any moment turn on them as a howling, violent mob, is an experience that, sadly, will aid its Jewish characters in dealing with other, more supernatural dangers.

There were so many fabulous little details that gave the world of Spinning Silver a truly lived-in feeling, but what I most appreciated were those which emphasised Miryem’s identity as an observant Jewish woman. Rather than fearing that eating otherworldly food will bar her way to the human world forever, she worries if the food is kosher (it turns out to be uncooked fruit, and thus safe). Her fears at being unable to measure the passage of time in the otherworld are less because she fears returning to the human world hundreds of years later, but rather because she needs to know when to observe Shabbat. Rather than being viewed as a barrier to Miryem’s participation in magical, supernatural adventures, her Jewish identity is a source of strength. Similarly, in a genre rife with dead mothers (and, to be fair, Spinning Silver does have its share of these), it was refreshing to observe the warm, supportive relationship between Miryem and her very much alive mother, as well as that of Irina and her former nurse, who was something of a maternal stand-in.

This is a world in which women save themselves — and each other — using the tools at hand. It is a world in which the work of a market stall seller, or a noblewoman presiding over a rowdy feasting hall, or a girl feeding chickens is given equal weight to magical powers. Indeed, it’s a world in which supernatural beings view prosaic, human skills as having a kind of magic of their own. In other words, in Spinning Silver Novik has married two of my favourite tropes: ordinary ‘women’s work’ made heroic, and supernatural beings viewing ordinary human skills as magical and powerful. It’s an absolute joy to read, and I very much hope Spinning Silver is not her last foray into fairytale-inspired fantasy fiction.

‘That love of maidens for monsters’ September 15, 2018

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Every so often, a work of fiction, whether series or standalone, will creep up on me like a welcome surprise, seemingly crafted to appeal to my exact tastes, its combination of elements so perfectly designed to fill a void in my reading I didn’t even know existed. Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, of which two books are currently published — The Bear and the Nightingale, and The Girl in the Tower; the third, The Winter of the Witch, will be published in January, 2019 — is one such series of books. Arden’s series is a work of historical fantasy, set in a slightly tweaked version of fourteenth-century Russia (or rather, to be more precise, the region we now know as Russia) in which the supernatural hovers just out of sight, where elemental gods and magical horses roam the snow-filled forests, and where most people’s beliefs comfortably accommodate both the icons and pageantry of Orthodox Christianity and the more earthy household gods of kitchen and stable.

Cover - The Bear and the Nightingale

Through this intriguing landscape strides Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, the daughter of an aristocrat whose lands are in the frozen north, in a liminal encompassing both farm and dense forest, and a mysterious witch who died giving birth to Vasya, her fifth child. In The Bear and the Nightingale, Vasya grows up wild in her father’s lands, equally at home on the capacious stove in the kitchen, listening to her nurse’s stories, and roaming from river to stables to forest, chattering with the supernatural, otherworldly beings that only she can see. Arden’s is a world where gods require belief and offerings in order to survive, and Vasya provides these happily, while attracting the particular attention of Morozko, the old god of winter, frost, and death. This fragile peace is shattered by the arrival first of a new stepmother, a princess who would have preferred to remain unmarried and in a convent, and later of a zealous, charismatic priest sent north by the secular rulers concerned that his popularity could make him a rival to their own power. Both find Vasya’s unconventional nature disturbing and threatening, and, as she grows from a girl to a teenager, they seek to contain and constrain her, and attempt to stamp out the lingering pagan beliefs still held by the people of the household. Their zeal, however, has unintented, far-reaching consequences, inadvertently unleashing a horrific supernatural threat that will require all of Vasya’s skill, courage, and ingenuity to overcome.

The Girl in the Tower paints on a wider canvas, as Vasya leaves her familiar northern home, travelling to Moscow on Solovey, the magical horse given to her by Morozko, disguised as a boy, seeking her older sister Olga. However, her plans are thwarted by broader politics both earthly and otherworldly, as mysterious raiders ransack villages, stealing children, and the Grand Prince of Moscow weighs up whether to challenge the Mongol khans whose power wavers but who still extract tribute from their vassals in Russia. At the same time, a new supernatural threat emerges, a shadowy being who needs Vasya for purposes of his own. Vasya does her best to navigate these treacherous waters, but is challenged at every turn by the constraints placed on women in her society, yearning to ride free and unencumbered on Solovey in a world that would see her confined in either married women’s quarters or convent — or else as a threat that must be destroyed.

Cover - The Girl in the Tower

For all the latter book’s emphasis on the grand sweep of medieval Russian politics, the scope and focus of the series is pleasingly domestic — whether the kitchen stove of Vasya’s family home, or the private suites of rooms that comprise the women’s quarters of Olga’s marital palace. Arden makes much of the everyday labour of women: preparing food, sweeping hearths, embroidering elaborate headdresses, assisting in the birth of children. The lives of these women may be circumscribed, lived within a narrow space, travelling between hearth, bathhouse, and church, but they are not inconsequential. This is a series in which the labour of a mother giving birth to a child is of greater supernatural significance than the outcome of a battle, where a girl slipping bread crusts to household gods does more to forge alliances than the political machinations of men in Moscow palaces. I have praised this kind of emphasis in fiction before, and I’m very pleased to see it’s becoming more prevalent.

This is a series that revels in its darkness. There is no attempt to soften or humanise Morozko (although Arden does make use of one of my favourite tropes: the monster who loves a human for her humanity, and the human who loves a monster for his monstrosity, who are able to reach an uneasy accommodation of humanity and monstrosity together), and the cruel harshness of the landscape and the capricious beings that inhabit it is constantly reiterated. But these are the indifferent cruelties of nature, which is indiscriminate in the hurt it causes. True viciousness in Arden’s works is reserved for human beings, who make their own choice to be violent or hurtful. And then, fairytale-like in its contrast is the shining, luminous goodness of those like Vasya, whose integrity and moral courage light the way through fear, and danger, and darkness.

Shaped by the clearest blue October 1, 2017

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Laini Taylor is a writer whose works appeal directly to my id. If you like YA novels with human/non-human relationships, characters living with the aftermath of destructive, supernatural wars, non-human characters that have to feed on humans in some way in order to survive, weird, slightly skewiff versions of central European cities whose beauty and magic have been dialled up to 100, and journeys to creepy otherworlds, Taylor’s are the books for you. If none of these things sound particularly appealling, it may be worth giving her books a miss. Her most recent novel makes use of all these familiar ingredients, but adds yet one more element that seems almost designed to appeal to me: one of its two point-of-view characters is a librarian.

Cover-Strange the Dreamer

Unlike Taylor’s previous series, which was set in a fantasy version of our own world in contemporary Prague, her new book, Strange the Dreamer, takes place entirely within a secondary world. It interweaves the story of the eponymous Lazlo Strange, a misfit orphan who finds a home for himself among the books archived in the library where he works, with that of Sarai, a demon girl who lives an isolated life in a city that floats in the air, surrounded by dust and echoes. Blessed with a rapacious appetite for stories and a vivid imagination, Lazlo becomes obsessed with tales about a lost city whose name was stolen from its inhabitants’ minds in punishment for crimes lost to history. Although dismissed by those around him — more concerned with feats of architecture, engineering and alchemy — as a fanciful dreamer, it’s Lazlo’s knowledge of this city that’s most in demand when some of its inhabitants — thought to be a myth — come calling, asking for volunteers to help untether them from the floating city that plagues them.

Strange the Dreamer is on one level a story about dealing with trauma. As the mystery behind the floating city and the nameless city above which it hovers unfolds, it becomes apparent that not only Lazlo and Sarai, but also pretty much every secondary character is a survivor of trauma. Their ways of coping with this range from doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given, to completely self-destructive, and it’s refreshing to see Taylor give her characters this space where the full array of responses to trauma can be explored.

All this makes Strange the Dreamer seem like very hard going, but it’s also a book about the power of dreams and stories. Taylor’s use of language gives it a deliberately fairytale quality, and it exists in a similarly folkloric space in which stories seem to shape reality. The broad sweep of history, and the ways that people remember and understand that history distort and influence their present-day circumstances. If they want to be saved, they will need to change the way they remember, and whose voices they allow to tell their story.